New York Asian-American Congress candidate seeks to make history

NEW YORK Sat Jun 23, 2012 3:39pm EDT

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - All politics is local, but in Queens, New York City's most ethnically diverse borough, local politics can also be international.

In a newly drawn congressional district here that is now 40 percent Asian, state Assemblywoman Grace Meng is running to be the first Asian-American member of New York's congressional delegation. Her main rival in the Democratic primary, Assemblyman Rory Lancman, has made support for Israel a central issue.

U.S. Representative Gary Ackerman's sudden announcement in March that he would not seek re-election after 15 terms in Congress threw the race for New York's 6th district wide open. The winner of the June 26 primary election will face Republican Dan Holloran in this heavily Democratic district in November.

The candidates agree on most issues, and stress the differences in their leadership styles: Meng, who is soft-spoken, calls herself a "voice for the voiceless." Lancman likens his forceful liberal style to that of former Congressman Anthony Weiner, who resigned in a sex scandal last year.

The race also includes City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who touts her Irish Catholic and middle-class roots, and Robert Mittman, a local physician who has never held elected office.

In an added twist, Meng won the endorsement of Joe Crowley, the Queens party leader who is Elizabeth Crowley's cousin.

"TAG-TEAM" CAMPAIGNING

Meng, who was born in Queens to Chinese parents and speaks Mandarin, has been campaigning with her husband, Wayne Kye, who speaks Korean. Kye calls it a "tag team" effort.

At Flushing senior center where most people spoke Korean, Kye, speaking in Korean, introduced Meng as his high school sweetheart and implored the crowd to vote.

"It is important for everyone to vote to show our strength," Kye said, according to a translation he offered after the event.

In Flushing's "Chinatown," the outreach appears to be working: "Grace for Congress" posters appeared on windows of dozens of restaurants. And, at a recent candidate's forum, several of Meng's Asian-American volunteers said they were energized to be working for a candidate who "looks like me."

Asians, including those of mixed race, make up nearly 13 percent of New York city's population, according to the U.S. Census.

A report issued this week by the Pew Research Center found that new Asian immigration to the U.S. surpassed new Hispanic immigration in 2010.

In Flushing, the Asian population increased by nearly 40 percent over the last decade, growing from about half the area's population in 2000 to 69 percent in 2010, according to an analysis by the Center for Urban Research.

The increasing numbers have begun to translate into political power. In 2001, John Liu became the first Asian-American elected to the New York City Council. In 2009, Liu was elected city comptroller, becoming the first Asian to hold a city-wide office. His political ascent - including a possible mayoral bid - has stalled since the arrest of two of his campaign aides, though Liu has not been accused of wrong-doing.

"We really have come of age and matured as a community," said Christopher Kui, the head of Asian Americans for Equality.

As political analyst Douglas Muzzio puts it: "It might take awhile, but demographics is destiny in New York City politics."

Meng said she is proud of the support, but expresses an uneasiness about being defined solely as Asian-American. She says the issues she talks about, like job creation and improving infrastructure and transportation, transcend ethnicity.

"It's a huge part of my candidacy, my background, but it's one part out of many," she said. "We've all said that none of the candidates can win based on our voter base alone. We have to reach out to other communities ... that's the only way to win."

While Meng has won much of the establishment endorsements, Lancman says his campaign has the superior ground operation, and touts his backing from the Working Families Party and unions. And Lancman has strong support in heavily Jewish areas.

(Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Jackie Frank)

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