The critical trend you probably missed on election night: Asian American women leadership

AP Photo/Josh Reynolds
Boston Mayor-elect Michelle Wu addresses supporters at her election night party, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, in Boston. Wu defeated fellow city councilor Annissa Essaibi George to become the first woman of color elected as mayor of Boston. 

After state and local polls closed on Nov. 2, the headlines focused on Democrats’ vulnerabilities in Virginia and whether Trump still had a hold on the Republican Party. But this was not the only election night story last week. The story you probably missed was that Asian American women won the day, not only with Michelle Wu’s triumph in Boston, but in New York, too.

That night, my friend Linda Manus and I finished our shift for Julie Won’s New York City Council campaign outside my polling site in Queens and headed to an energetic bar bustling with volunteers of all backgrounds. My heart was full as we celebrated not only Julie’s victory, but that it was built on the inclusion of so many New Yorkers who do not usually engage in politics —  immigrants, DREAMers, and first-time voters. 

That night, Michelle Wu also won a historic election as the first woman, first Asian American, and first person of color to be Boston mayor. But Wu was not the only Asian American female victor.

In New York City, we have five new Asian American City Council members. Four are women: Julie Won, Sandra Ung, Linda Lee, and Shahana Hanif. With two Asian American City Council members terming out this year, the incoming council members will more than double the current count. And with 1.3 million Asian American New Yorkers making up 15 percent of the city’s population, the city council’s 51 seats will be more representative of our Asian American population. Azrin Awal became the first Asian American and Muslim American City Council member of Duluth, Minn. In Atlanta, Liliana Bakhtiari, the first openly LGTBQ Muslim Iranian American city council candidate nearly won the Atlanta city council race and is headed into a runoff on Nov. 30.

How do Asian American women win elections, and what do their platforms look like? More young Asian American women are running on inclusive and, oftentimes, progressive platforms, and are winning local elections. They emphasize issues that are resonating with an increasing multiracial voter base, such as paid parental leave, climate change, in-language resources, immigrant rights, and housing issues. 

The run to victory for many of these Asian American women candidates was not easy in the face of anti-Asian racism. Plagued by the forever-foreigner stereotype, they must also strive to be seen as more than Asian American faces. All three East Asian American New York City Council candidates were confused for one another throughout the primaries and general election. At one of the candidate’s campaign events, a man demanded that she stop calling Asian Americans people of color because they are not. 

Behind the scenes in local and statewide races is the secret sauce for political influence: the Asian American women running these political campaigns. Michelle Wu’s campaign manager Mary Lou Akai-Ferguson was formerly the AAPI Director for Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) presidential campaign. A veteran Democratic campaign manager in the Midwest, Irene Lin is managing a U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin for Tom Nelson. Campaign strategists Pallavi Purkayashta and Cam Ashling in Georgia recently helped turn Georgia blue. Linh Nguyen is an experienced campaign manager from Texas and executive director of RUN AAPI, which works to change the political and cultural narrative of what it means to be AAPI. Asian American women like them and before them have been strategizing, building coalitions, and mobilizing our communities in houses of worship, using in-language campaign materials for new immigrants, and registering new voters for years. And it’s starting to pay off. 

However, these women are part of only a handful of Asian Americans running the show on campaigns. Organizations like the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, Asian American Women’s Political Initiative, Conference on Asian Pacific American Leadership, ASPIRE PAC, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus are keeping us in the game. They are actively creating networks and support systems to build our political leadership pipeline, even when we are ignored by mainstream political actors and party leadership.

Looking ahead to next year’s midterm elections, in important swing states, we have another opportunity. Incredible Asian American women leaders are running. Georgia state Assembly Member Bee Nguyen is running for secretary of state — in a critical role that oversees the elections. Liz Lee, a Hmong American woman and former United States congressional staffer, is running for a state House seat in Eastside, Minn. Pennsylvania state Assembly Member Patty Kim is exploring a lieutenant governor run

Asian American women leaders are rising in politics — we have the skills, savviness, and energy to win statewide and national elections. Don’t miss the next chapter of our story. 

Grace Choi leads the New York Chapter of the Coalition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Churches and previously led efforts on racial equity and inclusion in COVID-19 response, mental health, and gender equity as the director of policy in the New York City Mayor’s Office. Since 2006, she has worked on presidential, gubernatorial, and city council campaigns, in New York, Boston, Virginia, and Georgia, including serving as director of AAPI outreach for Stacey Abrams for Governor.

Tags AAPI Asian American activism Conference on Asian Pacific American Leadership Elizabeth Warren

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