Yuh-Line Niou, 33, is on track to becoming the first Asian-American to represent Chinatown and any part of Manhattan in the New York State Assembly.
On Tuesday, Niou won the primary race for the 65th Assembly District and beat out five other prominent candidates in the running. Born in Taiwan and raised in Idaho and Texas, Niou went to school at The Evergreen State College in Washington before becoming an aide for Washington state lawmakers.
In 2010, she moved to New York to pursue her master’s in public administration at Baruch. Her time in New York has given her perspective of the needs of her constituents. When asked about her experience with the district, Niou told Vogue:
“Bartending! On the corner of Bayard and Baxter at Winnie’s. In Seattle, I was a karaoke hostess for a place called Bush Garden — it’s infamous. So I felt at home at Winnie’s. It was a neighborhood spot, so a lot of the folks that I saw daily, I still see them daily now, just in different capacities. You learn how to relate to the folks you’re serving. It’s service in different ways.”
She then worked as the chief of staff for Flushing assembly member Ron Kim, New York’s first Korean-American elected official. Niou’s lists her mom, a nurse who put her dad through school, and her Uncle Bob Santos who she learned valuable leadership skills from as her role models in life.
“‘Uncle Bob’ Santos in Washington state, who just passed away, taught me how to coalition build. His wife, Sharon Tomiko Santos, was one of the first Asian-American women elected to office in the nation. For my first interview, she pulled clothes out of her own closet to make sure I was dressed properly.”
The idea of running for office had not crossed her mind until community members popped the idea to Niou following ex-assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s oust due to corruption charges. In April, Alice Cancel, the longtime Democratic District leader, won special election to fill Silver’s seat.
Cancel was a prominent candidate in the primary having lived in the district for 40 years. However, Niou beat out incumbent Cancel by over a thousand votes and took victory with 2,742 points. Runner-up in the six way Democratic primary race was Jenifer Rajkumar who had 1,612 votes.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about Niou’s running though. She described to Vogue the discrimination that she encountered during her campaigning trail.
“Then, of course, the racist comments: We don’t want your kind here. You don’t represent me. I had people yelling at my dad and my mom, saying go back to where you come from.”
However, change is essential and someone needs to represent the growing population of Asian-Americans in the district. Niou explained:
“Right now, Albany is not very reflective of the demographics as a whole. [Asian-Americans] have 14 percent of the state’s population and less than 1 percent of the representation. [Asian-Americans make up 9 percent of New York’s population, according to a 2016 report by the state comptroller.] So I don’t think it’s about population growth. It’s reflective of our district wanting change. I didn’t win because I’m an Asian candidate. I think I won because I’m the best candidate for the district.”
According to Niou, one of the biggest obstacles she faces is prejudgment based on her gender, ethnicity and age. Niou also readily points out the double standards for men and women. She said:
“One of the hardest things was being a woman, and then a woman of color, and then a young woman of color. When you’re putting yourself in the public eye, people feel like they have the right to say anything about you, to you. People will ask, ‘Will you, as an Asian-American, represent all of us?’ I don’t think a white candidate ever gets asked that. And because I’m a woman, people will say: Your hair’s too long, too short; your skirt’s too long, too short; your heels are too high; you don’t wear heels enough. And a lot of people will say I’m too young, which is ridiculous, because many men have run and been younger than me. Including, in fact, Sheldon Silver.”
If elected, Niou and Kim would be the only two Asian-Americans in the State Assembly. The Democratic district includes the Lower East Side, Chinatown and Lower Manhattan. Her Tuesday landslide victory is an indicator of a similar outcome in the upcoming November election.
Responding to her opponent’s contention that she isn’t qualified for the position, Niou argued that her age is advantageous to relating to her constituents. She answered:
“Being younger doesn’t make me any less of a New Yorker. It depends on what you’ve done for your district, not how long you’ve lived somewhere. I reflect the district a lot more than she did. [Cancel, an immigrant from Puerto Rico, has lived in Lower Manhattan for 40 years. This district is a district of immigrants, of young families moving in, and also of people who want transparency and access to government. They don’t want to see the same people making decisions behind closed doors.”
Niou lives in the financial District with her fiancé and has tentative wedding plans that have been delayed by her campaigning. She isn’t too worried or stressed out about it though. She said:
“He and I have known each other since we were 10 years old, so it just doesn’t feel that significant to me.”
It’s a big year for her for many reasons including her first two runs for office. Recalling what she’s learned from the experience, Niou said:
“I’ve learned I can lose 20 pounds in six months, door knocking. And when I lose weight, it’s all in my boobs—it’s really tragic.”