Albany Agenda

Grace Meng says Suozzi didn’t take Asian voters for granted

From multilingual campaign lit to weekly meet-and-greets, the Suozzi campaign made outreach to Asian voters a top priority – and Meng hopes other Democrats will follow suit.

Rep. Grace Meng campaigns with Tom Suozzi in Port Washington.

Rep. Grace Meng campaigns with Tom Suozzi in Port Washington. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Heading into the Tuesday special election for the 3rd Congressional District on Long Island, the role that Asian-American and other AAPI voters would play in the race got significant attention. The community makes up a sizable portion of the district, which also covers a small part of Queens. Leading up to the race, polling showed that the community was leaning heavily towards Democrat Tom Suozzi over Republican candidate Mazi Pilip. And when Suozzi won with a roughly eight-point lead at the end of Election Day, groups that did outreach to AAPI voters touted their efforts as integral to that victory. 

Rep. Grace Meng, who represents the neighboring 6th Congressional District in Queens and is the only Asian member of Congress in New York, campaigned with Suozzi during the truncated period leading up to the election. She often accompanied him to AAPI events as well when she wasn’t out in the district herself to help bolster her former colleague’s campaign. Meng spoke with City & State about the efforts to reach Asian voters in the district and what Democrats can learn from the success of that outreach in races moving forward. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s talk about your efforts to motivate AAPI voters to come out for what became a very comfortable victory for Suozzi.

The margin of victory was definitely comfortable, but we didn't know whether to expect that going in. We were pretty worried, especially as I've seen…in that area, their local seats, flipped to Republican year after year. Republicans basically have a stronghold on all the smaller offices in (Suozzi’s) district. And so we were very worried going in. But we wanted to make sure that he was talking to everyone and meeting voters where they are. 

Especially with the Asian community, that is a population that has really skyrocketed in his districts in the last four or five years. I hadn't even realized how large of an electorate they were. They are anywhere from 18 to I've even heard up to 24% of the electorate. And so we knew that a lot of them were either new voters, or have not necessarily been engaged with the Democratic Party or Tom Suozzi before. So we tried to do everything we can to meet them where they were and try to get them to vote.

What did that look like compared to past efforts that you’ve been involved with? It seems like there has been a significant amount of outreach that hasn’t been the norm.

I've always thought it should be the norm. I was part of the DNC during the Trump years. And I have seen Democratic outreach in places from Iowa to Nevada to Georgia that are more robust in reaching out to minority communities than we do here in New York. That should always have been the case. 

But this time, Tom really leaned in, the state Democratic Party really leaned in. Everything from hiring multilingual staff to investing in multilingual palm cards and mailers, phone calls and text messages, that was done. Every week, Tom had more meet and greets – anywhere from like 20 to 60 people in the different Asian communities. Tom was doing this at least once or twice a week, and then looping in the local ethnic media outlets. For me, this should be the floor. This is not the ceiling. We should always have been doing this. And people are paying attention now because the Republicans have started to do things like this in recent years.

How would you compare what Democrats did this time to Republican outreach and lessons to be learned?

I told Tom and the state party in the very beginning, this cannot just be a one-off, one event, or one translated flyer. It has to be an ongoing thing, even though it was only for like two to three months. I assumed (Republicans would) to be honest, because the Republicans have been doing that in recent local elections, including Great Neck, including Northern Queens. In the early weeks, right after they announced, I did notice that there wasn't much coming from the Republican side about Asian outreach, which surprised me. 

About a month or two in, I saw on social media outlets a translated piece of campaign lit, which was like one of her English flyers, and they basically translated it. And then two weeks out, I saw that she had, I think, two meet and greets with Asian voters. When I was flyering at Asian supermarkets, I did see a lot of translated attack negative ads against Tom. But that was really the extent, you know, of the outreach, which, to be honest, surprised me. And alternatively, lucky for us, gave us a leg up on things.

What do you make of Suozzi’s performance in Queens with you in the neighboring district there? I imagine you were active in that portion in particular, which has some conservative portions.

This is the beauty of what happens when we campaign, when we do long term and authentic outreach to communities. Labor, our labor unions were – we had a Queens campaign office. They were in the campaign office like every day. The two weekends prior, (Reps.) Hakeem (Jeffries) and Greg Meeks, who's our Queens (Democratic Party) chair, were really trying to hammer home to all of us that we needed to get the early vote out. It looks like Queens came out strong. But also the Asian vote – and I don't have numbers yet – but a lot of the areas where there were large Asian populations Queens, as far as I can tell, Tom even outperformed Joe Biden.

What lessons are there to be learned from the success of this campaign both in terms of outreach but also what resonates with parts of the AAPI community?

I always told colleagues on both sides that it's not just about policy and substance. The first step is to reach out and to show the community that you're listening to them. In many given elections in the past, about 70% of Asian voters – there's some poll out there – say that they never heard from either party. And so what we really tried to do different than in years past is for Tom as the candidate and the representative of the Democratic Party, to be in their living rooms, and to be in the places where they eat and worship, and listen to them authentically and sincerely. Even if you're not exactly on the same page on a certain policy, to at least show that you're sincere about caring about their concerns. And we haven't done a good job about that in the past.

How involved do you think you’ll be in other competitive races come November?

Joe Biden has an advisory committee of 50-plus people, and I'm on that. So I imagine I'll go to some of the battleground states. But yeah, I'll do whatever people need me to do. Balancing with my own campaign, of course.