Grace Meng, Political Pioneer
It’s 7 a.m. on an overcast Friday in October at the Fresh Pond subway station. Commuters are hustling up the stairs with weary expressions. At the end of the hallway, a handful of smiling people cheerfully greet the morning rush.
“Good morning, I’m Grace Meng; please vote on November 6,” calls out the assemblywoman for New York’s 22nd district in Queens. Passersby take or refuse a flier wordlessly, but the rejections don’t deter her. Meng is poised to make history. And once the votes were counted on Nov. 6, her place in the overarching Asian-American narrative was secured.
After serving two terms in the New York State Assembly, 37-year-old Meng just became the first Asian American elected from New York’s Congress this November. Firsts run in the family: her father Jimmy Meng, former New York State Assemblyman, was the first Asian American to be elected to the New York legislature. With the city’s recent redrawing of districts to more adequately represent the Asian-American voice, the sixth congressional district that Meng will represent is nearly 40 percent Asian. During her campaign, she only had a short break on a busy Saturday afternoon for an interview, which was conducted in the small storage room of her buzzing Flushing office.
Undoubtedly, Meng’s experiences of both Chinese and American cultures gave her a distinct advantage in her assembly district of Flushing, an area commonly known as New York’s second Chinatown. She is a strong promoter of Asian Americans participating in politics and the community and believes it would help combat racism.
“There’s a huge perception by many people, including Asians, that we’re not American,” she said. “I think that the more people see Asians around them being citizens who give back to the community, their perception of Asians will change.”
Getting Asian Americans to vote can be a challenge, Meng conceded, and noted that Asian senior citizens vote at a much higher rate than people in their 20s and 30s. Her campaign involved high school and college interns to give them exposure to understand the importance of political participation.
In order to achieve policy goals, Meng often reaches out to Democrats and Republicans alike. Her willingness to work with both parties has bolstered her reputation as a likable and atypical character in legislature, a characteristic that could be valuable in a recently gridlocked Congress.
“I know Democrats who won’t even talk to Republicans,” she joked. For this fall’s campaign, Meng established a new Forest Hills office in Queens, though she spent most of her time outside, getting to know members of her district by knocking on people’s doors or greeting them in the mornings at subway stations. Eating at a table became a luxury, Meng said, and for respite, she spent time with her husband and two young children.
Evolution of a political career
Born and raised in Queens, Meng is the daughter of Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants. Unlike the district of Flushing that she represented in Assembly, the Queens that Meng grew up in didn’t have many Asian Americans, which is “hard to believe now,” she acknowledged. “I was, for most of my elementary school years, the only Asian girl in the class.” The lack of diversity made her feel different, but not uncomfortable, which is reflected in the way she has successfully courted voters from various sections of the community in her campaigns.
A career in politics was a relatively recent development for Meng. She initially set out to be a teacher or lawyer, studying history at the University of Michigan and returning to New York to study law at Yeshiva University. In New York, Meng spent time interning in various government agencies and began to envision herself working for one as an analyst without any thought of running for office.
“It was very exciting to be in the midst of all the policy-making,” she said. After law school, she helped her father campaign for the State Assembly, and a seed of opportunity was planted in Meng’s mind when her father decided not to run for assembly reelection in 2006. Being a shy person by nature, Meng felt nervous about the change of pace, but the chance to represent her community gave her the motivation to win against incumbent Democratic candidate Ellen Young in 2008.
Meng ended up winning 67.7 percent of the votes on Election Day, with voters enduring hours-long waits at the polls in Sandy’s aftermath.
Her chances of winning were good in an overwhelmingly Democratic district, as she won the Congressional primary in a landslide against the other Democratic candidates and was endorsed by everyone from Mayor Michael Bloomberg to former Congressman Gary Ackerman, who just retired from representing the district for 15 terms.
There were setbacks in the campaign, however, such as when her father, Jimmy, was arrested on bribery charges in July. Two weeks after the election, he pled guilty to the charges, not necessarily creating a political liability for his daughter as much as putting her operations under scrutiny. Meng has tried to separate herself from her father’s misdoings while remaining sympathetic. Her own finances received scrutiny when she failed to file personal financial disclosures four months after the deadline, citing an “administrative oversight.”
Meng’s goals in Congress are extensions of issues she found important as an assemblywoman. She would like to bring more resources to her district in the form of senior centers or after-school programs as well as improving mass transit and infrastructure.
At the heart of her political vision remain the needs of the community, which comprises many ethnic groups, not just Asian American. In her historic election to Congress, Meng still considers herself to be all-American, and seeks to be a role model for young women as well as ethnic minorities.
“I wish that when I was a kid, I could’ve seen more women in positions of influence,” she said. “Just to see someone who looks like you, it provides some kind of encouragement.”