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Meet Yuh-Line Niou, a Former Winnie's DJ Who's Downtown's New Assemblywoman

By Irene Plagianos | November 8, 2016 10:16pm
 Yuh-Line Niou won the race for the 65th Assembly District seat.
Yuh-Line Niou won the race for the 65th Assembly District seat.
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Courtesy of Yuh-Line Niou

LOWER MANHATTAN — Democrat Yuh-Line Niou clinched Lower Manhattan's 65th Assembly District seat with 76 percent of the vote. She'll make history as the first Asian-American to represent any district in Manhattan.

"I am deeply humbled that the voters have entrusted me with this responsibility," she told supporters at her campaign headquarters in Chinatown after her win Tuesday night. "With your help, together we can begin to build a stronger community for everyone."

Her victory in the heavily Democratic area was all but sealed when the 33-year-old won her party's hotly contested primary in September. But the road ahead — which involves filling a position that belonged to now-disgraced former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver for nearly 40 years — will likely be anything but easy.

Niou, a former chief of staff for Queens Assemblyman Ron Kim, says she's "ready to hit the ground running" on day one.

"Of course there will be difficulties as a freshman in the Assembly," said Niou, who's lived with her fiancé in the Financial District for the past three years. "But I have 15 years of public policy experience on the state level, I know my district, and I'm here to be the best voice for my district."

Despite Tuesday's landslide win, Niou's path to the New York State Legislature has not been painless, or expected — even by Niou herself.

Losing This Year, Then Triumphant
​Niou said she was essentially tapped to try for the seat by state Sen. Daniel Squadron after longtime assemblyman and once-beloved Downtown advocate Sheldon Silver shocked constituents with his arrest and subsequent conviction on federal corruption charges.

In April, after waging her first political campaign, Niou lost a special election for Silver's seat against Alice Cancel, a Democratic District leader closely associated with Silver. 

"It was tough, it was really hard to pick myself up from, but I got so much encouragement to move on, I felt like I had to stand up and keep going," said Niou, who was born in Taiwan, and grew up in several states, including Idaho and Texas, as her father, an academic, finished his studies and found work.

Niou persevered and bested Cancel, along with four other candidates, in the September Democratic primary with a hefty 32 percent of the vote.

"If I knocked on 6,000 doors for the special election, I got out and knocked on 9,000 doors for the primary, and I think that personal connection made the difference," Niou said of her winning strategy. "What I want most is for my constituents to have access to government, and to find me completely accessible."

Niou has lived in New York since 2010, when she came to the city as an National Urban Fellow, getting her masters from Baruch College and began working for Ron Kim, the first Korean-American elected to the state Legislature. Before entering New York politics, Niou had worked for Washington State legislators, starting as an intern during her years at Evergreen College.

DNAinfo New York spoke with Niou about her plans for Lower Manhattan, the strange challenge of filling Sheldon Silver's position, and her first job in her district — a bartender and karaoke DJ at defunct, but much loved bar Winnie's.

A lot of your constituents think you're about to take on a very tough challenge, being a newcomer in a district used to having a powerful advocate in Sheldon Silver — someone who, despite his recent corruption conviction, was lauded for getting things done. What would you say to them?

Niou: I understand that going from having the Speaker of the Assembly represent you to having a freshman is different. But I know, working with Ron Kim, what it's like to run the office of someone who's new to the Legislature, who doesn't have as much funding or power as incumbents, which is of course a very unfair system and something that should be changed.

I understand what it's like to run a bare-bones office, but provide really great services for our constituents. I'm no stranger to Albany, and I'm ready to push ahead, be the voice that Lower Manhattan deserves. I really want to be the best voice for all our diverse constituents, they are my number one priority.

What do you plan to focus on, and what do you think are Lower Manhattan's biggest needs right now?

Niou: It's so important for me to hit the ground running, because we really need someone to start fighting for Lower Manhattan again, we've been without representation for so long. I think securing FEMA money, securing resiliency funding for Lower Manhattan is a top priority. We know another storm is going to hit us, it's just a matter of when and we need funding for Lower Manhattan to be prepared. Our population is exploding Downtown, but we don't have enough schools — we need a middle school, we need to alleviate overcrowding.

We also need to deal with affordability, and making sure people aren't being priced out of their apartments, making sure that the community is involved with planning when it comes to the constant construction Downtown, the development of our waterfront, and super tall buildings. This is a district that is a place where more and more young people, more young families are coming, but also a place where we need to help our aging population. And of course, ethics reform is a high priority for me. We have to limit outside income for state legislators, and not allow convicted politicians the right to collect pensions.

My district is filled with educated voters who really want to change in Lower Manhattan and we want to make sure we have transparency and access to government. They know that I’m somebody who had been a strong advocate for people who live work and play in the area.

You've worked in state politics since you were a college student at Washington State's Evergreen College, but you said that you didn't think about running for office until Daniel Squadron suggested that you should. Why did you ultimately decide to run?

Niou:  I have always loved policy writing; it was my passion. I was the person behind-the-scenes, and I was dedicated to helping people get access to government. But it was an interesting journey for me to really take that leap to run for office. I think for a lot of young women, especially a lot of young women of color, we often internalize a lot things people say or what we think people think of us. For some reason, I think that a lot of young women believe that maybe it's not our turn. We’re not the person that's supposed to step up, and I had to deal with a lot of that internalized thinking. But I realized that the same things I've loved about working in government as staff, fighting for better services for constituents, help people advocate for themselves, are what will remain my focus.

You're the first Asian-American elected official to represent Chinatown — or any part of Manhattan — can you talk about the significance of your election?

Niou: It is significant, and I'm proud to represent Chinatown, but I'm proud to represent all my constituents. This election wasn't about identity politics, it was about choosing the person who was best for this position. We obviously don't have a lot of diversity in New York State politics, and I think part of the reason is that its just so tough to run, to get financing. New York's legislature is in many ways based on incumbency and we need better resources, better support to encourage people, from all different backgrounds to run for office.

So, we've heard you were a Karaoke DJ at Winnie's. How did that happen? What's your go-to karaoke song?

Niou: I miss Winnie's so much, I'm so sad its gone. I came to New York in 2010 as an Urban Fellow at Baruch College. One day, I just went into Winnie's, and asked for a job - and they gave it to me. I would bartend, and literally be the person changing up the music selections. It was so much fun. After we'd close, the staff would stay for sometimes another two hours, just doing karaoke. Michael's Jackson's 'Beat It' and 'Eye of Tiger' are still my go-to songs.

The Q&A was condensed and edited.