Assemblywoman Grace Meng’s political journey has been one of superlatives: As the daughter of immigrants who arrived from mainland China in the mid-1970s, she’s the first generation in her family to be born in the United States. After winning her seat in 2008--the same seat formerly held by her father—she became the first candidate since the creation of the district in 2002 to survive a primary challenge. She’s also currently the only Asian member of the New York State legislature.
Now, the Queens Democratic Party has picked Meng to be its candidate for Congress in the new 6th Congressional district. She would be the first Asian member of Congress from New York, and the first woman to serve from a district entirely in Queens since Geraldine Ferraro left office to join Walter Mondale on the Democratic presidential ticket in 1984.
At the March meeting where Meng received the county organization’s backing, state Senator Toby Ann Stavisky elevated her congressional campaign to nothing short of historic, saying: “Grace, it seems to me you are the future of the Democratic Party.”
She’s also emphatically not of the ruthless political mold: In his nomination of Meng as the county organization’s pick for the open seat, Councilman Mark Weprin echoed what nearly everyone mentions when they talk about Grace Meng. “She’s hard not to love and she has character, commitment and confidence without a hint of arrogance—and in this business, that’s rare,” Weprin said.
Besides winning the straw poll for political Ms. Congeniality, Meng’s immigrant family and political do-it-yourself background has positioned her as the aspirational candidate in the race. She represents that classic New York political storyline of a rising community that, through the success of its favored daughter or son, can say its finally made it, even as questions linger about her readiness for a promotion to Congress.
Following in Dad's Steps, Going Against Her Nature
Had Congressman Gary Ackerman not stepped aside, there’s little chance Meng would be running for Congress right now. But she says the elevation from junior assembly member to early congressional favorite is just the latest in an unlikely political career.
“It's not the easiest choice for me,” Meng said about her decision to enter politics. “I don't like taking pictures. I was raised as a Christian where all you're taught is to be humble, even if you did something right. Politics is the complete opposite of, you do something a little nice and you tell everyone."
She sat behind a desk in one of the rooms in her large new, if sparsely furnished, campaign office in the Forest Hill section of Queens last month. She said that when she was younger, despite a fascination with government, she’d never seen herself as a potential candidate. Her early goal, after working in both state and federal government offices, was "to be someone's policy analyst or chief of staff or something like that."
But that changed when her father—the first Asian-American member of the state Assembly—decided not to run for reelection in 2006. Meng entered the race to replace him, but district residency issues forced her to back out. Two years later, she challenged the then-incumbent Ellen Young in the Democratic primary, the first Asian-American woman to serve in the Assembly.
The contest pitted Young—backed by then-City Councilman John Liu and the Queens Democratic Party—against the Meng family and their allies in eastern Queens. The Meng team credits victory to her ability to organize a multi-cultural coalition that built upon the Asian base both candidates were working from. While Young was in Denver at the national Democratic convention, Meng was holding bridge-building endorsement press conferences with people like former councilwoman Julia Harrison, who had made comments blaming the Asian influx into her district in the 1990s for the rise in crime.
“I felt that…there was potentially a gap in services [in the district] that were needed and someone—at the very least, that I had the heart to try to do the right thing,” Meng said about her decision to run again.
The New Lines
While it may have been Ackerman’s decision not to seek reelection that opened the door for Meng to get her party’s backing, it’s been demographic realities on the ground that brought her the attention in the first place.
During the recent history of redistricting, advocates in the Asian Queens community demanded that however the lines were drawn, they be done in a way that would give the numerous communities in the area the chance to have a unified political voice.
Their wish was granted with the creation of the 6th District. On paper nearly 40 percent of the district contains people who checked off some version of Asian on their US Census forms. By almost default, Meng becomes an attractive candidate in an open district with a growing immigrant community.
But representing and helping that growing immigrant community, while it may have earned her a pass in the 2010 Democratic primary, also means keeping an office that can feel more like a community service center than a legislative office.
Meng says the level of need in her predominantly Chinese and Korean immigrant community meant she spent most of her time in district during her first term.
“My biggest goal of my life because of the track record of all incumbents in the Flushing seat was to get reelected,” she said. “I barely physically left the boundaries of my district."
Not surprisingly, Meng has made immigrant issues one of her priorities in Albany.
“On the normal, progressive sort of scale…all three candidates [in the Congressional race]…are going to vote the right way on a lot of the issues we're going to care about,” said Josh Gold, political director for the Hotel Trades Council, which endorsed Meng. “But Grace has led in Albany on immigrant issues, on immigrant rights issues, and that's important to members of our union that live in that district."
On Questions and Questionables
Meng has served in public office now for three-and-a-half years. She is a candidate who ran and won in isolation from the wider political world. This is the first time the Queens Democratic organization has backed her in a contested primary.
While none of the candidates in the race can claim to be grizzled elected veterans, Meng has spent the least amount of time in office. By her own admission, the seclusion of being district-bound in her first term left her feeling “sort of like a freshman” in Albany over the past year or so.
The political isolation and relative inexperience have meant turning to members of the old guard of the Queens Democratic Party, some of whom have generated unwanted attention for their efforts.
When the campaign launched, a list was circulated of the people and companies working for Meng. Among those listed was a company, Multi-Media, that was listed as a strategist and consultant firm. The person who runs Multi-Media is political consultant Michael Nussbaum. In 1987, Nussbaum was found guilty of soliciting a $250,000 bribe on behalf of one-time Queens Borough President Donald Manes, but was acquitted of all charges the following year.
While working for the Meng campaign, Nussbaum has been accused of trying to get another Jewish candidate into the race to siphon votes away from Assemblyman Rory Lancman. Additionally, the newspaper Nussbaum is the associate publisher of, the Queens Tribune, has been in a firestorm of criticism over racy ads on its back page that some say promote sex trafficking—an issue Meng has done considerable work on.
Additionally, it’s worth noting Congressman Ackerman, who recently endorsed Meng’s campaign, was a cofounder of the Queens Tribune and still has financial holdings in the company that now owns it.
It’s a rare blemish for Meng. But for some, it may be indicative of a broader issue of Meng’s experience as both a legislator and a candidate.
“The real question there is, what can she point to in telling her story, other than her profile,” asked one long-time Queens Democratic insider. “It has nothing to do with being the nicest person in politics: What have you done to earn a promotion?"
The Meng campaign, in its literature, notes “she’s led the charge to extend unemployment benefits, to provide more school funding, and to protect seniors against higher property taxes.”
Records show that Meng was the prime sponsor on the unemployment benefit extension in 2009. Her campaign also provided a list of nine pieces of legislation, passed between May 2009 and March 2010, for which Meng was the primary sponsor.
A Star is Born?
For Congressman Joe Crowley, who heads the Queens Democratic Party, Meng’s tenure in the Assembly has been “long enough” to show some “substantial accomplishments” that demonstrate she’s ready for the move up.
“I think what she has learned in the state legislature, in the state assembly—much the same way I did coming out of there—I think it does give you a head start in terms of understanding the lay of the land here in Washington as well,” Congressman Crowley said.
Meng’s colleague in the Assembly, Karim Camara, who heads the bicameral Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus, on which Meng sits, sees nothing but a bright future for his colleague should she reach Congress.
“Her background, her skill set, her ability to bring people together across various ethnic and economic lines, etcetera, make her a potential star in congress,” said Camara.