NBC: Brooklyn's 1st Asian-majority district election shows community is still up for grabs

Image for NBC: Brooklyn's 1st Asian-majority district election shows community is still up for grabs
Susan Zhuang for City Council. Credit: Susan Zhuang

A Democrat won Tuesday's City Council election between two Chinese Americans, but “partisanship is not yet ingrained” in the newly redistricted area, one expert said.

By Kimmy Yam and Sakshi Venkatraman

Virginia S. Tong, a longtime Chinese American resident of South Brooklyn, New York, said she headed out to the polls feeling motivated Saturday morning to vote early in the borough’s first Asian-majority district, the newly redrawn District 43.

“I definitely felt an extra push to vote,” Tong, 67, said. “It was meant to be an Asian district.”

Although Democrat Susan Zhuang won over Republican Ying Tan in Tuesday’s City Council race by a large margin, experts say the Asian vote in District 43 is still up for grabs. Though from different parties, both Zhuang and Tan had very similar platforms, emphasizing increased police presence and railing against undocumented migrants in the city.

Tong, a Bensonhurst resident, is among the many who voted in the race, in which two Chinese American candidates battled for the votes of a community focused on issues like public safety, education and immigration.

Zhuang’s policies have been considered similar to those of both Tan and Vito LaBella, who was running for the Conservative Party.

“Partisanship is not yet ingrained,” said Yiatin Chu, the president of the Asian Wave Alliance, a local advocacy group. “The issues that the candidates are speaking to are issues that are front and center for people’s daily lives and why they’ve immigrated to this country, what they’re looking for.”

‘An issues-focused community’

The area, redistricted in 2022, now includes sections of the Sunset Park, Borough Park and Bath Beach neighborhoods. Its median household income is $59,479, compared to $70,663 in New York City at large.
District 43, an area once heavily Italian American, was redrawn to reflect the burgeoning Asian American, particularly Chinese, community, who constitute more than 53% of the population there. While 51% are registered Democrats, the area hasn’t always voted that way. In the mayoral general election, Republican candidate Curtis Sliwa took 58% of the votes, far exceeding current Democratic Mayor Eric Adams. And in the governor’s election, GOP candidate Lee Zeldin similarly won overwhelmingly over current Gov. Kathy Hochul.

“I don’t know that the Asian contribution to the past two races was necessarily because they wanted to vote Republican,” Chu said. “It was because the Republicans did a very good job in doing the outreach into this kind of new-ish voting base.”

A mix of second- and third-generation Asians in Bensonhurst and brand new immigrants in Sunset Park, it’s an “issues-focused community,” Chu said.

“Most of the people that live in District 43 are not really paying attention to national politics,” she said. “People that are trying to make a living, with jobs and family and kids, they don’t have the bandwidth or really the mental space for anything beyond local issues.”

Tong added that many Asian Americans in her neighborhood don’t necessarily care about candidates’ party affiliations. And some fellow Chinese Americans she has encountered, particularly seniors, refuse to register.

“They don’t really follow Democrat or Republican. In fact, some of them, my mother’s generation, don’t want to register for a party. They think it’s like registering for the Communist Party,” Tong said.

Nationally, Asian Americans tend to lean left. An NBC News Exit Poll found that 58% voted for Democrats in the midterm elections last November, while 40% voted for Republicans. And a 2022 Asian American voter survey found that while 44% of Asian American registered voters thought of themselves as Democrats, 29% considered themselves independent. 

Chu pointed out that immigrants are particularly vulnerable during their first few years in New York, and with heavy reliance on ethnic communities come congested neighborhoods and tightly packed housing. A lack of language access elsewhere in the city also keeps them to their tight-knit communities, she said.

Navigating systems for government aid, their kids’ schooling and even elections poses challenges, she said, especially given that many in the district are lower-income.

“I wouldn’t say these are partisan issues,” Chu said. “These are just impacting their lives.”

Many Asian American families, for example, have supported the city’s specialized high school exam as the sole criterion for entry into prestigious public high schools. But the state’s Democrats have heavily criticized the exam for contributing to further segregation in the education system. Zhuang herself advocated to preserve the exam.

A focus on crime

Reigning as one of the biggest issues of importance to Asian voters in District 43 is crime and public safety, Chu said. It’s a topic that she says gets covered in detail in local Chinese-language newspapers and on social media.

“Any type of crime is covered very thoroughly,” she said. “There are crimes that are not covered that people know are happening, like scams, petty robberies, people stealing packages, that I see on WeChat. Doorbell cameras that have people taking packages, those are things that are circulated on a routine basis.”

Emphasis on added policing after the heightened number of anti-Asian attacks during the pandemic also might have moved the voting bloc more to the center.

“For the most part, people support cops. They don’t like defunding police. They don’t like bail reform,” Tong said. “People are scared.”

Zhuang, who captured more than 58% of vote, told NBC News ahead of the election that public safety was at the heart of her campaign. She called for stronger police presence and more law enforcement funding and recruitment in the area.

She also strongly opposes the presence of migrant shelters in Sunset Park, arguing that asylum-seekers are the federal government’s responsibility, rather than the city’s.

“We want to help people in the district first. We already have a lot of people in the district undocumented, and they are not being served, and you want to put more people in my district? Without providing us the resources?” Zhuang said. “That’s what I’m fighting against.”

Tan, who was the runner-up Tuesday with 26% of the vote, took a similarly tough stance on undocumented migrants in New York. She told NBC News last week that an influx might leave less money and space for the city’s homeless population.

“This is not going to end unless you close the border,” she said.

Though Zhuang’s views were similar to those of her challenger Tan, Jerry Vattamala, director of the democracy program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said Zhuang’s past working in politics most likely helped her win.

“She was a community liaison,” Vattamala said. “She’s sort of done the work. She’s been in that role for a long time.”

Vattamala says that the area has been considered a bit of a swing district in part because of issues like crime and education, which have quickly become the community’s priorities.

Tong, a registered Democrat who didn’t vote for Zhuang, said Zhuang appeared to spend more face time with the community, regularly appearing at events and talking to patrons at restaurants. A strong ground campaign appeared to make a difference among Asian Americans, she said.

“Every polling place I went by, there were signs for her,” Tong said. “I’ve been to a couple of community fundraisers and things, like big events, catering halls, and I have to say I saw Susan doing the politician thing, running around from table to table, shaking hands.”


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