On a rainy evening in mid-December, Lee Zeldin, a Republican congressman from Long Island running for governor of New York, stood in a restaurant in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, surrounded by 100 or so Chinese voters. Zeldin and the group exchanged views on various hot-button issues: from specialized high school reform to the homeless shelter that the city government plans to build in this predominantly Chinese neighborhood. They were on the same page, opposing all these proposals. “I’ll be coming back over and over and over again,” he told the voters.
It was the fifth event in the Chinese community that Zeldin had participated in that day. “There have been a bunch of other days like this, too,” he said about his frequent visits with Chinese voters since he announced his campaign last April. If recent voting trends continue, more New York Republicans will follow his lead.
Three in four Asian New Yorkers are immigrants. They have long been considered reliable Democratic voters, but lately, many seem more animated by opposition to Democratic policies. The extent of the shift became clear in the New York City elections last year, when Republican mayoral candidate Curtis Sliwa, as well as some candidates for city council, scored well in Asian-heavy districts. While Democrats try to figure out what this means, Republicans hope to capitalize this year—and beyond.
Zeldin is not the only Republican running for office who has reached out to the Chinese community. Rob Astorino, who lost the gubernatorial election to former Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo in 2014 but is running again, has contacted some community leaders. A “meet the voters” event on Zoom organized by some Chinese activists on January 10 for Michael Henry, a litigator running for state attorney general, attracted a few dozen participants. At the event, Henry called the Chinese community a “sleeping giant in New York politics.”
“Republican candidates have shown stronger interest in visiting the Chinese community now. And they have quite a lot of Chinese supporters helping them,” says Justin Yu, president of the Manhattan-based Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), who is often dubbed the “Chinatown mayor.”
The new interest from Republicans is data-driven. Last November, the tallies in some Asian-heavy districts were eye-catching. Sliwa outperformed Democrat Eric Adams, the new mayor, in 137 of the city’s 317 Asian-majority election districts, stronger than his performance with any other racial group. He prevailed in five assembly districts currently represented by Democrats with an Asian population ranging from 10 percent to 66 percent. His performance was even more dominant in some Chinese neighborhoods. In Sunset Park, the largest Chinese enclave in the city, Sliwa won 11 out of the 13 majority-Asian election districts. In the city council elections, the GOP also flipped District 19 in Queens, which is 36 percent Asian, and District 48 in Brooklyn, which is 18 percent Asian.
Such results may seem surprising, but some insiders saw it coming. “The Asian community has been leaning toward the conservative side in recent years,” says Jerry Lo, an activist organizing in the Chinese community for more than a decade. “Chinese believe that hard-working and law-abiding people should be rewarded. That’s our American Dream,” Lo adds. “But the liberal politicians, they are increasingly indulgent to the vices.”
Asians constitute about 15 percent of New York City’s population—about half of these Chinese—but they weren’t known for being vocal on civic issues until 2015, when thousands protested against the indictment of Peter Liang, a rookie cop who, while on patrol, accidentally shot dead an unarmed black man, Akai Gurley, in a Brooklyn housing project. In the eyes of the protesters, Liang, a Chinese-American, was a scapegoat for public anger resulting from non-indictments of some white cops involved in killings of black people.
Asian voices have only grown louder since then. They fought against former mayor Bill de Blasio’s specialized high school reform proposal that, they worry, would reduce the chance of admission for Asian students; the borough-based jail project that would bring an expanded jail to Manhattan’s Chinatown; the state’s marijuana legalization; and bail reform and the defund-the-police movement, which cut against their public safety concerns.
With each protest movement came the emergence of community activists new to politics. Phil Wong is one. An immigrant from Hong Kong and a father of three, Wong participated in protests for the first time in 2018 against specialized high school reform. Now he’s a civic leader mobilizing Chinese parents to fight affirmative action and critical race theory. “The atmosphere at schools here is more and more like China’s cultural revolution that encourages students to cancel teachers and parents, all in the name of equality,” Wong says.
Yanling Zhang is another, a volunteer for Vickie Paladino, a Republican who won the city council seat in District 19. “When I heard Vickie talking at a party, I thought she represents the traditional American values that attracted me to the U.S.,” says Zhang, who came to the U.S. for graduate school more than 20 years ago and had not participated in politics until she joined Paladino’s campaign. “But now this country has changed. Personal freedom is eroded by overbearing governments, and the media ignores the voices of ordinary people.”
This year, numerous issues will galvanize Chinese voters. The battle against the homeless shelter project in Sunset Park that started before the mayoral election has snowballed; the city plans to add more housing projects for homeless people in Manhattan’s Chinatown and in Flushing, the biggest Chinese and Korean community in Queens. That comes after Chinatown had already been selected to host a supportive housing project for homeless people and a homeless shelter. These proposals have triggered several protests since the election, and the Flushing and Chinatown projects have been halted to allow community input. “If you think there are too many Asians in specialized high schools, why don’t you care that our community is hosting so many homeless facilities?” asks Ray Huang, an activist in Sunset Park and an organizer of some of the protests.
Then there is the Asian data-disaggregation bill that New York governor Kathy Hochul signed into law on December 23. The law, which requires government agencies to collect data on major Asian subgroups to understand their specific needs, had been vetoed twice by Cuomo for budgetary reasons. When it went to Hochul’s desk toward the end of last year, it triggered a tide of opposition from many Chinese community organizations and activists, who worried it would further divide the Asian community and bring more race-based policies like the specialized high school reform. The day after Hochul signed the law, about 50 Chinese activists attended an urgent meeting at the CCBA to discuss how to negotiate with the state to mitigate the law’s impact on the Chinese community. Many speakers called the law discriminatory.
Meantime, Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg’s recent announcement that his office will not pursue minor criminal cases is hard to swallow for a community that has been under attack during the pandemic. It’s even more so after Yao Pan Ma, a 61-year-old Chinese immigrant who made a living by recycling bottles, died on the last day of 2021 as a result of injuries suffered after he was beaten up by a stranger on the street last April. The suspect, 49-year-old Jarrod Powell, has been charged with a hate crime, among other charges. Then, on January 15, Michelle Go, a 40-year-old Asian-American woman living in Manhattan, was pushed onto the subway tracks in Times Square and died at the scene. The suspect, Simon Martial, a man with a history of criminal behavior and mental illness, has been charged with murder. These incidents are harrowing reminders of the ongoing anti-Asian hate wave in which victims suffer from nonfatal attacks and verbal assaults.
“Many Chinese voters told me they don’t know much about partisan politics, but when they think about all the bad policies in recent years, they are all made by the Democrats,” says Donghui Zang, head of the civic organization New York City Residents Alliance and himself a registered Democrat. “We’ll consider all these issues when we endorse candidates this year.”
The Democratic Party may be attracting an outsize share of blame because of its omnipresence in New York. Most policies in the city, popular or not, are made by Democrats. And not all Chinese agree on their implications. Yuh-Line Niou, the Chinese-American assemblywoman who sponsored the Asian data-disaggregation bill—which was supported by some liberal-leaning community organizations—says the bill would meet the Asian community’s call for increasing social services. Inadequate data, the argument goes, have impeded that push.
A liberal Democrat running for state senator this year, Niou says she is not worried that the bill would affect her election chances; nor does she believe Asian voters are leaning right. Sliwa’s victory in the Asian districts, Niou says, happened mainly because he had been sending volunteers from his crime-prevention nonprofit Guardian Angels to patrol Asian neighborhoods during the wave of anti-Asian attacks. But, in general, Niou says, “all of the Asian elected officials have been Democrats. Why? Because Democrats are the most welcoming of Asian-Americans.”
Having been derided as a “Chinese girl” and “Communist shield” by Republicans, Niou adds: “There is no way the Chinese community is going to say, ‘Oh, yeah, great, the Republican Party.’ These are people who are racist toward us.”
But to some, the Democratic Party is no longer the same one to which Asian voters have been loyal through the years. “I won’t say Chinese voters are leaning to the right. I’d rather say they are sticking to the issues that affect their everyday life,” says Yu, the CCBA president, who is also a Democratic district leader. “The Democratic Party has been increasingly focusing on ideology and promoting equality on the finish line rather than equal opportunities. If it keeps going in the same direction, its future is not bright.”
“When people come here, they become Democrats because of the word ‘democracy.’ They confuse ‘democracy’ in Democratic Party,” says Paladino, the council member from District 19. She attributes her victory partly to the support of Asian voters. “And the Democratic Party in the past has long gone.”
To Sliwa, it’s not only the Democrats’ ideological evolution but a sense of complacency that has pushed some Asian voters away. “Even though the Democrats had the elected officials, they took the vote for granted,” says Sliwa. When he attended some meetings and protests in the Asian community during his campaign, he says, he often found no Democratic candidates. The organizers told him that they had been invited but didn’t show up. “I was amazed at their lack of presence,” says Sliwa, who has been offering advice to Republicans on building footholds in some Asian enclaves.
On the Democratic side, at least one person is sounding the alarm. Grace Meng, the congresswoman who called for the Democratic Party to “start giving more of a shit” about Asian voters and communities in a tweet after she saw the tallies in the mayoral election, is working with the state Democratic Party to improve its outreach to the Asian community. Meng, who served as the vice chairwoman of the national Democratic Party during the Trump era, is looking to replicate in New York the effective tactics she helped launch in some Republican-leaning states to mobilize Asian voters, such as hiring staff speaking Asian languages and translating campaign materials.
“The Democratic Party has to do a better job at communicating with our Chinese community,” says Meng. Arguing that Asians may not completely realize how much the Democratic Party has done for them, Meng adds: “We have to show that we care more.”
A few days after the mayoral election, Ling Fei, a conservative blogger in Sunset Park, organized a Zoom meeting that attracted more than 30 Chinese activists. They discussed strategy to promote conservative values in the elections this year and in the future. Fei set a goal of registering 4,000 Chinese voters in Sunset Park in the next few years. He said he wouldn’t tell the new voters which party they should join but only that they should choose based on their values. The bottom line, Fei says, is that “we are an awakening community. Whoever doesn’t take us seriously would pay for it.”
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