Yuh-Line Niou, the easygoing second-term assemblywoman who represents a large chunk of lower Manhattan, is part of a coterie of young lawmakers that are seeking to make change in Albany. For Niou, that change begins in her district office, where creating a comfortable space for her constituents and mentoring her young staff are her top priorities.
When Niou worked as the chief of staff for Assemblyman Ron Kim, he was the only Asian-American in the state Legislature. She had this in mind when she decided to run, and in her third year, she still sees her role as creating a seat at the table for those that have been left out of the policymaking process.
City & State caught up with Niou to talk about what’s on her policy agenda and how younger elected officials are changing the status quo in Albany. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You are part of a group of lawmakers that is younger than ever in the state Legislature. Are you doing anything together? Are you forming a voting bloc?
That’s not exactly true that we’re the youngest. There were a lot of young white men. I think that’s something that hasn’t really been talked about. It’s not that we’re new because we’re young. It’s that we’re new, and we’re women. We’re people of color. And some are queer. And a little different! And so now people have to bring these perspectives to the table, and these are perspectives that have hardly been represented in government before.
Do you ever feel this burden to be “that person?” I’m thinking about the Child Victims Act vote, when four of you got up and told these very personal stories about being sexually assaulted or abused. Women often – especially women of color – feel somewhat of a responsibility of personal disclosure.
Sure. And you’re right. I think we do feel that responsibility. Not to speak for my colleagues, but we did talk about that after. When I talked about it first was actually in conference of the year before, when they decided not to do the bill – when they were trying to modify it, which I was really concerned about. That’s when I did share, and that’s when we turned the votes. I think people didn’t realize that it affects people daily. You know? And nobody wanted to speak up about it. And that was the first time I talked about it.
Was it a no-brainer?
No, it wasn’t. I was really freaked. It was like the worst feeling, you know? But what can you do? You know that it’s the right thing to do. And I think being a legislator is a lot like that because it’s not always the most pleasant job. You’re not making a lot of money; you’re constantly taking criticism; and you’re under scrutiny for everything, which is part of the job of a public servant. And other people have not always lived up to this position.
Literally your seat. It only opened up because of Sheldon Silver’s corruption conviction.
Yes! Literally my seat. And on top of that, the environment itself can be very toxic, and women don’t – they just never had that voice at the table. Women just haven’t had that kind of support because, as you can see with the sexual harassment hearings, there is a lot of stuff that was building up for a long, long time and there was no avenue for people to complain or go to, or feel safe doing that. So the environment was toxic. The more people that are elected, and the change that’s happening with those elections, you’re starting to see change in how people behave.
Absolutely, 100 percent.
There’s more women. I haven’t seen some of the bad behavior of the past. I haven’t seen the “hot or not” list. It might still be out there, but there was previously a “hot or not” list circulating among some of the men in Albany. Things were weird. But it’s different now.
Let’s shift gears. So you’re deep into policy. You’re a policy person, a legislator’s legislator.
Yes! I’m a policy wonk, yeah. I’m more into the policy than I am into the politics, as you’ll notice.
What proposals are you working on right now?
I have a whole economic justice platform that I’m working on.
OK, tell me about it.
So, I’ve always been a really huge anti-poverty advocate. That’s mostly where my policy background comes from. I worked before in Washington state for an organization called the Statewide Poverty Action Network, and I worked on anti-poverty legislation, as a whole, but a lot of the things I focused on were also regulating predatory products that preyed on communities of color and low-income folks, such as payday loans, check cashers, etc. So, when I was elected, the first committees I wanted on were banks, insurance, consumer protection, housing.
Which corresponds with your economic justice platform.
Everything is interconnected, right? Every policy. When you’re talking about environment, when you’re talking about housing. The interconnected part of it is, there’s a huge disparity between people who are rich and poor. Every single policy issue that we’re discussing has to do with that economic interconnectedness. So, when you’re talking about relieving poverty, everything has to be changed.
There’s economic segregation. There’s environmental segregation. Why is it that NYCHA is right next to the highway? Nobody wants to live next to a highway where all of this pollution is coming in, and kids are breathing in all of these pollutants and getting asthma. And if there’s no heat or hot water, which is often the case, these are the parents that end up in jail because maybe they turned on their oven to keep their child warm, and then their kid touched the oven. You know? There’s a huge, high cost to being poor.
How are you going to target that with policy?
I have bills that are basically designed to help protect our usury laws. In New York, we actually have really strong usury laws, and we have to make sure to shore them up. And we have to stop playing defense against these check cashers who continue to try to become payday lenders. In New York, we ban payday lending all together, which is a positive. But at the same time, you have to make sure that you’re also producing good products that people can utilize. So we have to fund things like the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund. We’re one of the only states that has community development funds and we never funded it.
Yeah. This is why small businesses have to go get merchant cash advance loans that are just like payday loans. Right? So you need to actually ban those practices, and then also fund the right practices so that people can actually have the upward mobility that they deserve.
You have to address the need.
Right. And another thing is asset limits. I have a bill on asset limits. One of the biggest things that people don’t even realize is that all of our social benefits have these horrible little things – asset limits – that make it so that you are forced to spend down. You’re afraid of getting that raise for $20 because you might get kicked off of Medicare or lose your SNAP benefits. If we can get rid of asset limits, then we’re also helping people get into the mentality of saving up. If you’re not forced to spend down and you’re actually encouraged to save up, then you can get out of poverty. We have to change our systems.
Are you for “Medicare for all”?
All about it.
Are you for abolishing ICE?
What else are you? What other quippy tags do you have?
All of them, man. All the best ones.
You’re all of the things.
I’m maybe more left than left. (Laughs.)
I heard you’re starting a club? A Democratic club?
Oh, I have one down here. I mean, it wasn’t me that started it. A bunch of people kept on asking, “How do we get involved in the process?,” “How do we change things?,” or like “I’ve never been involved with a club before, I’ve never done this before, I’ve never done that before,” people were telling me this stuff. And I’ve never been part of any of that stuff and neither have all these folks in my district. They’ve always been politically involved, they just never felt like they had any agency in the way that things went.
The county committee stuff, the way that like things played out in the special election. And a bunch of people who’ve never been in a club before decided they wanted to form a club. So they were like, “How do we do this?” And I’m the assemblywoman, so they asked me, and I was like, “Well. These are the rules.”
What are the goals of the club, the New Downtown Dems?
I think the goal of the club is to make sure there’s more transparency in government. Access in government. Anybody can join the club, nobody’s barred. We’ve brought in people to talk about how petitioning works. We brought in election lawyers. We brought them in just to like give these lectures on how the electoral system works, what a district leader is.
This is the level where the process gets a little complicated for most people.
It’s a lot. So when I decided to run for the special election, for example, I had to figure out what the system was, because not only was it super biased – in the sense that you had to be a club member and be on a county committee – the county committee members, half of them don’t even know that they’re county committee members because sometimes people just put their names in. And then their vote is different weights. And the weighted vote depends on who voted for the governor during the last election – the winning governor. In this case, who voted for Cuomo last election. As it happens, a lot of people in my district voted for Zephyr Teachout, so some people lost their political power with that vote.
Seems super disenfranchising.
Super disenfranchising! And super biased. And super not democratic. I thought that was a really interesting thing.
So how do you dismantle the whole system?
Good question! You’ve got to join a club! So that’s actually the reason that these folks decided to put together a club in the first place. Not because they were like “we should join the old system,” but because if you’re not at the table, then you can’t change the tableware. It’s the same idea of why I ran for office. I think there’s so many things we need to do to change things up, and you can’t change things unless you’re sitting at the table. Very Shirley Chisholm, I guess, except I don’t have my folding chair, I have my knock-off Eames!
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