‘She’s one of many courageous ones.’ Yuh-Line Niou’s outspoken management model


After a day of conferences, Meeting Member Yuh-Line Niou arrived for an interview at Manousheh, a Lebanese restaurant on Manhattan’s Decrease East Facet on a heat June afternoon, flanked by just a few staffers. On the time, among the largest points have been with small-business homeowners seeking to her workplace for steering on altering rules. “We do much more working round extra usually than after we’re in session, my crew by no means stops,” Niou mentioned. Earlier than getting began, she mentioned she wished to purchase her employees some ice cream, to which one sheepishly replied, “You don’t should.” She did anyway. 

As she walked by way of the doorways into the restaurant, she noticed two older ladies sitting at a desk – constituents she knew – and went over, giving one a hug and placing up a dialog in regards to the latest main election, ranked-choice voting and one of many ladies’s latest arm harm. Because the dialog wrapped up, she supplied, “Would you like one thing candy?” She purchased them a pistachio ice cream to separate. 

Joyce Ravitz, the lady with the damaged arm, will likely be 78 in August and has lived within the neighborhood for 30 years. “I believe my Meeting member is nice,” Ravitz mentioned emphatically when Niou went to the counter, mentioning Niou’s assist for canceling lease in the course of the pandemic. 

It’s not an opinion shared by everybody in her district, however the interplay was emblematic of Niou’s character – most of the practically two dozen individuals interviewed for this piece who know or have labored together with her describe her as exceedingly candid, passionate and personable in a approach that pulls others to her and makes her simple to befriend. “Each her energy and her weak point is that she leads together with her coronary heart,” state Sen. Gustavo Rivera mentioned.

In some ways, Niou has constructed a status off of that high quality. Ever-present on social media and outspoken in the course of the legislative session, the comparatively new lawmaker has managed to seize consideration and rise in prominence as a number one progressive voice in a Legislature that has been leaning more and more to the left since Democrats received management of the state Senate in 2018. And there are a lot of who imagine that she’s solely simply hitting her stride. 

Elected in 2016 to characterize District 65 in decrease Manhattan, Niou barely predates the latest wave of latest state senators in 2018 and democratic socialist Meeting members elected in 2020. Her election to switch the convicted and expelled former Meeting Speaker Sheldon Silver was contentious, with Niou working as an anti-establishment candidate. After initially dropping a particular election to then-District Chief Alice Cancel, Niou finally received the first towards the incumbent later that 12 months. “Based mostly on her rebel candidacy, I anticipated even earlier than I had met her that she can be very outspoken and unbiased and really progressive,” mentioned longtime Meeting Member Richard Gottfried. “And he or she has definitely met these expectations.”

Niou hadn’t initially deliberate to carry elected workplace. “I believed I wished to be a lawyer,” Niou, 38, mentioned about her considering throughout faculty. “I believed I wished to talk up for people who couldn’t communicate up for themselves.” That want got here from seeing “little injustices” that her mother and father, immigrants from Taiwan, confronted, together with language limitations that put them at drawback in comparison with native or extra fluent English audio system. From a younger age, rising up primarily in El Paso, Texas, after immigrating to america as a child, she usually needed to act as their translator. 

Issues modified when she interned with the Washington state Legislature, the place she would later work for a number of years, throughout her senior 12 months at Evergreen State School. “After I was youthful, I simply thought that guidelines and these items occur to us,” Niou mentioned. “As soon as I noticed how the Legislature works, I used to be like, ‘Wow, there is no massive secret to accessing authorities,’” Niou mentioned. 

On the time, the Washington state Legislature had extra ladies than males serving on it, and the state had its first Asian American governor. “I did not even notice that I had these limitations in my very own mind on what it regarded like for … ladies to be in (an) elected place or for an Asian American to be in (an) elected place,” Niou mentioned. 

After just a few years, Niou got here to New York after getting accepted as a Nationwide City Fellow, a 14-month graduate program, to get her grasp’s in public administration at Baruch School. Meeting Member Ron Kim of Queens, then a lobbyist at The Parkside Group, had gone by way of the fellowship just a few years earlier than her. She volunteered for his marketing campaign in 2012, and he employed Niou as his first chief of employees when he took workplace in 2013. Kim described their working relationship as a co-equal partnership. “We have been each figuring it out collectively,” mentioned Kim, who’s the primary state elected official of Korean descent and on the time was New York’s solely Asian American state legislator. 

Kim and then-state Sen. Daniel Squadron, a fellow Democrat from Brooklyn, have been the primary individuals to strategy Niou about working for Silver’s seat after he was convicted on federal corruption prices in 2015. “I knew that she had the boldness, I knew that she may win,” Kim mentioned. “However I knew she was just a little hesitant.” 

Niou described her preliminary response as maybe just a little stronger than hesitant. “I used to be like, ‘No thanks,’” Niou recalled with fun. She mentioned she loved coverage work and analysis behind the scenes, however had by no means thought she can be entrance and heart. “I’m in all probability one of many individuals most petrified of public talking ever,” Niou mentioned. 

Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou
Mengwen Cao

However to those that take heed to her communicate, that concern doesn’t come throughout. State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi recalled listening to Niou communicate at a marketing campaign coaching occasion she attended in late 2016. “I bear in mind considering to myself … I’m by no means going to have the ability to do that, like what she’s exuding,” Biaggi mentioned. They wouldn’t meet once more till 2018 when Niou got here to the Bronx to assist Biaggi canvas in her race to unseat then-state Sen. Jeff Klein, the previous head of the Impartial Democratic Convention, which shared energy with Republicans. By the tip of the day, Niou was planning for the pair to be roommates in Albany if Biaggi received. 

And regardless of Niou’s self-assessment of her personal public talking abilities, it’s her willingness and talent to talk brazenly and candidly that has raised her profile and garnered her consideration. “Yuh-Line’s talking is usually not solely adamant, however with a robust emotional factor, usually coming from private expertise, and that may be very compelling,” Gottfried mentioned. Niou’s impassioned ground speech about why she was voting “no” on a part of the 2020 finances extensively circulated on social media, and struck a chord with progressives across the state. For 12 minutes, Niou critiqued the cuts to Medicaid and training at a time she believed the state ought to have been investing extra. Generally showing to be on the verge of tears, Niou mentioned the pandemic laid naked structural inequities and shortcomings within the state’s establishments. “I discovered Yuh-Line’s finances speech on Twitter after I received the first,” mentioned first-term Meeting Member Anna Kelles from the Southern Tier. “I used to be blown away and thought, ‘Wow, this lady is a rock star.’” 

Niou is extra accessible and relatable to her followers than most rock stars, although. She befriends individuals on-line and mentors younger zoomers getting their begin in politics, who affectionately name her mother. She nerds out on popular culture and comedian books (her district workplace is conveniently situated above Midtown Comics on Fulton Road) and is at all times up for karaoke, in accordance with buddies. “Legislators like her, that drive extra individuals to concentrate to the democratic course of, are good,” mentioned Cea Weaver, marketing campaign coordinator of Housing Justice for All. “It is good that she’s cool, that she places stuff on Twitter, that she has a following.” 

A confluence of forces helped Niou, who had moved to the district in 2014, win Manhattan’s southernmost seat in 2016, together with key assist from the Democratic membership United Democratic Group, the endorsement of New York Metropolis Comptroller Scott Stringer and the backing of the Working Households Occasion. Regardless of a hard-fought particular election run on the WFP line after withdrawing from consideration for the Manhattan Democratic Occasion’s endorsement, Niou lost to Cancel, who on the time was framed because the establishment pick and Silver’s chosen successor. However Niou and her supporters reorganized for the autumn main, which she overwhelmingly won.

Since then, Niou has been an ally of the progressive WFP. “I couldn’t discover any fault together with her,” former WFP state Director Invoice Lipton mentioned. “She’s one of many courageous ones.” He recalled particularly a now-infamous 2019 incident when Niou, together with Biaggi and state Sen. Jessica Ramos, criticized Gov. Andrew Cuomo for holding high-dollar fundraisers throughout finances season. It led to certainly one of Cuomo’s prime aides, Wealthy Azzopardi, calling the trio of lawmakers “fucking idiots.” 

Extra not too long ago, Niou has been a frequent Cuomo critic for the governor’s dealing with of the COVID-19 pandemic and allegations of sexual harassment and bullying. “I believe that it is actually essential to talk up and to combat for issues that you simply care about and need to change, it does not matter who it’s,” Niou mentioned. 

After 5 classes in Albany, Niou has solely had three payments she has sponsored change into legislation. Allies attribute this to her junior standing within the bigger chamber. “If she was within the Senate, it might be a distinct scenario,” Rivera mentioned. “She’d be a chair of a committee, she’d be main hearings each different day.” He mentioned the Meeting is a tough place for newer members, or those that are extra unbiased of management, to get payments handed. “She is an incredible legislator, she simply hasn’t been capable of go a lot laws as a result of she’s not an excellent knee-bender,” Rivera mentioned. 

As a substitute, Niou has positioned herself as a rhetorical chief on many progressive causes, together with combating sexual harassment and assault and advocating for the Little one Victims Act, which created a window for childhood victims of sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits. A survivor of childhood abuse herself, Niou was certainly one of a handful of lawmakers who spoke about their private expertise. 

Niou has additionally labored with advocates of stronger tenant protections. “She was strategizing with us to strengthen tenant protections, at the same time as a brand new lawmaker,” mentioned Weaver, the housing activist. Weaver mentioned she and Niou began working intently on the package deal of payments that may ultimately change into the Housing Stability and Tenant Safety Act of 2019. “One of many issues that makes Yuh-Line a very efficient legislator is that she’s such an excellent communicator in regards to the stakes and what’s being debated,” Weaver mentioned. “It’s a technique that enables her … to seize the general public’s creativeness and creates a situation for sturdy payments to go.” 

Final 12 months, Niou sponsored laws to cancel lease and a invoice within the Spend money on Our New York Act package deal of proposals to impose new taxes on the rich. Neither invoice handed. 

“Should you imagine in one thing that does not get handed, it does not imply you are not efficient,” mentioned Meeting Member Harvey Epstein, who represents the district simply north of Niou’s on Manhattan’s east facet. “Clearly passing laws is essential, however standing up for laws is essential as properly.” 

Though her district is plurality Asian American, Niou is the primary Asian American to represent Chinatown on the state degree and solely the third Asian American elected to the state Legislature. “Whereas Yuh-Line represents Decrease Manhattan, her constituent companies really handle points all through the complete metropolis,” mentioned Wayne Ho, president of the Chinese language-American Planning Council. Niou mentioned that typically her workplace will get calls from different components of the state, and even out of state too. “If you end up a primary, or are an solely, it makes it so that there’s type of an undue quantity of stress on that finish,” Niou mentioned. 

Niou was recognized with autism spectrum dysfunction when she was 22, one thing she has spoken publicly about. “It’s a lens to assume issues by way of,” mentioned Niou, who has fought to convey incapacity and accessibility points to the forefront, like combating so as to add signal language interpretations to Meeting hearings. “That’s why we now have to verify we elect people who see by way of a lens that impacts so many individuals.”

Niou has a service canine and has encountered accessibility points attempting to get locations together with her canine, even on the state Capitol. “So few individuals really make (accessibility) a precedence, when each single certainly one of us, if we’re fortunate sufficient to be able-bodied … are all briefly so,” Niou mentioned.

Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou
Mengwen Cao

Her presence within the Legislature has additionally had tangible impacts legislatively. Ho recalled that in Niou’s first 12 months in workplace, the phrases “Asian American” appeared within the state finances for the primary time as a line merchandise for his nonprofit that Niou fought to get in there. “Which simply exhibits how lengthy it took for the Asian American group to have some legislative and finances illustration,” Ho mentioned. One in all Niou’s legislative priorities has additionally been a invoice to desegregate demographic information to individually gather info on Asian Individuals, native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders to raised serve these communities. Initially launched by then-Meeting Member Grace Meng, it handed to Kim and ultimately to Niou when she took workplace. The invoice handed each homes for the primary time in 2019, though Cuomo vetoed it. It handed each chambers once more this 12 months and awaits motion from the governor. “(Niou) was actually dedicated to creating authorities work for individuals who, for essentially the most half, individuals are likely to neglect,” mentioned Vanessa Leung, co-executive director of the Coalition for Asian American Kids and Households.

Extra not too long ago, Niou, a co-chair of the Meeting Asian Pacific American Job Pressure, fought to incorporate $10 million in the state budget this 12 months to combat anti-Asian bigotry and hate crimes that plagued the group within the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. “She’s held the road in our budgets, delivering for the primary time thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of {dollars} for Asian immigrant communities that we by no means have been capable of safe in our state budgets,” Kim mentioned.

Again in her district, there are diverging opinions about Niou’s success as an Meeting member, with roots going again to her unique election. In 2016, when she received, Niou had solely been residing within the district for a few years, and he or she was working towards individuals who had been in the neighborhood for many years, resembling Cancel and District Chief Paul Newell. She fended off accusations that she moved to the district simply to run and that she was a plant of the Queens Democratic Occasion by way of Kim (each of which she denied then and now). “This can be a district that may be a district of immigrants, this can be a district that’s identified for its variety,” Niou mentioned. “And to inform any individual that they don’t belong here’s a remark I get usually.”

Niou’s ties to the district grew to become a difficulty once more in 2020, when she confronted a problem from Grace Lee, who mentioned that Niou “parachuted” in to run. Though the 2 candidates have been pretty related ideologically on massive gadgets like housing and taxing the wealthy, Lee mentioned that Niou hadn’t been current sufficient within the district and didn’t pay sufficient consideration to native points. Niou finally received with the assist of practically each district chief – Niou’s district has eight – however Lee did decide up the backing of a number of New York Metropolis Housing Authority tenant affiliation leaders and the district’s largest Democratic membership, Downtown Impartial Democrats. 

Aixa Torres, president of the Alfred E. Smith Homes tenant affiliation, is among the public housing leaders who backed Lee in 2020. Torres was candid about her “stormy” relationship with Niou, going again to when she was first elected. Torres mentioned she didn’t really feel Niou gave sufficient consideration to public housing, though she mentioned that not too long ago Niou has supported tenants of their opposition to the NYCHA Blueprint for Change, which they concern would lead to the privatization of public housing. However whereas Torres mentioned Niou will likely be responsive if contacted, Torres mentioned Niou hasn’t taken the time to proactively take heed to tenants. “She hasn’t actually had a dialog with the resident leaders, put us all in a room and have a dialog with us,” Torres mentioned. She mentioned that Silver would usually have such conferences. Niou has touted her efforts to safe state funding for NYCHA, however Torres mentioned that many of the combat befell earlier than Niou took workplace and that she hasn’t felt Niou’s presence in Smith Homes in the course of the pandemic.

Jonathan Gardenhire, a district chief who supported Lee, supplied a nuanced view of Niou. “I believe she’s an extremely efficient and hardworking assemblywoman,” Gardenhire mentioned, including that she is likable and progressive. “However I believe that due to how she got here into this specific position on this specific group, that there was some work that was missed, there was some work that wanted to be on the bottom.” Gardenhire mentioned that Niou is responsive, however agreed that her presence will not be at all times felt equally in all components of the district.

Niou’s supporters within the district, which embody even some former adversaries, disagreed. “The criticism as not being from the district was legitimate in 2016,” mentioned Newell, the district chief who ran towards Niou that 12 months however supported her final 12 months. “Is it nonetheless legitimate? Much less so.” Newell mentioned his preliminary uncertainty about how properly Niou would characterize the district has dissipated. “She attends occasions, she listens to individuals, she meets with individuals within the district,” Newell mentioned. He mentioned that in comparison with Silver, she could not be capable of supply each constituent service he did, however as a way more senior member and speaker, he had more cash and sway to ship pork. “She is personally current,” Newell mentioned, including that he can’t say that of all his representatives. 

Many individuals interviewed for this text additionally spoke about Niou’s efforts in the course of the pandemic, personally handing out protecting gear and meals, and filling her condominium with provides she would pack for constituents. Some mentioned they might see piles of packing containers behind her in Zoom calls and joke that she would get buried. “She actually, you already know, actually distinguished herself as any individual who was on the bottom,” mentioned state Sen. Brian Kavanagh, who represents most of Niou’s district within the state Senate. “Simply she and her employees and the various volunteers that she motivated, actually type of relentlessly guaranteeing that each one of these wants have been met.”

Nana Gomez, a resident of Vladek Homes, a Decrease East Facet NYCHA growth, instructed Metropolis & State Niou is in fixed contact with each her and different NYCHA tenants, and that both Niou or her employees supply assist with even essentially the most minor issues, saying the Meeting member “will come out, or ship any individual out, in the course of a snowstorm to guarantee that a NYCHA resident had warmth.” Gomez mentioned Niou attends occasions at Vladeck Homes and that children within the growth personally know her.

However the divide within the district stays. Torres of Smith Homes mentioned that she intends to seek out somebody to run towards Niou in 2022 – and even mentioned she would possibly run herself if she wanted to – due to her dissatisfaction with Niou. 

Simply as she mentioned she didn’t initially plan to run for workplace, Niou mentioned she doesn’t take into consideration what subsequent steps for her would possibly appear to be. “Lots of people at all times ask me about working for larger workplace,” Niou mentioned.

Associates, allies and colleagues of Niou’s say she’s not actively searching for larger workplace, even when they’ve had conversations in regards to the prospect earlier than. Some say they hope to see her run for an additional workplace, ought to the chance come up, feeling that she may have a good larger impression at a distinct degree. Others hope she stays within the Meeting in the meanwhile, to proceed her work on the state degree. However what practically everybody agreed is that Niou’s energy has not but peaked and that her affect will solely develop.

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