Asian And All-American: A Political Star Rises In N.Y.

Jul 1, 2012
Originally published on July 1, 2012 11:58 am

Earlier this week, Taiwanese-American attorney Grace Meng won the Democratic primary for New York's newly redrawn 6th Congressional District. She says she thinks of herself as an all-American kid, even if others didn't always see her that way.

"Growing up as a kid in Queens, there weren't really many Asians at all," Meng says. "I remember one day, my mom gave me dumplings to bring to school, and people were all like, 'What is that?'"

Meng says she would have preferred peanut butter and jelly.

Nowadays, on the streets of her district in Flushing, Queens, she's treated like a rock star. If Meng wins the general election in November, she'll become New York City's first Asian-American member of Congress.

The Growing Population

The Asian-American community has grown by more than 30 percent in New York State — and 30 percent in the city, says Steven Choi of the nonprofit Minkwon Center for Community Action in Queens.

"That's actually more than four times the growth rate of Latinos, for example, in New York City," he says. "They are [a] real force to be reckoned with, both in the community sphere and also the political sphere."

Meng decisively defeated two Democratic primary candidates who reflected the longstanding political makeup of Queens. One was a Jewish state legislator, the other an Irish-Catholic City Council member.

The district she's running in leans Democratic, and she holds a massive fundraising advantage. But the general election between Meng and Republican City Council Member man Dan Halloran is still seen as competitive.

A Larger Community

Meng, whose family arrived in America in the late 1970s, is part of the growing number of native-born Asian-Americans who straddle the immigrant and mainstream worlds.

"I'm proud to be an Asian-American, but I'm just as proud to be a woman [and] I'm just as proud to be a parent," Meng says. "Those are all big components in my life."

This week's primary results show that Meng has been able to appeal to people outside of her Asian-American base. She won with 51 percent of the vote. Whites and Asians each represent close to 40 percent of the district's population, with Latinos accounting for the remaining 20 percent.

"This was an important win for our shared priorities and our shared understanding," she says. "What's different about all of us here in Queens is nothing compared to what we all have in common."

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's hear now about someone who could soon be making political history. Earlier this week, Taiwanese-American attorney Grace Meng won the Democratic primary for New York's newly redrawn 6th Congressional District. She trounced her competition. If Meng wins the general election in November, she'll become the first Asian-American member of New York's congressional delegation. WNYC's Colby Hamilton reports.

COLBY HAMILTON, BYLINE: Grace Meng thinks of herself as an all-American kid, even if others didn't always see her that way.

ASSEMBLYWOMAN GRACE MENG: Growing up as a kid in Queens, there were not many Asians at all. I remember one day my mom gave me dumplings to bring to school, and people were all like what is that? What is that? I was like, oh, mom, why'd you give me dumplings today? I just wanted peanut butter and jelly.

Good morning, my name is Grace Meng, running for Congress. Have a great day.

HAMILTON: Nowadays, on the streets of her district in Flushing, Queens, she's treated like a rock star.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Mandarin spoken)

HAMILTON: As she campaigned recently, two supporters approached her and told her - in Mandarin - to 'add oil' - translates roughly to Go Grace Go. If Meng wins in November, she'd be the first Asian-American New Yorker elected to federal office.

STEVEN CHOI: The Asian American community has grown tremendously. They are a real force to be reckoned with, both in the community sphere and also in the political sphere.

HAMILTON: That's Steven Choi. He's the executive director for the MinKwon Center for Community Action, a non-profit organization in Queens that serves the growing Asian community.

CHOI: The Asian American community - specifically in New York - has grown by more than 30 percent in the state and 30 percent in the city. That's actually more than four times the growth rate of Latinos, for example, in New York City.

HAMILTON: Meng decisively defeated two Democratic primary candidates who reflected the longstanding political makeup of Queens. One was a Jewish state legislator, the other an Irish Catholic city council member. The district she's running in leans Democratic and she currently holds a massive fundraising advantage. But the general election between Meng and Republican City Councilman Dan Halloran is still seen as competitive. Grace Meng's family arrived in America in the late '70s. She's part of the growing number of native-born Asian Americans who straddle the immigrant and mainstream worlds.

MENG: I'm proud to be an Asian-American, but I'm just as proud to be a woman. I'm just as proud to be a parent. You know, those are all big components in my life.

CROWD: We want Grace. We want Grace. We want Grace...

HAMILTON: This week's primary results show that Meng's been able to appeal to people outside of her Asian-American base. She won with 51 percent of the vote. Whites and Asians each represent close to 40 percent of the district's population, with Latinos accounting for the remaining 20 percent.

MENG: This was an important win for our shared priorities and our shared understanding that what's different about all of us here in Queens is nothing compared to what we all have in common.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

HAMILTON: Spoken like an all-American politician. For NPR News, I'm Colby Hamilton in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.