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Asian Americans show political muscle in New York

On Tuesday, history was made as three Asian Americans look poised to join the city council: Margaret Chin in District 1, Kevin Kim in District 19 and Yen Chou in District 20. That's a major increase from the single City Councilman in the city's 300-something year history, John Liu. The New York Times has taken note and written an article entitled Victories Across City Resonate in Chinatown.

At Confucius Plaza, a 44-story apartment complex in Chinatown, hundreds of retirees flooded the polls on Tuesday after finishing their morning calisthenics in the courtyard. One resident showed up in the evening with her American passport, only to be gently informed that the deadline for registration had passed. Five people rushed in just before voting closed. In all, about half of the development’s 1,000 registered Democrats cast ballots.

Asian-American candidates won Democratic primaries in three City Council districts on Tuesday. AndJohn C. Liu, a Queens Democrat who was the first Asian-American to be elected to the Council, received the most votes for city comptroller, though not enough to reach the 40 percent needed to avoid a runoff.

All told, the developments amounted to something of a watershed moment for Asian New Yorkers — the city’s fastest-growing minority group, three-quarters of them foreign-born — and their involvement in municipal politics.

“It’s significant for the whole population to see all these Asian-Americans taking political roles for the first in public,” said Margaret M. Chin, a sociologist at Hunter College who studies Asian-American communities. “The West Coast broke this barrier close to two decades ago.”

Chinatown itself is likely to be represented by an Asian-American for the first time, with the victory of Margaret S. Chin (no relation to the sociologist), a community activist, over Councilman Alan J. Gerson, a two-term incumbent.

In Flushing, Queens, Yen S. Chou, a Chinese immigrant who owns a tutoring center, won a closely fought five-way primary, which included three other Asian-American candidates, for the nomination to replace Mr. Liu.

And in a traditionally conservative district in northeast Queens, Kevin D. Kim, an aide to Representative Gary L. Ackerman, won the primary for a seat being vacated by Councilman Tony Avella. Mr. Kim — who will face a Republican opponent, Dan Halloran, in November — would become the first Korean-American on the Council if he wins.

Of the 51 Council districts, 32 had primaries on Tuesday. Turnout in the three districts where Asian-Americans won was among the highest in the city: 17 to 18 percent, compared with a citywide average of 11 percent, according to the Board of Elections.

“The one constituency who had a reason to turn out and turned out in large numbers were Asian-American voters,” said Evan Stavisky, a Democratic consultant who worked on Mr. Liu’s campaign in 2001 and Ms. Chin’s campaign this year.

The coattails worked in two directions, observers said. Mr. Liu, who came from Taiwan to America with his family when he was a child, helped bring Asian-Americans citywide to the polls, while the get-out-the-vote operations of local Asian candidates fueled support for his comptroller race.

These Asian-American primary victors, all of whom are immigrants, reflect changes in New York City government over the past two decades.

In 1991, the City Council expanded to 51 seats from 35 as part of an effort to bring more diversity to its membership. A 1993 referendum established a limit of two consecutive four-year terms for office-holders — even though Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the Council modified those limits last year to allow a third term. When term limits took effect in 2001, they helped to usher in newcomers like Mr. Liu, and they have since given prospective candidates time to prepare for their races.

“To me, it’s just timing, it’s so perfect,” said Ms. Chou, who announced she was running in January after Mr. Liu confirmed that he would not seek a third term, so he could run for comptroller.

Underlying the candidates’ successes was the fund-raising muscle of the Asian community, both locally and nationwide.

Of Council candidates this cycle, Ms. Chou and Mr. Kim were among the top five fund-raisers, and they were also among only four Council candidates to opt out of the public financing system.

Ms. Chou raised $320,551, much of it from Chinese-American donors in the region. In contrast, much of the $288,756 that Mr. Kim raised came from Korean-American contributors in New Jersey and California.

Ms. Chin — who had also run in 1991, 1993 and 2001 — had more modest fund-raising, but she benefited this time around because of voter anger against Mr. Gerson’s support for the term limits change.

Unlike in 2001, when she and two other Chinese-American candidates split the vote, this time Ms. Chin was the only such candidate in a district where Asians are about 40 percent of the population, though they accounted for only 18 percent of Democratic voters, Mr. Stavisky said. .

“Chinatown has been around for over 150 years,” she said. “For the first time it’s a Chinese-American representing the area.” (Ms. Chin faces a nominal Republican opponent.)

Many give credit to Mr. Liu for being a pioneer. Since being elected, Mr. Liu has donned — some might say grabbed — the mantle of being the city’s sole Asian elected official, and has worked for the families of slain Chinese deliverymen and Korean grocers, while using his chairmanship of the Transportation Committee and his close ties to black politicians to broaden his appeal.

While Asian-Americans are estimated to make up 12 percent of the city’s population — they had about half that share two decades ago — many are not citizens or have limited engagement with politics.

A victory in the runoff could presage greater visibility for Mr. Liu, he said: “It’s not just, ‘Are we making history in 2009?’ Is there a possibility for greater heights that can be raised for the Asian-American community in 2013?”

It looks like Asian Americans are finally taking their seat at the table in New York. Let's hope that these representatives all prove to be progressive.

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