Yuh-Line Niou is a new contender for Silver’s ex-seat

Yuh-Line Niou.
Yuh-Line Niou.

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  This article is part of an ongoing series on the special election for the vacant 65th Assembly District seat.

There’s a new candidate in town — well, at least, in Lower Manhattan’s 65th Assembly District, that is, where Sheldon Silver’s ouster from the Legislature has left a huge political void.

Yuh-Line Niou (pronounced “You-Lean Neo”), the chief of staff for Queens Assemblymember Ron Kim, has indicated her interest in succeeding the former longtime speaker in the Assembly.

Governor Cuomo has set April 19 as the date for a special election to fill the empty seat. The 196 members of the district’s Democratic County Committee will select the Democratic nominee, possibly in January or February.

While Niou, who is in her mid-30s, lives in the district — in the Financial District, to be exact — she is not well known in it, unlike two local Democratic district leaders, Jenifer Rajkumar and Paul Newell, who are also interested in Silver’s former seat.

However, unlike the two district leaders, Niou is the only one who actually has experience working in Albany in state government. She has been the chief of staff for Kim, who represents Flushing, for all of his three years in office. So, she assures, she would be more than ready to “hit the ground running,” if elected.

She said her boss, Kim, who is of Korean descent, pushed her to seek the Manhattan seat. Also, Chinatown’s United Democratic Organization courted her.

“I think the Chinatown community, they want someone who has proven themselves,” Niou said.

A native of Taiwan, Niou speaks fluent Mandarin, obviously a plus in a district that is at least one-third Asian-American and contains all of Chinatown.

(Niou said she recently saw a fact sheet that stated the district’s population is 42 percent Asian. According to Jerry Skurnik of Prime New York, 34 percent of registered voters in the 65th A.D. can be identified as Asian, 20 percent as Hispanic and 3 percent as black, with the remaining 43 percent presumably white; while Asians and Hispanics are apparently 31 percent and 23 percent of the district’s registered Democrats, respectively. Skurnik’s group determines the numbers by checking people’s first and last names on voter lists and census figures. However, he said, it’s not a fail-safe system, noting, “Spike Lee would be listed as Korean and Whoopi Goldberg as Jewish.”)

She immigrated with her family to the U.S. at six months old, and grew up “all over” — including Idaho; El Paso, Texas; and Seattle — due to the job of her father, who designed computer chips. Her mother was a nurse.

Niou attended Evergreen State College in Washington, after which she worked for three years as a legislative assistant for state lawmakers in Washington State.

She also spent nearly two years as a lobbyist for the Statewide Poverty Action Network, also in Washington State, fighting predatory lending targeting low-income people.

She came to New York City six years ago to get her master’s in public administration at Baruch, and stayed, loving the city’s diversity.

After living in East Harlem, she moved into the 65th A.D. two years ago because her fiance lived there — not because she was at that time contemplating a run for Silver’s seat.

In a phone interview last Friday and a follow-up meeting Monday at a South St. eatery, Niou introduced herself to The Villager.

She apologetically described herself as a wonk — “I’m a policy wonk, sorry!” — yet she has a bubbly, upbeat personality, and laughs easily and heartily.

“I have worked behind the scenes a lot,” she said. “I work mostly on the ground, working at the grassroots.”

One thing that she has learned all too well in Albany is about the funding inequity that exists between newcomers and veteran legislators.

“I write all of the legislation for Ron,” she explained. “We’re a small office. Some assemblymembers have policy writers.”

Whereas Kim only got a budget of $85,000 in his first term to cover two staffers, Niou noted that Assemblymember Richard Gottfried — who has been in office for more than 40 years and chairs the Health Committee — is allocated $1 million for his staff of 16, plus his own salary.

“This is something that I actually was surprised about,” Niou said. “New York State assemblymembers get money based on longevity.

“I don’t resent Gottfried,” she stressed. “I resent the disparity of the system.”

It’s a system that was set up by former Speaker Silver, according to her.

“I will tell you this,” Niou added. “I know how to run a very, very efficient freshman Assembly office. Every day, we serve 30 to 60 walk-in constituent cases. I don’t think there is anybody in the Assembly who serves 30 to 60 walk-ins in a week.

It’s been a lot of work, but that’s what elected office is about, in her view.

“I think that’s what it’s like to be a public servant,” she said. “You have to be able to serve your community, and get down on your knees and scrub.”

She’ll bring that energy to Lower Manhattan, if elected, she said.

“I’m a great coalition builder,” she said. “I can make sure people can come together. We have a lot of different income levels here, a lot of different ethnicities here — it’s New York at its most brilliant.”

She said it’s actually a plus that she’s a fresh political face in the district, because it means she’s not beholden to anyone.

“I don’t have alliances with any clubs,” she said.

“I’m all about transparency” she added. “Being in government isn’t about being a big whatever. I think it’s about being a servant. You’re not making a ton of money. You’re there to represent people.”

It took sometime for Niou just to learn basics, like who to contact to draft a bill or to get office equipment, she noted. If elected, she wouldn’t have to waste any time getting up to speed.

That said, she noted, “In a lot of ways, Paul and Jenifer have a head start on me. They have fundraising bases they can tap into.”

Yet, she added, “I’ve always been a very good fundraiser.”

In fact, she said, a year and a half ago she threw a fundraiser for Attorney General Eric Schneiderman at her home — and Rajkumar attended.

Niou is upfront that increasing Asian-American representation in Albany is important to her.

“There’s only one Asian-American in the entire state Legislature — and that’s Ron Kim, and I work for him,” she said. “I feel that it’s time for one more Asian official — so that Ron’s not a caucus of one!”

On a personal level, volunteering has always been important to her, she said. As a young girl, she accompanied her mom in the hospital, giving out candy to sick kids. She bonded with one 12-year-old girl who had leukemia, and Niou cut her own hair so the other girl could have a wig. She continues to lop off her locks every year to give to Wigs for Kids.

“That’s why my hair always looks so short or so long,” she said.

Asked what happened to the little girl, Niou said she died, at which point she was overcome by emotion and briefly couldn’t speak.

“Sorry about that — it’s so unprofessional,” she apologized, composing herself.

Asked her thoughts on overdevelopment in the 65th A.D., she said she, like others who moved into the Financial District, for one, would like to see its residential community grow. However, on the other hand, she noted, “It’s called ‘overdevelopment’ for a reason.”’

“I think growth is good and I’m not necessarily against development,” she said. “But projects should have input from the people who live, work and play in those areas. They need to match the neighborhoods around them.”

As for Asian-American representation at the City Council level, there is Margaret Chin, who represents Lower Manhattan, and Peter Koo, of Flushing, Queens.

“Margaret’s great,” Niou said, though adding, “There are some issues we don’t see eye to eye on.”

For example, asked where she stands on the Elizabeth St. Garden issue, Niou said she would back saving it, as opposed to building affordable senior housing there, as supported by Chin.

“I’ve talked to a lot of Chinatown folks about it,” she said. “Housing is a huge issue in Chinatown. There’s a large aging population and a lot of displacement. But I think that the people that live and play there are important,” she said of the beloved Little Italy garden. “I think that we have to listen to the community on that one.

“Community spaces are not created — they’re formed,” she explained, likening how neighbors adopted the Elizabeth St. Garden to how seniors in Kim’s district turned a McDonald’s on Northern Boulevard into a “senior hub,” much to the fast-food spot’s chagrin.

“It somehow naturally became a community hub,” she said. “Those places grow organically. You have to think about what they’d be taking away. We had to negotiate a deal for when the seniors could sit there at off-peak hours, and send a bus to take them to senior centers during peak hours.”

Kim’s office subsequently penned a bill to give restaurants a subsidy for seniors hanging out in them and turning them into “senior hubs.”

On two issues closely watched by the city’s Asian community — Governor Cuomo’s crackdown on wage theft at nail salons and Police Officer Peter Liang’s case in his allegedly accidental fatal shooting of Akai Gurley — Niou indicated that what Asians want, above all, is fairness.

Regarding Liang, some Asians are afraid he will be scapegoated after Officer Daniel Pantaleo walked free in Eric Garner’s death.

Meanwhile, the nail salons and some lawmakers, including Assemblymember Kim, have pushed back against the governor’s legislation requiring the salons to get a wage bond to be used if they fail to pay their workers. Niou noted that the nail salon industry is about 85 percent Asian, which makes it feel like they are being unfairly singled out.

“I agree that wage theft is never O.K.,” she told The Villager. “In every industry there are some bad apples. But the solution to that has to actually help to weed out those bad apples. Many of these owners are also workers in their own stores. The solution of a wage bond that the governor proposed and is enforcing only on the nail salon industry, in my opinion, does not fit the community/industry he is trying to regulate. The industry is largely small business owners that are new immigrants or are minorities. The wage bond product premiums are determined by the owners’ personal credit history. What is the one thing that immigrants really lack? You probably guessed it…credit history. Mandating this product would basically be redlining an entire community out of the industry.”

Niou noted that Kim backed the governor’s bill, but included “buffer language” to ensure the bond or liability insurance requirement applied to the entire appearance-enhancement industry, which also includes hair, skin, eyebrows and so forth.

“The legislation that was passed by the Legislature, Ron stands by it, but it is not what is being enforced,” Niou said. “What is being enforced right now is the governor’s emergency regulations.”

Gigi Li, chairperson of Community Board 3, might have been expected to run for the Assembly. But, before Silver was even convicted, Li’s plan to challenge Rajkumar for district leader flamed out amid accusations of petition fraud.

“I do feel bad that she’s not viable,” Niou said of Li, another young Asian-American leader.

Asked if she would also have run for the open seat if Li was in the race, Niou responded, “Yes,” but then stressed, “I want to make sure there’s an Asian candidate.”

She said that Li “maybe needs a little distance” between the district leader race meltdown and mounting another run for office, in her view.

“She actually has done some good work and she would be a good person to run at maybe the local level,” Niou offered.

Niou and her fiance, who is of Mexican descent, from El Paso and works in tech, have known each other since they were 10.

She used to bartend part-time at the since-closed Winnie’s bar in Chinatown after work.

“It was like a little community, a little hub,” she recalled, “and I loved Winnie. It was like hanging out with your friends, but getting paid for it. It was like ‘Cheers’ — but the Asian version.”

Virginia Kee, the president emeritus of the United Democratic Organization, said her club is very bullish on Niou.

“We’re excited that she has declared,” Kee, 83, said, “because the Asian-American community is hungry to have representation. We want to be proud of the person we send to Albany.

“She is very warm, very personable,” Kee said of Niou. “She will hit the ground running. She knows Albany. We heard through the grapevine that she was interested, so we reached out to her.

“We would like her to present herself to D.I.D. — they’re an independent club — and speak before the County Committee of the Harry S. Truman Club,” Kee added.

In terms of identity politics, Kee noted that the district does not have a big South Asian population, which would help Rajkumar.

On Newell, she said, “He sounds like he has some progressive ideas, but we wouldn’t say that we know the person.”

Regarding Niou’s basically being unknown in the district, Kee — recalling another young politician — said that can be a positive.

“Remember when John F. Kennedy came on,” she said. “There was so much enthusiasm.”

Meanwhile, Jeanne Wilcke, president of Downtown Independent Democrats, said although Niou sounds good, there is concern about her lack of local experience.

“It sounds like she has a good pedigree,” she said. “But what’s her involvement in the neighborhood? We want a candidate who will represent what the community wants.”

Wilcke said she feels that, of the district’s four political clubs, State Committeeman John Quinn’s Lower East Side Democratic Club will ultimately decide who the County Committee will select to run in the special election. Yet, she noted, there will also be the September primary when other Democrats will be able to run.

Sean Sweeney, a longtime former president of D.I.D., said while the district admittedly has a big Asian population, that’s not the end-all.

“I read that somewhere,” he said of the 42 percent figure. “But that doesn’t mean that 42 percent of the Chinese population will be voting. Many are noncitizens.”

Sweeney groused that Kee’s backing of Niou sounds like a “case of one or two women picking the candidate.”