Interviews & Profiles

Asian American voting power is breaking through in southern Brooklyn

The area is represented by Asian Americans in both chambers of the state Legislature and in the City Council. That doesn’t mean they agree on anything.

City Council Member Susan Zhuang, Assembly Member Lester Chang and state Sen. Iwen Chu all represent southern Brooklyn.

City Council Member Susan Zhuang, Assembly Member Lester Chang and state Sen. Iwen Chu all represent southern Brooklyn. John Jay Cabuay

For Asian American politicians in New York, the past two decades have held a series of historic firsts.

The first first was John Liu, who was born in Taiwan and was elected to a New York City Council seat in Queens in 2001. Also in Queens, Jimmy Meng, who has Chinese and Taiwanese roots, became the first Asian American elected to the state Legislature in 2005. His daughter, Grace Meng, became the first Asian American elected to Congress from New York in 2012.

In 2014, Nancy Tong, whose family immigrated from Hong Kong, became the first Asian American elected to office in Brooklyn when she won a Democratic district leader post in southern Brooklyn. It took another eight years to send other members of the area’s growing Chinese American community to higher offices.

Compared to Queens, southern Brooklyn is somewhere near the beginning of its journey – a “new frontier” for Asian American political power, Democratic consultant Trip Yang called it. For the first time, Asian American elected officials represent heavily Chinese neighborhoods like Bensonhurst and Sunset Park in both chambers of the state Legislature and the City Council.

Those lawmakers, like the communities they represent, are not a monolith. Assembly Member Lester Chang, the son of Chinese immigrants, is a Republican who was elected in 2022. State Sen. Iwen Chu, also elected in 2022, and Council Member Susan Zhuang, who won her seat last year, come from warring factions of southern Brooklyn Democratic politics. Both Chu and Zhuang immigrated to the U.S. as young adults – Chu from Taiwan and Zhuang from China.

Nonprofit leaders and other elected officials expressed hope that they can set aside political differences to work together on shared priorities for their overlapping constituencies and continue to grow civic engagement there.

While these three victories over the past two years are a new political story, their wins are also the climax of a much older story following four decades of Chinese American migration to Brooklyn and more than a decade of grassroots political organizing.

Solidifying and growing political power for underrepresented communities takes a lot of work – registering voters, providing information in various languages, and expanding the full spectrum of political involvement, from campaign volunteers to consultants.

Overall this year, the New York City Council has seven Asian American members, and the state Legislature has 12 Asian American members. Representation in elected office has grown closer to reflecting, though not matching, the 16% of the population that Asian Americans make up in New York City and the 10% they make up in the state.

Turnout among Asian American and Pacific Islander voters is also on the upswing, with roughly 27% voting in the 2021 mayoral primary compared to 16% in 2013, according to a report from the Asian American Federation.

Growing Asian American populations led to the creation of political groups to help engage and leverage those voters, which spurred advocacy for and the eventual creation of new majority and plurality Asian districts. And now there’s a new class of Asian American elected officials in southern Brooklyn.

“A taste of democracy”

Contrary to what the flurry of media coverage of their recent voting patterns might suggest, Asian Americans in Brooklyn didn’t wake up to the concept of civic engagement in the past couple years. For Jimmy Li, a candidate for Democratic district leader caught in an intraparty brawl that saw him recently knocked off the ballot for invalid signatures, a less flashy victory nearly a decade ago stands out.

In 2015, then-New York City Council Member Carlos Menchaca’s old district, which included Sunset Park’s large Asian and Hispanic populations, saw the highest turnout in the city for participatory budgeting. The process allows residents to allocate at least $1 million for community projects. Two-thirds of the votes that year were cast in Spanish and Chinese, Menchaca said at the time, following his office’s concerted effort to engage people typically ignored in or excluded from politics. “It was a taste of democracy,” Li recalled.

But as the borough’s Asian population has continued to grow, calls for representation in elected office mounted. Under the Voting Rights Act, the drawing of new districts must not dilute the voting power of language and racial minorities.

By 2010, a coalition of Asian American civic groups was organizing. The redistricting process that followed that year’s census produced a majority Asian Assembly district in southern Brooklyn and the plurality Asian congressional district in eastern Queens that elected Rep. Grace Meng in 2012.

Liz OuYang, coordinator of the APA VOICE Redistricting Task Force, called 2010 a “pivotal” year for civic and other advocacy groups coming together to call for districts that reflect Asian immigrant communities across the city. “Our numbers were growing,” OuYang said. “We were becoming more civically engaged.”

In 2014, that coalition grew into APA VOICE, an organization that registers and educates voters, holds candidate forums and advocates for policy, including New York City’s (contested) noncitizen voting law.

(It) also awakened other leaders to the suffering and the challenges of the Asian community.
Assembly Member Grace Lee, on the impact of the pandemic and the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes

At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic was becoming a galvanizing force for Asian Americans. “The impact of COVID, and the rise in anti-Asian hate has really helped to bring awareness to the community, and the need for civic engagement and political engagement in a way that, I think, perhaps our community took for granted,” Assembly Member Grace Lee, a Korean American legislator in lower Manhattan, said. “(It) also awakened other leaders to the suffering and the challenges of the Asian community.”

Other observers noted earlier drivers of civic engagement, including policies and actions under then-Mayor Bill de Blasio; not only his push to reform the Specialized High School Admissions Test but also more local issues, like a plan to redesign Brooklyn Chinatown’s Eighth Avenue.

With that background, the APA VOICE Redistricting Task Force hit the streets to make what may have suddenly become an easier argument for community members to speak up. The task force was advocating to maintain and grow districts in Manhattan and Queens too, but a major priority was southern Brooklyn’s Chinese community, which at the time was divided among several City Council and state Senate districts where Asian Americans accounted for no more than 30% to 40% of the population. Ultimately, map-drawers agreed on one plurality Asian state Senate district and one majority City Council district. 

“In every generation, there are new groups that rise,” said political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “They get adjusted, and then as soon as they’re adjusted, they begin to cut their political teeth, and they cut and create turf. Why? Because all urban politics is about competition for resources. The only way you get resources is if you either have elected people or it is impossible to elect someone without your support.”

Divisions arise

Late last year, once tensions from a high-pressure primary and general election for southern Brooklyn’s new majority Asian American City Council district had cooled a bit, the newly elected Zhuang met for lunch with Chu in Bensonhurst. “I congratulated her, and we did sit down and talk about how we can collaborate,” Chu said. Neither she nor Zhuang shared much of what was discussed, but the sit-down was notable. Earlier that year, Chu had been campaigning for Zhuang’s opponent in the Democratic primary, Wai Yee Chan, and in June wrote that Zhuang “cannot be trusted” after Zhuang reportedly told a voter that she holds the “ideas of the Republican Party.”

“Even your best friends, you still have different political views,” Chu said in an interview with City & State.

Southern Brooklyn can be a tough place to forge political friendships. The area has been home to some of the most competitive local general election races across the largely Democratic city. The 2022 election, which saw large shifts to the right in Asian American neighborhoods, served as a wake-up call to Democrats to better engage Chinese and other Asian communities. Assembly Member Lester Chang – who served in the Navy Reserve, previously ran for office in Manhattan and has faced questions about his Brooklyn residency – is a Republican who aligns with his party on most major points in Albany. Bipartisan collaboration is difficult enough already, let alone in an election year in which Chang is supporting Chu’s Republican opponent.

If that wasn’t enough, southern Brooklyn has also been the locus of a Democratic Party ripping itself apart at the seams, and Chu and Zhuang have found themselves on opposite ends of the rift. Chu and Zhuang each previously served as the chiefs of staff to bitter Democratic rivals in neighboring southern Brooklyn districts – former Assembly Member Peter Abbate Jr. and current Assembly Member William Colton, respectively. The feud between the moderate Democrats – both Italian Americans – has produced countless tabloid jabs, a floated primary challenge, and most recently, accusations from Abbate that Colton conspired with Republicans and Brooklyn Democratic Party Chair Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn to knock him and district leader candidates Jimmy Li and Tori Kelly off the ballot. Bichotte Hermelyn backed two other Democratic district leader candidates, Tony Ko and Joyce Xie, who are both Chinese American, and Li for an Assembly seat. Bichotte Hermelyn called Abbate’s accusations “wild” and “fabricated,” and Colton denied working against Abbate. “After being bullied, silenced and having their interests ignored, it’s not surprising the voters of AD 49 supported Lester Chang, despite him being a Republican,” she said in an emailed statement. “Although we have fundamental disagreements with this candidate, our Party still supports the voice of the people in our democracy.”

My guess is as long as Abbate and Colton are on the scene, their proteges are going to abide by this cold war, for lack of a better term.
Ross Barkan, a journalist and former state Senate candidate

Ross Barkan, a journalist and former candidate for state Senate in Bay Ridge, suggested that the bad blood between Chu and Zhuang’s mentors could taint their relationship for the foreseeable future. “My guess is as long as Abbate and Colton are on the scene, their proteges are going to abide by this cold war, for lack of a better term,” he said. “But again, all political infighting has a shelf life, and as people move on, as new people get elected, that dissipates. So, it can. Just I don’t see it dissipating this year, certainly, or next year.”

Yang suggested that political differences between elected officials won’t necessarily inhibit building Asian political power. “Every community has complicated politics, that is not a flag or a barrier to the Asian community holistically building more power,” he said.

Working together?

The good news for Chu, Zhuang and Chang and the communities they jointly represent, is that despite their differing political affiliations, they share some common interests. The three align broadly on some priority issues for Chinese Americans, including protecting the city’s Specialized High School Admissions Test, and the city’s Gifted and Talented program, as well as for Chu and Zhuang, supporting more moderate public safety stances. Chang did not respond to requests for comment.

Chu and Zhuang each told City & State that working together is the best way to secure wins for the community. “I think (if) you put the people first, you will have no issue with anything,” Zhuang said. “We have to put our community first, that’s most important. Otherwise, why are we getting elected?”

Chu shared nearly identical sentiments. “I wouldn’t say it will stop us from working together,” she said when asked about the political divides between herself, Zhuang and Chang. “Because we represent the families. Our core – it should be to represent the families and the constituents who elected us.”

Recent victories won for Asian American communities have been the result of coalition building with other AAPI legislators, and other elected officials more broadly. The record $30 million in funding for AAPI community organizations that was secured in last year’s state budget and matched this year was backed by a diverse coalition of the state Legislature’s growing Asian American delegation and community groups. This year, Chu also worked with Lee to fight for funding to create the SUNY Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Leadership Institute. It took years for state lawmakers to advance legislation making Lunar New Year a school holiday, but Gov. Kathy Hochul signed that legislation last year with the support of AAPI legislators. A few months later, Hochul also signed legislation pushed by Assembly Member Jenifer Rajkumar, the first South Asian woman elected to the Legislature, declaring Diwali a school holiday.

Chu and Zhuang told City & State that the three of them often see each other at the same community events, where they will chat about neighborhood issues. The three haven’t collaborated on any legislation yet, Chu said. “We’re definitely going to have projects that we can work together (on),” Zhuang said.

Outside of seeing each other at community events, it’s unclear how much regular communication the three of them have. “Definitely when it’s good for the community, definitely we communicate,” Zhuang said, but declined to say whether they have backchannel communications, over text or email, for example. “The backchannel communication is personal information. Sometimes, I don’t know, I’m not sure who wants to mention what. I respect everyone’s privacy.”

While Chu and Zhuang can’t co-sponsor legislation in their different levels of government, they can partner on advocating for common policy interests. Chu, who chairs the Libraries Committee in the state Senate, said that she will need city-level partners like Zhuang to push back against Mayor Eric Adams’ budget cuts to libraries. When City & State spoke to Chu last month, shortly after the state budget was passed, Chu said she had not yet had time to reach out to Zhuang – or the Adams administration – about that issue.

In her first four months in office, Zhuang has aligned with Republicans and more conservative Democrats on some issues, joining the council’s Common Sense Caucus and writing an op-ed with Republican Council Member Inna Vernikov that argued against a bill to provide more transparency on police stops that was eventually passed by the City Council. Zhuang’s attention has recently been drawn to the squatters, and is working on legislation in the City Council to track data about the issue. Zhuang’s early work has won her accolades from across the aisle; Brooklyn Republican Party Chair Richie Barsamian said she’s been “superb.” Last month, Zhuang and Colton helped organize a massive rally against placing a homeless shelter in Gravesend, and Chang attended. Also in attendance was Steve Chan, the Republican who is running for Chu’s state Senate seat. 

Asked about the protest, Chu chalked it up to having a different style than her fellow lawmakers. Chu said she has communicated with the Adams administration about the community’s concerns. “It’s just that if there’s something I can do, another way to address the concerns, I really choose not to ask people to walk on the street,” she said. “Because that’s our position as an elected official – to mitigate, to resolve those conflicts, and to work with the administration to find other solutions.”

A maturing political force

Asian American elected officials in southern Brooklyn and across the city are optimistic about their communities’ growing political influence. “The Asian American community is significantly more mature politically,” Liu said, of the landscape now versus when he was first running for office in the late ’90s. “That means it’s not as much about identity politics as it is about the issues. And that’s a terrific sign of progress.”

I think people are more interested and engaged in civic and political matters. That hasn’t translated into more people voting.
Assembly Member Ron Kim

Still, elected officials and community leaders are aware of the work that remains. “I think people are more interested and engaged in civic and political matters. That hasn’t translated into more people voting,” Assembly Member Ron Kim said – a sentiment Chu echoed for her Brooklyn district. That will change, Kim said, as more immigrants understand the importance of voting in being able to dictate how resources are invested in their neighborhoods.

Voter registration work has been carried out by nonprofits like those in the APA VOICE coalition, and the Chinese-American Planning Council, which has ramped up more voter education and mobilization work in southern Brooklyn and elsewhere in recent years, said President Wayne Ho.

But organizations that must remain nonpartisan in order to keep their nonprofit status are limited in their ability to encourage people to register for one party or another. And in a city with competitive primaries – sometimes even Republican primaries – registering voters to a political party so they can vote in primaries can mean giving them a voice when it matters most.

The growing acknowledgment by both parties of the importance of engaging AAPI voters has helped, as has the growing, though still relatively small, landscape of Asian American political consultants and campaign staffers who know the communities.Rep. Grace Meng, for example, organized a broad coalition of elected officials and others who could do multilingual phone-banking, door-knocking and other culturally competent outreach on behalf of Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi in the special congressional election on Long Island that he won in February.

A number of upcoming races in Queens and Brooklyn this year could test just how well both parties are doing in engaging Asian American voters, including in races in which white incumbents or former lawmakers that have historically been popular with their Asian constituents are now facing challenges from Asian candidates. Republican Yiatin Chu is challenging Democratic state Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky in Queens. And while Chang’s road to reelection in Brooklyn looks much easier with Abbate knocked off the Democratic ballot, Abbate could still challenge Chang as an independent.

Chan, a retired NYPD sergeant and Marine who emigrated from Hong Kong as a child will also have the Brooklyn GOP’s support in his bid for Chu’s Senate seat.

Some Asian American lawmakers and community leaders see lessons that can be taken from how New York’s Black and Latino communities have built and coalesced political power. “You really need to build a coalition across the entire city for your community to have an impact,” Yang said.

Assembly Members Grace Lee and Zohran Mamdani are co-hosting a new AAPI Summit in Albany this month that takes some inspiration from well-established events like the Somos conference and the state Association of Black and Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislators’ Caucus Weekend. “We have Asian and non-Asian electeds participating in this summit, which we’re really excited about,” Lee said. “I think that it’s important that these are opportunities not to be insular about the work that needs to get done for the community, but it also brings in allies and helps us to build broader coalitions for this work.” The theme for the inaugural summit? “Empowerment through Representation.”