Interviews & Profiles
‘She’s one of the brave ones.’ Yuh-Line Niou’s outspoken leadership style
She came to the Legislature as an insurgent, and she hasn’t lost that attitude.
After a day of meetings, Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou arrived for an interview at Manousheh, a Lebanese restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side on a warm June afternoon, flanked by a few staffers. At the time, some of the biggest issues were with small-business owners looking to her office for guidance on changing regulations. “We do a lot more running around more often than when we’re in session, my crew never stops,” Niou said. Before getting started, she said she wanted to buy her staff some ice cream, to which one sheepishly replied, “You don’t have to.” She did anyway.
As she walked through the doors into the restaurant, she saw two older women sitting at a table – constituents she knew – and went over, giving one a hug and striking up a conversation about the recent primary election, ranked-choice voting and one of the women’s recent arm injury. As the conversation wrapped up, she offered, “Do you want something sweet?” She bought them a pistachio ice cream to split.
Joyce Ravitz, the woman with the broken arm, will be 78 in August and has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years. “I think my Assembly member is great,” Ravitz said emphatically when Niou went to the counter, mentioning Niou’s support for canceling rent during the pandemic.
It’s not an opinion shared by everyone in her district, but the interaction was emblematic of Niou’s personality – many of the nearly two dozen people interviewed for this piece who know or have worked with her describe her as exceedingly candid, passionate and personable in a way that draws others to her and makes her easy to befriend. “Both her strength and her weakness is that she leads with her heart,” state Sen. Gustavo Rivera said.
In many ways, Niou has built a reputation off of that quality. Ever-present on social media and outspoken during the legislative session, the relatively new lawmaker has managed to grab attention and rise in prominence as a leading progressive voice in a Legislature that has been leaning increasingly to the left since Democrats won control of the state Senate in 2018. And there are many who believe that she’s only just hitting her stride.
Elected in 2016 to represent District 65 in lower Manhattan, Niou slightly predates the recent wave of new state senators in 2018 and democratic socialist Assembly members elected in 2020. Her election to replace the convicted and expelled former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was contentious, with Niou running as an anti-establishment candidate. After initially losing a special election to then-District Leader Alice Cancel, Niou ultimately won the primary against the incumbent later that year. “Based on her insurgent candidacy, I expected even before I had met her that she would be very outspoken and independent and very progressive,” said longtime Assembly Member Richard Gottfried. “And she has certainly met those expectations.”
Niou hadn’t originally planned to hold elected office. “I thought I wanted to be a lawyer,” Niou, 38, said about her thinking during college. “I thought I wanted to speak up for folks who couldn’t speak up for themselves.” That desire came from seeing “little injustices” that her parents, immigrants from Taiwan, faced, including language barriers that put them at disadvantage compared to native or more fluent English speakers. From a young age, growing up primarily in El Paso, Texas, after immigrating to the United States as a baby, she often had to act as their translator.
Things changed when she interned with the Washington state Legislature, where she would later work for several years, during her senior year at Evergreen State College. “When I was younger, I just thought that rules and these things happen to us,” Niou said. “Once I saw how the Legislature works, I was like, ‘Wow, there's no big secret to accessing government,’” Niou said.
At the time, the Washington state Legislature had more women than men serving on it, and the state had its first Asian American governor. “I didn't even realize that I had these barriers in my own brain on what it looked like for … women to be in (an) elected position or for an Asian American to be in (an) elected position,” Niou said.
After a few years, Niou came to New York after getting accepted as a National Urban Fellow, a 14-month graduate program, to get her master’s in public administration at Baruch College. Assembly Member Ron Kim of Queens, then a lobbyist at The Parkside Group, had gone through the fellowship a few years before her. She volunteered for his campaign in 2012, and he hired Niou as his first chief of staff when he took office in 2013. Kim described their working relationship as a co-equal partnership. “We were both figuring it out together,” said Kim, who is the first state elected official of Korean descent and at the time was New York’s only Asian American state legislator.
Kim and then-state Sen. Daniel Squadron, a fellow Democrat from Brooklyn, were the first people to approach Niou about running for Silver’s seat after he was convicted on federal corruption charges in 2015. “I knew that she had the confidence, I knew that she could win,” Kim said. “But I knew she was a little hesitant.”
Niou described her initial reaction as perhaps a little stronger than hesitant. “I was like, ‘No thank you,’” Niou recalled with a laugh. She said she enjoyed policy work and research behind the scenes, but had never thought she would be front and center. “I am probably one of the people most scared of public speaking ever,” Niou said.
But to those who listen to her speak, that fear doesn’t come across. State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi recalled hearing Niou speak at a campaign training event she attended in late 2016. “I remember thinking to myself ... I’m never going to be able to do this, like what she's exuding,” Biaggi said. They wouldn’t meet again until 2018 when Niou came to the Bronx to help Biaggi canvas in her race to unseat then-state Sen. Jeff Klein, the former head of the Independent Democratic Conference, which shared power with Republicans. By the end of the day, Niou was making plans for the pair to be roommates in Albany if Biaggi won.
And despite Niou’s self-assessment of her own public speaking skills, it’s her willingness and ability to speak openly and candidly that has raised her profile and garnered her attention. “Yuh-Line’s speaking is often not only adamant, but with a strong emotional element, often coming from personal experience, and that can be very compelling,” Gottfried said. Niou’s impassioned floor speech about why she was voting “no” on part of the 2020 budget widely circulated on social media, and struck a chord with progressives around the state. For 12 minutes, Niou critiqued the cuts to Medicaid and education at a time she believed the state should have been investing more. Sometimes appearing to be on the verge of tears, Niou said the pandemic laid bare structural inequities and shortcomings in the state’s institutions. “I found Yuh-Line’s budget speech on Twitter after I won the primary,” said first-term Assembly Member Anna Kelles from the Southern Tier. “I was blown away and thought, ‘Wow, this woman is a rock star.’”
Niou is more accessible and relatable to her fans than most rock stars, though. She befriends people online and mentors young zoomers getting their start in politics, who affectionately call her mom. She nerds out on pop culture and comic books (her district office is conveniently located above Midtown Comics on Fulton Street) and is always up for karaoke, according to friends. “Legislators like her, that force more people to pay attention to the democratic process, are good,” said Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator of Housing Justice for All. “It's good that she's cool, that she puts stuff on Twitter, that she has a following.”
A confluence of forces helped Niou, who had moved to the district in 2014, win Manhattan’s southernmost seat in 2016, including key support from the Democratic club United Democratic Organization, the endorsement of New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer and the backing of the Working Families Party. Despite a hard-fought special election run on the WFP line after withdrawing from consideration for the Manhattan Democratic Party’s endorsement, Niou lost to Cancel, who at the time was framed as the establishment pick and Silver’s chosen successor. But Niou and her supporters reorganized for the fall primary, which she overwhelmingly won.
Since then, Niou has been an ally of the progressive WFP. “I couldn’t find any fault with her,” former WFP state Director Bill Lipton said. “She’s one of the brave ones.” He recalled in particular a now-infamous 2019 incident when Niou, along with Biaggi and state Sen. Jessica Ramos, criticized Gov. Andrew Cuomo for holding high-dollar fundraisers during budget season. It led to one of Cuomo’s top aides, Rich Azzopardi, calling the trio of lawmakers “fucking idiots.”
More recently, Niou has been a frequent Cuomo critic for the governor’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and allegations of sexual harassment and bullying. “I think that it's really important to speak up and to fight for things that you care about and want to change, it doesn't matter who it is,” Niou said.
After five sessions in Albany, Niou has only had three bills she has sponsored become law. Allies attribute this to her junior status in the larger chamber. “If she was in the Senate, it would be a different situation,” Rivera said. “She'd be a chair of a committee, she’d be leading hearings every other day.” He said the Assembly is a hard place for newer members, or those who are more independent of leadership, to get bills passed. “She is an amazing legislator, she just hasn’t been able to pass much legislation because she’s not a good knee-bender,” Rivera said.
Instead, Niou has positioned herself as a rhetorical leader on many progressive causes, including combating sexual harassment and assault and advocating for the Child Victims Act, which created a window for childhood victims of sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits. A survivor of childhood abuse herself, Niou was one of a handful of lawmakers who spoke about their personal experience.
Niou has also worked with advocates of stronger tenant protections. “She was strategizing with us to strengthen tenant protections, even as a new lawmaker,” said Weaver, the housing activist. Weaver said she and Niou started working closely on the package of bills that would eventually become the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019. “One of the things that makes Yuh-Line a really effective legislator is that she’s such a good communicator about the stakes and what’s being debated,” Weaver said. “It’s a strategy that allows her … to capture the public’s imagination and creates a condition for strong bills to pass.”
Last year, Niou sponsored legislation to cancel rent and a bill in the Invest in Our New York Act package of proposals to impose new taxes on the wealthy. Neither bill passed.
“If you believe in something that doesn't get passed, it doesn't mean you're not effective,” said Assembly Member Harvey Epstein, who represents the district just north of Niou’s on Manhattan’s east side. “Obviously passing legislation is important, but standing up for legislation is important as well.”
Even though her district is plurality Asian American, Niou is the first Asian American to represent Chinatown at the state level and only the third Asian American elected to the state Legislature. “While Yuh-Line represents Lower Manhattan, her constituent services actually address issues throughout the entire city,” said Wayne Ho, president of the Chinese-American Planning Council. Niou said that sometimes her office gets calls from other parts of the state, and even out of state too. “When you are a first, or are an only, it makes it so that there is kind of an undue amount of pressure on that end,” Niou said.
Niou was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when she was 22, something she has spoken publicly about. “It’s a lens to think things through,” said Niou, who has fought to bring disability and accessibility issues to the forefront, like fighting to add sign language interpretations to Assembly hearings. “That’s why we have to make sure we elect folks who see through a lens that affects so many people.”
Niou has a service dog and has encountered accessibility issues trying to get places with her dog, even at the state Capitol. "So few people actually make (accessibility) a priority, when every single one of us, if we're lucky enough to be able-bodied … are all temporarily so,” Niou said.
Her presence in the Legislature has also had tangible impacts legislatively. Ho recalled that in Niou’s first year in office, the words “Asian American” appeared in the state budget for the first time as a line item for his nonprofit that Niou fought to get in there. “Which just shows how long it took for the Asian American community to have some legislative and budget representation,” Ho said. One of Niou’s legislative priorities has also been a bill to desegregate demographic data to separately collect information on Asian Americans, native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders to better serve those communities. Originally introduced by then-Assembly Member Grace Meng, it passed to Kim and eventually to Niou when she took office. The bill passed both houses for the first time in 2019, although Cuomo vetoed it. It passed both chambers again this year and awaits action from the governor. “(Niou) was really committed to making government work for those who, for the most part, people tend to forget,” said Vanessa Leung, co-executive director of the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families.
More recently, Niou, a co-chair of the Assembly Asian Pacific American Task Force, fought to include $10 million in the state budget this year to fight anti-Asian bigotry and hate crimes that plagued the community in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. “She's held the line in our budgets, delivering for the first time millions and millions of dollars for Asian immigrant communities that we never were able to secure in our state budgets,” Kim said.
Back in her district, there are diverging opinions about Niou’s success as an Assembly member, with roots going back to her original election. In 2016, when she won, Niou had only been living in the district for a couple of years, and she was running against people who had been in the community for decades, such as Cancel and District Leader Paul Newell. She fended off accusations that she moved to the district just to run and that she was a plant of the Queens Democratic Party through Kim (both of which she denied then and now). “This is a district that is a district of immigrants, this is a district that is known for its diversity,” Niou said. “And to tell somebody that they don’t belong here is a comment I get often.”
Niou’s ties to the district became an issue again in 2020, when she faced a challenge from Grace Lee, who said that Niou “parachuted” in to run. Although the two candidates were fairly similar ideologically on big items like housing and taxing the rich, Lee said that Niou hadn’t been present enough in the district and didn’t pay enough attention to local issues. Niou ultimately won with the support of nearly every district leader – Niou’s district has eight – but Lee did pick up the backing of several New York City Housing Authority tenant association leaders and the district’s largest Democratic club, Downtown Independent Democrats.
Aixa Torres, president of the Alfred E. Smith Houses tenant association, is one of the public housing leaders who backed Lee in 2020. Torres was candid about her “stormy” relationship with Niou, going back to when she was first elected. Torres said she didn’t feel Niou gave enough attention to public housing, although she said that recently Niou has supported tenants in their opposition to the NYCHA Blueprint for Change, which they fear would lead to the privatization of public housing. But while Torres said Niou will be responsive if contacted, Torres said Niou hasn’t taken the time to proactively listen to tenants. “She hasn’t really had a conversation with the resident leaders, put us all in a room and have a conversation with us,” Torres said. She said that Silver would often have such meetings. Niou has touted her efforts to secure state funding for NYCHA, but Torres said that most of the fight took place before Niou took office and that she hasn’t felt Niou’s presence in Smith Houses during the pandemic.
Jonathan Gardenhire, a district leader who supported Lee, offered a nuanced view of Niou. “I think she’s an incredibly effective and hardworking assemblywoman,” Gardenhire said, adding that she is likable and progressive. “But I think that because of how she came into this particular role in this particular community, that there was some work that was missed, there was some work that needed to be on the ground.” Gardenhire said that Niou is responsive, but agreed that her presence is not always felt equally in all parts of the district.
Niou’s supporters in the district, which include even some former adversaries, disagreed. “The criticism as not being from the district was valid in 2016,” said Newell, the district leader who ran against Niou that year but supported her last year. “Is it still valid? Less so.” Newell said his initial uncertainty about how well Niou would represent the district has dissipated. “She attends events, she listens to people, she meets with people in the district,” Newell said. He said that compared to Silver, she may not be able to offer every constituent service he did, but as a much more senior member and speaker, he had more money and sway to deliver pork. “She is personally present,” Newell said, adding that he can’t say that of all his representatives.
Many people interviewed for this article also spoke about Niou’s efforts during the pandemic, personally handing out protective equipment and food, and filling her apartment with supplies she would pack for constituents. Some said they would see piles of boxes behind her in Zoom calls and joke that she would get buried. “She really, you know, really distinguished herself as somebody who was on the ground,” said state Sen. Brian Kavanagh, who represents most of Niou’s district in the state Senate. “Just she and her staff and the many volunteers that she motivated, really kind of relentlessly ensuring that all of those needs were met.”
Nana Gomez, a resident of Vladek Houses, a Lower East Side NYCHA development, told City & State Niou is in constant contact with both her and other NYCHA tenants, and that either Niou or her staff offer help with even the most minor problems, saying the Assembly member “will come out, or send somebody out, in the middle of a snowstorm to make sure that a NYCHA resident had heat.” Gomez said Niou attends events at Vladeck Houses and that kids in the development personally know her.
But the divide in the district remains. Torres of Smith Houses said that she intends to find someone to run against Niou in 2022 – and even said she might run herself if she needed to – because of her dissatisfaction with Niou.
Just as she said she didn’t originally plan to run for office, Niou said she doesn’t think about what next steps for her might look like. “A lot of people always ask me about running for higher office,” Niou said.
Friends, allies and colleagues of Niou’s say she’s not actively seeking higher office, even if they’ve had conversations about the prospect before. Some say they hope to see her run for another office, should the opportunity arise, feeling that she could have an even greater impact at a different level. Others hope she stays in the Assembly for the time being, to continue her work on the state level. But what nearly everyone agreed is that Niou’s power has not yet peaked and that her influence will only grow.
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