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Can Yuh-Line Niou Unite Fractured Progressives to Win a New York Congressional Seat?

A down-on-his-luck New Yorker, anxious, a little street-worn, but in a fedora and a neat if very old suit, politely approached Yuh-Line Niou at Father Demo Square in Manhattan’s West Village last Sunday. I don’t think he knew she was Assemblywoman Niou, or congressional candidate Niou. He knew we were two ladies on a park bench talking, and she seemed nice (maybe I didn’t?). He asked her to buy him a slice of pizza at Joe’s across the street. She promised she would, as soon as she and I finished talking.

Niou kept her word. In the end, she bought me a slice of pizza—full disclosure, I missed lunch and had no cash—and him two. But when we came back to the park, the man was missing, and her staff needed her to move onto other events. She held them off. Finally, the man in the hat showed up. He took the two slices of pizza with gratitude. Her staffers scooped her up and she went on to her next appointments, which apparently involved some “call time”—dialing mostly for dollars, hours progressive candidates tend to hate—but then a karaoke bar in Brooklyn where she sang “9 to 5” by “legendary queen,” in her words, Dolly Parton.

The venue is not surprising: Niou has worked as a karaoke DJ, a bartender, an anti-poverty, anti-racism activist, chief of staff to the New York State Assembly’s first Asian American member, Ron Kim, and then, surprising even herself, a candidate on her own. She won her race for the state assembly from a liberal but complicated Chinatown, Lower East Side, and Brooklyn district in the dispiriting year of 2016, and won it twice more. Vogue named her “The New Face of Downtown Manhattan’s Political Scene.” The New York Times endorsed her twice.

But in a crowded race for the Democratic nomination for the open 10th Congressional District seat—the election is next Tuesday, August 23—the Times has been not been kind to Niou this year. The first slight was designating her merely “a lesser known candidate” in a headline about the news that the locally powerful Working Families Party endorsed her back in June. It merited a story, but the news value to the Times seemed to lie in the fact that she was “lesser known.” Niou got the paper to change the headline on its website, to drop “lesser known” and add her actual name.

Then came a joint Times profile, shared with New York City Council member Carmen Rivera, one of her closest ideological counterparts, which described the two progressive women of color as running surprisingly strong grassroots campaigns in a race of 12 candidates, including the self-funding Levi-Strauss heir, attorney Daniel Goldman, and well-funded Representative Mondaire Jones, a progressive Niou ally who moved into her home district to run against her after redistricting shifted the boundaries of his. It quoted only Rivera supporters, including an Asian American woman who specifically criticized Niou.

Finally, the Times endorsed Goldman, but the worst slight to Niou was that the paper’s endorsement didn’t even mention her, or Rivera, despite the news side’s describing them as competent, strong candidates with deep grassroots support, a little over a week before. “I’m used to being erased,” she said.

The Times endorsement may well help Goldman, along with his wealth, despite his lack of political experience. But it also had the effect of galvanizing progressives, in anger. Niou teamed up with Jones at a press conference on Monday where they denounced Goldman—one of the Democrats’ impeachment lawyers and an MSNBC legal analyst—as a “conservative” trying to buy his seat, and urged district voters to choose “Anyone But Goldman.”

On one level, though, progressives should be angry at themselves. They failed to rally around one candidate, so that five politicians—Niou, Rivera, Jones, legendary former congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman and Assemblywoman JoAnn Simon—can all plausibly hunt progressive votes. In this district, there are many. But split five or more ways? Goldman likely wins. In a poll released Monday, he garnered 22 percent support, with Niou at 17, and Jones and Rivera both at 13.

Niou has one powerful asset, though: that endorsement by the WFP. The party chose her even though it had endorsed Jones in his first congressional run. “Yes, we supported Mondaire in 2020. He’s been a tremendous member of Congress,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, the local party head. “But there are three candidates in the race that have represented these communities,” she added, referencing Niou, Rivera, and Simon. WFP is committed, she said, to elevating candidates “solidly based in the community.”

Here, to be fair, I should note that Jones made his decision to move to the 10th district only after Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, moved into his. Maloney had his choice of two newly drawn districts—Maloney’s was divided, with more Republican voters added—and chose to run in the safer Democratic district that mostly belonged to Jones. Such courage from the head of the DCCC! Jones could have kept his seat, and Niou, or potentially Rivera, or even Goldman, could have won the 10th. Two safe seats for the embattled Democratic House majority, or two safe seats for the state’s rising progressive majority. A victory for Democrats in either case.

But faced with having to defeat the party’s fundraising maestro, Jones decamped to Brooklyn to run in the already crowded 10th.

Before they teamed up against Goldman on Monday, in our Sunday conversation Niou lamented that Jones hadn’t stayed in place to challenge the centrist rainmaker Maloney. “I think he would have won. [Progressives] would have all galvanized behind him.”

But Jones didn’t, which leaves Niou’s left-wing supporters in a bind. Nnaemeka noted that the 10th district is one of the strongest in supporting WFP, as measured most recently by the party’s push to get people to vote for Joe Biden on its ballot line (as I did). The 10th “contains some of the strongest Working Families Party geographies in New York State,” Nnaemaka said. In dense neighborhoods in Brooklyn, she said, “upwards of 25 percent of 2020 general election voters voted for Biden/Harris on the WFP line.”

Still, despite endorsing Niou, Nnaemeka would only say, “We should align as progressives behind the strongest candidate, to defeat a self-funded, self-avowed moderate, in one of the most progressive districts in the country.” Meaning Goldman. But when I asked her whether that meant WFP might try to get other progressives to drop out and endorse Niou—the party has some sway, since it’s backed Jones, Rivera, and Simon in the past—she politely ducked the question.

Born in Taiwan, Niou mostly grew up in El Paso, Tex. She describes herself as a lifelong activist. At 12, she founded a group called “Kids Helping Kids” with some friends, to support children with cancer at a local hospital. Their fundraising strategy: collecting discarded cans and bottles and then turning them in for the recycling money. “We were all out in the hot El Paso sun, scavenging for cans, but we only wound up collecting $60,” she recalled with a laugh.

She graduated from Evergreen State College in Washington. At 22, she was diagnosed with autism. As a child, she says, “I definitely knew there was something different. I didn’t learn how to tie my shoes. Riding a bike, I’m still bad at it. If you look at my report cards, you could tell: Straight As in all the subjects, an F in [physical education], and literally all the comments from teachers are like ‘she doesn’t talk in class,’ ‘she doesn’t want to do group projects.’ I’m like: ‘Mom and Dad, did you not think that maybe…?’

“I think there was a lot of racism, too. People just assumed because I was Asian, I didn’t speak English,” she adds. “And girls are diagnosed later in life. Women and girls learn to mask very well.”

After college, she moved to Seattle. She describes one mentor, the late legendary civil rights activist “Uncle Bob” Santos, who with a multiracial team of allies taught her that oppressed communities shouldn’t fight one another over the same piece of pie, “we should fight for the whole pie.” After a stint working for Washington state legislators, she moved to New York to get a master’s degree in public administration at Baruch College, then went to work with Ron Kim.

In 2016, she ran for the seat vacated by the corrupt Democratic leader Sheldon Silver in a special election, and lost. Within months, she came back and won. Almost immediately she got attention for resisting then-Governor Andrew Cuomo, while he was at the top of his game. Niou voted against what she calls his “austerity budgets,” and made national news when she called him out for a $25,000-a-couple fundraiser where donors could also meet with budget director Rob Merica—during a highly contentious budget season. “It was a visual expression of corruption,” she recalls. Cuomo’s top adviser then called Niou, and the two other assemblywomen who stood up with her, “fucking idiots.”

She has had 15 bills passed, her staff says, including establishing a hotline for sexual assault victims, and allowing hard-of-sight New Yorkers to opt to receive large text bills (Cuomo vetoed it, unbelievably; Governor Kathy Hochul signed it). Allies marvel that she was still able to get Covid relief to her hard-hit district even after falling out with the governor—who was soon to fall out himself. Niou was an early state leader demanding that Cuomo resign after sexual harassment and assault allegations surfaced. And resign he did. The “fucking idiot” outlasted him.

The 10th Congressional District is 30 percent Asian. “It puts together the two Chinatowns,” Niou observes, the well-known hub in lower Manhattan plus Brooklyn’s Sunset Park (which also has a large Latino population). Roughly 20 percent of the district is Latino. It’s also about 16 percent Jewish, which could be a hurdle for Niou: She hasn’t denounced the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel, and she has come out against moves, by the Trump State Department, the Cuomo administration, and others, to punish or withhold public funding from institutions or individuals who support BDS. “I support the free speech rights of a nonviolent protest movement,” she tells me. “It’s important to make sure people are able to fight for human rights issues.” Some prominent Jewish advocacy groups insist that this means she “supports” BDS.

I point out to Niou that it’s possible to argue that the supporters of the BDS movement shouldn’t themselves face sanctions, while also questioning, even opposing, the movement itself—and that she hasn’t made that distinction herself.

“I haven’t,” she answered. “That’s a good distinction that you’re making. I think it’s a valid movement and needs to be heard.” I found her answer evasive, to be honest. It’s worth noting that Niou has said she would travel to Israel as a member of Congress. So she’s clearly not boycotting.

“Yuh-Line firmly believes in the right of Israel to exist and to defend itself, while supporting the consensus position that American taxpayer dollars should never be used to support violations of human rights,” her campaign told me in a statement. “While Yuh-Line has not personally participated in the BDS movement, she supports the free speech rights of BDS activists. At the same time, Yuh-Line does not agree with all of the BDS movement’s demands nor does she embrace all of its tactics.” That’s a mouthful, but it’s a little different from saying she “supports” BDS, as in backs all of its stances and actions.

But that hasn’t been enough to keep supporters from labeling her anti-Semitic. Which stings, she says.

“I grew up in the Jewish community, in the Jewish Community Center” of El Paso, Tex., she tells me. “I was bullied as a kid, as a kid with a disability, and one of the only Asian kids. The Jewish community was the most welcoming to me, to my family, my little brother. I went to Jewish pre-kindergarten. Every year I went to a Jewish summer camp.” As a teen, she went back as a counselor. “I’ve always seen the Jewish community as a safe haven.”

While she’s supported by the progressive local organization The Jewish Vote, the agitation over her BDS stance seems intended to make sure the Jewish community doesn’t see her as a safe haven. Or electable.

Short of other progressives dropping out and rallying around her, Niou says she’s counting on her army of roughly 1,000 volunteers, 600 of whom the campaign says are in the field every day, knocking doors and phone banking, to lift her to victory. Though she and Jones made common cause against Goldman at their Monday press conference, she also slightly tweaked the Mondaire-come-lately by saying that her estimated campaign volunteers “are my neighbors, are my friends, are my family here in Lower Manhattan and in Brooklyn,” won over by her six years representing the district. Which, by the way, is the only one, of all the other office holders, that completely, neatly fits inside the 10th CD.

Critics say Niou is too far to the left, and the progressive but center-moving Rivera might be a better choice for the left to rally around. But Rivera has made some moves to the center recently, and alienated progressives by taking a lot of real estate money. Still, she has the backing of SEIU 1099 and representatives Adriano Espaillat and Nydia Vasquez.

Niou is backed by not only the WFP but the Sunrise Movement, New York City public advocate Jumaane Williams, former gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, and many of her Assembly colleagues.

I should say here: I know and like Goldman, as a former MSNBC colleague. I think calling him “conservative” is a bit much. He’s a mainstream liberal, and he’d probably be a fine congressperson. But in a majority-minority district, with an economically struggling majority whatever their race, but which nonetheless brackets in the West Village and Goldman’s tony Tribeca neighborhood, I understand why 10th district progressives are outraged.

His admirers at the Times even acknowledged that “Mr. Goldman would need to use his first term to convince the large numbers of lower-income and middle-class Americans he would represent that he understands the issues facing those constituents.”

Seems like affirmative action for rich white guys to me. Goldman gets an extra two years to “convince the large numbers of lower-income and middle-class Americans” he understands them and can represent them?

The election is less than a week away, and the five top-polling candidates, including Goldman, Niou, Rivera, Jones, and Simon, face one another at a debate tonight. It will be interesting to see if progressives can get out of their own way, even at this late date, and unite behind one candidate. If they don’t, it’s not inevitable Goldman will win. But it’s likely.

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