Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article misidentified Andrew Yang as the only Asian American democratic candidate in the mayoral race. Art Chang is also on the primary ballot.
New York City Democrats and Republicans are holding their primary elections today, taking the long battle to replace Mayor Bill de Blasio a step forward.
Most eyes are on the dominant Democratic Party whose frontrunner Eric Adams unleashed his most scorching attack against rival Andrew Yang a day prior.
Yang, one of the party’s two Asian American candidates (the other being Art Chang), appeared to draw the most support early on in the race, but the latest polling from Democratic firm Data for Progress shows Adams at the top, with 26% of likely voters picking him as their first choice.
Still, Yang leads the pack with record-setting fundraising. The 46-year-old entrepreneur has secured the most individual contributions of all candidates, according to campaign finance statistics analyzed by Politico.
As Yang prepared for the big day, NextShark spoke to his wife, Evelyn, on the behind-the-scenes of the race for the city’s highest public office.
“There’s a different energy being the underdog versus being frontrunner,” Evelyn says, comparing her husband’s bid for president and his current campaign. “People treat you differently when you’re the frontrunner. There’s a lot more scrutiny.”
Yang’s lead in the mayoral polls has indeed placed him under the microscope. In April, some 400 Asian American New Yorkers signed a letter in opposition of his campaign — a figure that has now grown to more than 900.
Those constituents criticized Yang for “perpetuating racist stereotypes,” “taking pro-policing stances” and “using ‘progressive’ campaign promises to hide regressive policies,” to name a few. Yang most recently drew flak for expressing support for Israel and his alleged insensitivity toward mentally ill people.
Nonetheless, Yang has sought to represent Asian America since his presidential run, but Evelyn recalled how members of the community showed up much later in his campaigns, likely only after determining that he had “proven himself.”
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“As an Asian American, when you see someone like him running for president of the United States, coming almost out of nowhere, you’re kind of like, ‘Yeesh, I don’t know how I feel about you yet. You have to prove yourself to me before I buy in,’” Evelyn said. “In some ways Asian Americans are going to be the worst critics, initially, because you’re like, ‘Don’t embarrass us, please.’”
Yang faced unique obstacles as a presidential candidate. Evelyn recalled supporters pointing out instances when her husband had been cut out from graphics, had his name misspelled or mispronounced, and had his fundraising milestones ignored.
“It did seem like he was being marginalized, but I don’t think he really leaned into race, because he was so focused on economics, technology and automation,” Evelyn said. “He was much more focused on things that everyone had in common versus the things that divide us.”
Evelyn believes one of the reasons why her husband has done so well and exceeded most expectations is his authenticity as an unconventional politician.
“He is not trying to conform to the ‘polished politician’ even though he does get dinged every once in a while for the wrong turn of phrase, or missing a certain word here or there to make it politically correct. You get the sense that he cares more about the substance of what he’s saying than how he’s saying it. And for the vast majority of people, that is so refreshing.”
The mayoral race differs as it compelled Yang to talk about race. At a time when anti-Asian hate — in addition to the already devastating COVID-19 pandemic — has plagued New York more than any other U.S. city, he just needed to speak up.
“He had a strong desire to talk about his own experience of being an Asian American, really for the first time, because he felt a responsibility to speak up for people in our community who are experiencing hate,” Evelyn said. She added that she herself has been verbally harassed in front of her children in broad daylight.
“I was told randomly on the street, in broad daylight in front of my children, ‘Get away from me with whatever disease that you have.’ That’s crazy.”
Evelyn said the incident occurred right in New York City. As someone born in Flushing, Queens — which she calls the city’s “epicenter of diversity” — she had never felt like an outsider until that moment.
And just last month, Evelyn found herself slamming a New York Daily News cartoon that depicted her husband as a tourist. She said she felt “compelled” to call it out.
“It made me feel like…wow. How is it that in 2021, it’s still okay to marginalize Asians? The outcry about it online was significant. API leaders and influencers spoke out about it, and they [New York Daily News] still to this day have never retracted it or issued an apology. That to me is an example of how badly we need API representation, that we need more.”
Evelyn highlighted the power of the Asian American vote, which she says became visible in electing Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and the Senate seats for Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia.
“APIs have been the margin of victory,” she said. “Asians were the swing vote in the swing state and [we’re] growing faster than any other demographic. We just need to show up.”
Amid all the chaos of the campaign trail, the Yangs still go home like any other American family. Evelyn says their kids are “oblivious” to politics, but are entertained when they see themselves in their father’s ads.
Nonetheless, she and her husband spend time helping them understand their Asian American roots by having discussions on anti-Asian hate.
Evelyn is optimistic about the election. She says her husband was in the lead among people who have done early voting, although only by a point.
“We all feel really good. But the point is, we have to convert all that energy that we’re seeing on the street into votes at the polls.”
With New York City’s new ranked-choice voting system, it could be weeks until the winner of the primary is determined.
Featured Images via @andrewyang