Campaigns & Elections

A historic 6 Asian American candidates win in City Council primaries

The nominees may bring New York City Council closer than ever to proportionate demographic representation.

Left to Right: Felicia Singh, Sandra Ung, Shekar Krishnan, Julie Won, Shahana Hanif, Linda Lee

Left to Right: Felicia Singh, Sandra Ung, Shekar Krishnan, Julie Won, Shahana Hanif, Linda Lee Nicole Millman; Sandra Ung Campaign; Shekar Krishnan Campaign; Julie Won for Council; Anna and Jordan Rathkopf; Monica Lee

While Andrew Yang’s failed mayoral run was a high-profile shortfall for Asian American representation in New York City, the results of several City Council primaries show that Asian Americans are becoming a more powerful political force. This round of elections has likely resulted in six Asian American winners of Democratic City Council primaries – the most ever. The victorious candidates represent a more diverse population within the Asian American community, with multiple Asian women as well as a number of South Asian Americans who may go on to be the first South Asian voices on the council.

“Making sure our communities are safe is a really big priority for Asian Americans, especially in the last year or two, as so many people in the community have really come under attack,” said Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund director Jerry Vattamala. “That is not only East Asians… It wasn't that long ago, after 9/11 where South Asians and Muslims were under attack in the city …This does go back to having effective representation.”

In Queens District 20, comprising downtown Flushing, Murray Hill and Queensboro Hill, Sandra Ung plans to use her familiarity with her district and her experience working as an aide for Rep. Grace Meng’s office as she moves on to the general election. Ung will likely replace Peter Koo on the council. Language justice, the stance that services should be accessible to people in their native languages, is essential to Ung’s platform, as she recalled the struggles that Asian American small business owners faced in trying to access benefits before and during the pandemic. Ung told City & State that she looks forward to seeing how the Asian American members might work together if they are all elected. “We have been talking to each other. So I'm looking forward to continue to work with that and maybe hopefully to have a caucus called Diversity Council,” she said. 

Unlike District 20, which had an Asian American incumbent, neighboring Queens District 23, which is made up of areas such as Bayside Hills and Queens Village, saw a win for its first woman and person of color, Linda Lee. Lee attributed her win to talking directly to voters as well as drawing on her experience as a prominent nonprofit director. She also credited other earlier Asian American politicians for opening up a career path that has been less pursued by Asian Americans. “For me personally, it was folks like Congresswoman Grace Meng when she was still at the Assembly and Comptroller John Liu at the time when he was comptroller… These were folks that I've worked very closely with at (Korean Community Services) through my nonprofit that really opened my eyes,” Lee said. 

“We're going to have the diversity to really help people understand Asian Americans are not all Chinese and that we're not a monolith.” – City Council candidate Julie Won

Julie Won joins Linda Lee to become the first Korean Americans to serve on the City Council, in Queens District 26, representing Long Island City and Astoria, among other neighborhoods. She was an underdog in the race, as another candidate, Amit Bagga, was a seasoned political operative with ties to the de Blasio administration who had clinched several major endorsements. Won cited the city’s matching public funds program as a major factor allowing a greater number of diverse candidates to run. Won also touched on how the model minority myth has harmed Asian Americans by casting them as submissive or favorites, when Asian Americans comprise a large portion of people living below the poverty line. She is hopeful that with the greater diversity of the newly elected Asian Americans, will dispel the model minority myth as well as the idea of an “Asian monolith.” “We're going to have the diversity to really help people understand Asian Americans are not all Chinese and that we're not a monolith. We have all different kinds of skin tones, different facial features, etc,” Won said. 

Shekar Krishnan is another candidate collapsing the idea of the Asian monolith. One of three South Asian Democratic primary winners, Krishnan plans to focus on supporting public hospitals as well as fair housing and language accessibility in Queens District 25, home to Jackson Heights and Elmhurst. Krishnan remarked that the historic victories of South Asian Americans this cycle will bring underserved communities to the attention of city officials. “So many of the issues affecting our community have not been addressed, either from the issues affecting our taxi workers and for-hire vehicle drivers to our workers and immigrant small business owners to more language accessible services for our South Asian communities,” Krishnan said. 

“Hopefully by the time my sons grow up, it will become normal that they'll actually see more Asian Americans in public service.” – City Council candidate Linda Lee

Felicia Singh is projected to win the Democratic primary in Queens District 32, with neighborhoods including Rockaway Park and Breezy Point. Singh has declared victory in the race, but will face Queens County Republican Party Chair Joann Ariola in what will be a competitive general election. Singh, endorsed by the Working Families Party as well as the Sunrise Movement, hopes to represent the interests of workers in the district as well as tackle climate change with a more robust plan to fight carbon emissions. Singh stated that she will serve the Asian American community as a whole by funding nonprofits run by lesser represented Asian groups, like Indo-Carribbeans and LGBT Asians, as well as supporting groups like the Taxi Workers Alliance, as Asian Americans make up a significant portion of taxi drivers. “Providing that relief for our multiple communities is how we can really support Asian Americans right now,” Singh said.

Shahana Hanif, the only Asian American candidate to win outside of a Queens district, will become the first Muslim woman elected to City Council when she most likely wins the general election in Brooklyn’s District 39, comprised of Gowanus and Park Slope, among other neighborhoods. Hanif strongly emphasized that her win is partially a product of greater voter turnout among Bangladeshi American voters, but that it is just as important that her perspective is shaped by her identity as a feminist and a socialist. “Across administrations, Asian, South Asian, or other ethnic communities, racial categories, we've been looked at as monoliths and homogenous, as though we don't have leftist communities within our communities. Or feminism mustn't be a thing. And so, this is a really important moment,” Hanif said.  

For many Asian Americans who are also first-generation citizens in the United States, politics, like many other non-STEM fields, as a viable career path is an idea that has only recently become accepted. Many first-generation Asian Americans grew up with parents who struggled to make a life and achieve stability, financial or otherwise, in the United States, and who often encouraged their children to go into lucrative career fields so as to not struggle in the way their parents had.

“I think my generation is sort of that sandwich generation, like we're the ones that were born here or came here when we were younger. Hopefully, we can show our kids (that) we may be still among the firsts, but hopefully by the time my sons grow up, (it) will become normal (that) they'll actually see more Asian Americans in public service,” Lee said.

“Doctors, lawyers, finance, those are the main things and career paths that I heard of growing up,” she added.

Even if all six of these primary winners succeed in getting elected, the total number of Asian American City Council members would be 6 out of 51 total members, which is 12% of the council, one member away from matching the 14% of New York City residents who are Asian American.