The New York State Senate finally has some Asian-American representation.
Democrat John Liu, who was born in Taiwan, won the District 11 state Senate seat on Tuesday, defeating three other challengers. Indian-American attorney Kevin Thomas, who immigrated to the U.S. when he was 10 years old, beat out Republican incumbent Kemp Hannon for the state’s District 6 Senate seat.
The wins are historic, as the pair are the very first Asian-Americans elected to New York’s state senate.
Thomas told HuffPost that he is “deeply honored, humbled and proud to be the first Indian-American in the the New York State Senate in U.S. History.”
Liu added that it’s about time.
“It’s nice to be among the first, but we should have had Asian-Americans in the state senate long ago,” he told HuffPost.
Asian-Americans make up roughly 9 percent of the state’s population. New York City alone is home to the largest number of Asian-Americans compared to all other U.S. cities.
Two Asian-Americans — Yuh-Line Niou (D) and Ron Kim (D) — serve in the New York State Assembly, but no politicians of Asian descent have served in the state senate prior.
Liu, who immigrated to the U.S. when he was 5 years old and grew up in Flushing, Queens, is no stranger to making history. Back in 2010, the Taiwanese-American was sworn in as New York City’s comptroller, making him the first Asian-American to occupy that role. Previously, he served as a city councilman, making him the first Asian-American to be elected to a citywide office.
“John Liu is a model for new immigrants,” John Park, president of the Korean American Community Empowerment Council said of Liu’s victory as comptroller at the time. “This is a new era.”
While Liu had made a bid for the mayoral seat, his campaign became the subject of scandal in 2013 when a federal investigation was launched into his fundraising. Liu was never charged, but his campaign treasurer Jenny Hou and a fundraiser Oliver Pan were convicted on formal wire fraud charges related to illegal donations.
Though Liu had lost the state senate seat to incumbent Tony Avella (D) back in 2014, he prevailed against the same challenger this time around.
Thomas is best known for his work as an attorney. He was appointed to the New York State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights back in 2016. Previously, Thomas had run for a congressional seat in New York’s 2nd District, but withdrew prior to the June primary.
“I left the Congressional race because I can protect more New Yorkers in the state Senate and the Democratic Party has endorsed me as their nominee,” he told U.S.-based Indian newspaper India-West.
The state senator-elect told HuffPost explained that he felt compelled to run for state senate because of his experience defending student loan borrowers.
“When I saw what the Trump administration did to consumer protection, I knew I had to do something,” he said. “I ran for office as my form of resistance. To do what I have always done, stand up for the little guy, to do what is right. As an Asian-American, that is just who we are and those are the values my parents raised me with.”
And because his district on Long Island has the fastest growing South Asian community in the state, he said he’s aiming to highlight the struggles that disproportionately impact Asian-Americans.
“I ran to represent everyone in my district and that is what I intend to do. But ... I will certainly be bringing the issues of the Asian-American community to the state legislature,” Thomas said.
Asian-Americans have been stereotyped as apolitical; however the group has been up against several challenges that impede their civic engagement. Language barriers constitute a large part of the problem. Roughly one-third have limited English proficiency, and many Asian immigrants lean on their children to translate the voting process for them.
Moreover, both Democrats and Republicans have failed to truly reach out to Asian-Americans. Ahead of the 2016 presidential election, the majority of community members saying that neither party reached out.
With increased awareness and outreach, Liu feels that the tides could turn in the Asian-American community.
“As with all people, the more Asian-Americans understand the impact people have on government and the impact government has on people such as in matters of education, healthcare, and economic opportunity, the more Asian-Americans will engage in this democracy that America is about,” he said.