Asian voters flex electoral muscle at polls

Councilman John Liu, the first Asian-American elected to public office in New York, is scheduled to run against his Council colleague, David Yassky, in a runoff election.
By Stephen Stirling

The Sept. 15 primary election drew just 11 percent of eligible voters to the polls citywide, but its impact for emerging immigrant communities like Flushing may be felt for decades.

The city Campaign Finance Board said the overall turnout was among the lowest for a primary in modern history, but exit polls have shown that turnout among Asian voters in Queens was very strong and played a decisive role in several races.

“It was a watershed moment,” said Glenn Magpantay of the Asian American Legal Defense Fund.

City Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) is headed for a run-off election after topping a four-way race for city comptroller and two Asian-American candidates in Flushing and Bayside won their Democratic primaries for City Council seats, a sign that many say marks the full maturation of the Chinese and Korean voting populations.

Madhulika Khandelwal, director of the Asian American Center at Queens College, said when Liu became the first Asian American elected to public office in New York in 2001 he ignited a spark that has burned brightly over the last decade, inspiring confidence among Asian- American voters and thrusting Flushing into the spotlight.

“Since John Liu broke through in 2001, I think the participation among the Asian community has only grown,” Khandelwal said. “In the last eight years or so Flushing itself has gained prominence. Regionally and nationally Flushing has become a very important place not just for Asians but for how new immigrant communities can become active politically.”

Exit polls conducted by the Asian American Legal Defense Fund show that Asian-American voters not only helped propel Liu into first place in the comptroller race, but also aided Democrat Yen Chou in winning her race to fill his seat in Council District 20 and Kevin Kim in pulling off a decisive victory in District 19 race to replace Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside).

Since Liu was elected in 2001, three Chinese Americans have been elected to public office in Flushing: Former state Assembly members Jimmy Meng and Ellen Young were succeeded by Assemblywoman Grace Meng (D-Flushing) last year.

Now Liu is a strong contender to become the first Asian American elected to citywide office. Meanwhile, should Kim win the general election in November, he would become the first Korean American elected to the Council.

“It was so amazing to see Kevin Kim win,” said Terence Park, a Korean American who narrowly lost an Assembly election to Young in 2006. “Not by 100 votes, but by more than 500. We still have a long way to go, a lot of things to learn, but that shows there has been tremendous growth in the Korean community.”

AALDEF’s exit polls show that 84 percent of Asian-American voters polled voted for Liu while a whopping 98 percent chose Kim over five other white candidates in the race for Avella’s seat. In District 20, where four Asian-American candidates split the Asian vote, Chou picked up 32 percent of those polled.

“You saw a lot of immigrants turning out and voting in unprecedented numbers,” said Steven Choi of Korean-American advocacy group YKASEC, which aided AALDEF with the exit polls. “Every year you’re seeing an increase in the number of Asian-American voters that turn out. It definitely seems that John Liu had a very strong effect.”

He added: “I think Flushing represents the future in a lot of ways. It is the biggest gateway in the city for immigrants and there are a lot other communities growing very quick here. People are really getting together on a grassroots level and you’re now starting to see changes in the way politics are done in this city.”

Khandelwal agreed the primary was a benchmark for Asian politics in New York City, but said impact of the political awakening Flushing has experienced in the last decade will likely not be known for years to come.

“What happened in this one district or that one district is not that important. But looking at it in the larger context, it is significant,” she said. “In Flushing, as time passes, we may be able to see trends or patterns for the future of multicultural politics in this city.”

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e-mail at sstirling@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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