Yuh-Line Niou never intended to run for office. After working as chief of staff for Assembymember Ron Kim, the first Korean elected to any office in New York State, Niou saw how desperately Asian representation in government was needed.
“There were 60 to 100 people coming into our office every day,” says Niou. “People would be lined up around the corner, clogging the elevators. There had never been anyone to help with specific language needs, with things that made the government inaccessible to so many people.”
‘We, women, women of color, can be the ones to step up.’
When Assembly District 65’s seat in Lower Manhattan opened back in 2016, Niou entered the race. Backed by the Working Families Party, Niou was a stark contrast to former Assembly Speaker Assembly Sheldon Silver, who held the district seat — which includes Chinatown, the Financial District, Battery Park City and the Lower East Side — for 39 years before he was convicted on corruption charges.
Now, Niou is up for her third term and is facing a tough challenge from one of Wall Street’s own.
After immigrating to the United States from Taiwan when she was six months old, Niou lived in Idaho, Oregon, Texas and Washington before moving to New York City to pursue her masters in public administration at CUNY-Baruch.
As the June 23 Democratic primary approaches, Niou is backed by progressives including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velazquez, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Comptroller Scott Stringer and U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
On the surface, both Niou and her opponent Grace Lee present similar progressive platforms. The main difference in their campaigns lies in how they are funded. Lee, the co-founder of a company that makes beauty products for pregnant and new moms, has a background in the financial industry and has loaned her own campaign $250,000.
Her ties to the financial industry are further underscored by her husband Kim Lee, the chief financial officer at Global Atlantic Financial Group, who previously worked for 11 years at Goldman Sachs. Lee’s largest donations, after her own, come from finance and insurance corporations, as well as a $2,000 donation from Emma Bloomberg, daughter of the former mayor. The Real Deal reports that real estate interests also prefer Lee.
Meanwhile, Niou has brought in more than 3,000 individual donations in the past several weeks, while Lee had only 13 individual contributions. The incumbent has been vocal about proving it’s possible to win an election without catering to wealthy special interests, is pushing for campaign finance reform and has criticized Gov. Andrew Cuomo for holding private fundraisers.
The Indypendent caught up with Niou recently, as she fights to hold on to her seat in Tuesday’s primary. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Can you comment on the difference in campaign finance contributions between you and your opponent, Grace Lee?
Right now, it’s pretty obvious that her campaign finances read very much like a list of the 1 percent. She was a former hedge fund person herself. She’s funding her campaign with her own personal fortune. I’m funding my campaign through small grassroots donations. I’ve been a vocal advocate for the working families in New York — no one owns this seat, not special interests, not real estate.
What are some of the things you’re most proud of from your past term?
There are two parts to being a legislator. We have our legislative accomplishments and we have our casework, what we’ve done for our constituents. I’m proud of being a part of introducing legislation to hold landlords accountable and strengthen rent regulation. We passed GENDA, the Reproductive Health and Contraceptive Coverage Act, the Green Light NY bill that provides driver’s licenses to all New Yorkers, the DREAM Act to provide undocumented and other immigrant students access to state funding for higher education costs, and bail reform.
These were pieces of legislation that had been held up and had not passed for so long but are so critical to our everyday lives.
In terms of our constituents, we’ve helped more than 600 people successfully get unemployment benefits so far. During the pandemic, we created a mobile district office. We take it to different parts of our district to make sure people who need help can get it. We’re more accessible now to people that are seniors or homebound.
What would you be prioritizing going into your third term?
What has been and will continue to be a priority is the economic justice package we’ve been working on for a long time. We’ve put together a “New New Deal” package of bills that address joblessness, housing affordability, healthcare, childcare and rising poverty rates, as well as tax reform. We should be fully funding education, having Medicare for All and recovering our infrastructure. I’ll be pushing for recovery to make sure we get back on our feet coming out of this crisis.
In 2016, you had a major victory following Sheldon Silver’s 39-year run as Assemblyperson for District 65. What made you want to run for office at the time?
I never actually intended to run for office. I think that a lot of times women, people of color, people who traditionally haven’t seen themselves represented in government never think this can be a path for them. I’ve worked as an intern, a staffer, an advocate and chief of staff. I never thought about being a principal member myself.
But in my work, I saw a lot of injustice and wanted to work to fix that. My goal in all of my roles has been the same — to make sure people understand there’s no big secret to accessing the government. It’s important we break that myth and have the representation we deserve.
I worked for Ron Kim, the first Korean member elected to any office in New York State. Working for the only Asian-American legislator at the time, we faced a lot of need. There were 60 to 100 people coming into our office every day. People would be lined up around the corner, clogging the elevators. The need was so huge. There had never been anyone to help with specific language needs, with things that made the government inaccessible to so many people.
When I moved to this district, Sen. Daniel Squadron encouraged me to run. I used to work as a bartender in the district, at Winnie’s. When I saw this seat was opening and how much need there was I said, “I think I can help. I think I can do this.”
My win back in 2016 as the Working Families Party candidate was a way of fighting for change. The impact has been pretty large. We’re now seeing more people who see that the old way of doing things can be changed. We, women, women of color, can be the ones to step up.
I think we have come to a reckoning in this country. And we need to answer that reckoning, listen and do what we need to do to make things better and fair. I say this all the time — our system isn’t broken, it doesn’t need band-aids or patches. It’s working exactly the way it was designed to: It’s racist and hurts people and helps others at their expense. From education to transportation to criminal justice to our courts and healthcare, it’s all part of the same design that was meant to purposely keep certain people out.
We’re seeing more than ever that our lives depend on each other. It’s no longer just about my healthcare and safety. Making sure everyone has resources actually keeps me safe. A lot of people have had the luxury to ignore that.
My district is very large and very diverse, socioeconomically, racially and ethnically. My district was hit so hard by COVID-19 because of racism and our small businesses need a lot of help. I’ve crafted bills to address that, including protections for small landlords and small businesses.
What is the New York you’d like to see in 5 or 10 years?
From my time in office, I’ve seen how having diverse representation helps to put different perspectives at the table. That’s how we make good policy. We’re at a point in time where it’s about making sure we have not just party politics, but politics that will help people. I want to see that in the coming years. I want to see leadership focused on helping people to recover, to make permanent and transformative structural change to our entire system. We’ve seen how systemic racism has made us repeat history over and over again, from Rodney King to Geoge Floyd. When are we going to actually see how we’re all suffering when these things happen?
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