Mon, May 29, 2017 - Page 8 News List

Taiwanese-American shakes up New York City’s political machine

Yuh-Line Niou fights for diverse lower Manhattan District in State Assembly

By Chris Fuchs  /  Contributing reporter, new york

Assemblywoman Niou is among the participants at an immigration rally in this undated photo.

When Sheldon Silver took office in 1977 as a state assemblyman in Lower Manhattan, Taiwan native Yuh-Line Niou (牛毓琳) wasn’t even born.

Nearly four decades later, Silver’s arrest and subsequent conviction in late November 2015 on federal corruption charges left open a vacant Assembly seat and an opportunity for the 33-year-old Niou.

A former staffer for New York’s only Asian-American state lawmaker at that time, Niou hoped to join her boss, assemblyman Ron Kim, in the legislative chambers of the state capitol in Albany.

In November, voters gave her that chance.

During her first 100 days in office, Niou has rallied to keep the “Fearless Girl” statue in the Financial District, fought for funding to protect immigrants and refugees and sponsored legislation to increase transparency around nursing home closures, according to her office.

And she’s done this as the first Asian-American to serve as an Assembly member outside the New York City borough of Queens, where one in four residents is Asian.

“I was shocked that there was so little Asian-American representation on the state level. Period,” Niou said in a phone interview this month.

Born in Taipei, Niou said she was six months old when she emigrated to the US with her parents. For much of her childhood, Niou and her family bounced around different parts of the country, the result of her parents’ educational pursuits, Niou said. Her dad is a material science engineer, her mom a registered nurse and former hospital administrator.

While Niou was too young to remember Taiwan before moving to the US, she said she recalls returning to the nation for summers when she was in third and fourth grade to attend school in Taoyuan, where her parents were from.

“I would kill everyone at PE (physical education), but I was really behind in math and science,” Niou said, laughing.

Her interest in politics, she said, came out of an early passion for social justice causes. As a fifth or sixth grader in El Paso Texas, Niou volunteered at the hospital where her mom worked, she said. She also wanted to save the earth, thanks to her dad’s interest in the environment.

LIFE LESSONS

But it was during her second year at The Evergreen State College in Washington that Niou learned an important lesson in government, after participating in a state legislative internship program, she said.

“That was when I realized that the big secret is that government’s touchable, that all we have to do is know how to do it,” Niou said.

But, she added, “There’s a lot of people who don’t want you to know how accessible it is.”

Niou eventually made her way to New York City in her mid-20s, she said, studying as a graduate student in the National Urban Fellows program at Baruch College in Manhattan.

In 2012, that same program helped connect her to Kim, a Korean-American who had also attended and who was mulling a run for office. Kim won election to the Assembly that November, representing part of the New York City borough of Queens. Niou became his chief of staff.

Kim, a Democrat, was among those who encouraged Niou to run for the Manhattan Assembly seat left vacant by 73-year-old Silver, a powerful lawmaker who had served as Assembly speaker for nearly two decades.

Silver, who was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison, remains free on bail as he appeals his conviction on charges stemming from a US$5 million corruption scandal.

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