Grace Meng: A rising star in US politics

Updated: 2014-02-07 13:23

By May Zhou in Houston (China Daily USA)

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Grace Meng: A rising star in US politics

"We must give students the tools to understand what it means to be part of the government," Congresswoman Grace Meng says. May Zhou / China Daily

It was just a one-day visit to Houston, but for New York Congresswoman Grace Meng it was a full schedule: a private fundraiser for her future re-election campaign, the International Leadership Foundation's (ILF) event to support its mission of training Asian-American leaders and the Lunar New Year banquet of the Shandong Fellowship Association of Southern America to support the general Chinese-American community.

And in between those events Meng took time to explain how she got into politics.

"I was born and raised in Queens, New York, my parents are immigrants from Chinese mainland and Taiwan," she said in an interview with China Daily. "As a kid growing up in New York, I never decided to go political. I wasn't really good at math and science, other than that I was a very typical quiet Asian kid, I was shy in classes and I never participated in any student government. I just never thought of doing any politics."

Meng said that as she got involved in her community throughout college and law school, she realized that something had to be done to change things. So after getting her law degree from Yeshiva University, she began her career in public interest law.

She was named a partner at Yoon and Kim, LLP, and still managed to devote time to community work, including pro bono services for Sanctuary for Families, founding the FOCUS Community Access Center, sitting on the boards of several local organizations, and serving as president of the Queens Chinese Women's Association.

In 2008, Meng defeated incumbent Ellen Young of New York's 22nd State Assembly district for the seat that was held by her father, Jimmy Meng, in 2004-2006. She won re-election in 2010.

Meng said that during the third year of her term in the State Assembly, her congressman, Gary Ackerman, suddenly announced he was retiring.

"This was at a tremendous time for the political scene in New York because due to redistricting, there became a few seats that were called Asian polarity or Asian majority seats - two New York Assembly seats, two New York Senate seats and also a congressional seat. Of all the seats, only one was held by an Asian American, which was my seat for Flushing."

Meng said she waited to see if any Asian-American candidates would run for the offices.

"Days and months went by and nobody was interested. I was not planning to run for a congressional seat. I had just started at the Assembly. I have two young kids, and I did not think traveling back and forth between Washington and New York was the ideal situation," she said. "But I had to make a quick decision to run or not, and I did not think my husband would be happy with this, but he actually encouraged me."

Meng fondly called her husband Wayne Kye, who visited Houston with her, "my staff/volunteer/consultant".

Seizing the opportunity, Meng was elected to Congress in the fourth year of her political career in 2012. The rising political star in New York would become a rising political star in the nation's capital.

For Meng, the key to succeed in public office starts with meeting her constituents' needs: "Politics is very local, it's important to do work on the behalf of people, to reach out to let them know what you are doing to improve their daily quality of life. That's what I focus on. I have a very diverse district and people have different issues and concerns. We deal with anything from loud airplane noise, train pollution to helping with small businesses."

Grace Meng: A rising star in US politics

Asian Americans' apathy toward politics has always concerned some Asian American leaders, and Meng is no exception.

"It really bothered me day in and day out that there were seats created for us to be better represented in state and federal governments, but no one was there to seize the opportunity. We weren't prepared to be blunt," she said.

Meng said that is why she is very supportive to organization like the International Leadership Foundation.

"We are at a very critical juncture. We need to get started to groom our students now, from high school, college and graduate. We need to give them the tools and means and exposure to understand what it means to be part of the government."

Meng is not shy to push for Asian-Americans' interests. While in the New York Assembly, she drafted a bill to eliminate "Oriental" from state documents in reference to New Yorkers of Asian descent. Governor David Paterson signed the bill into law in 2009.

Now, Meng said: "I drafted a resolution in Congress a couple of weeks ago to encourage schools in areas with a large Asian population to consider making the Asian Lunar New Year a school holiday. Our Jewish neighbors in New York get two days off for Rosh Hashanah, but we don't get any day off. I always thought it a little unfair that Asians can't properly celebrate Lunar New Year."

Meng considers this bill symbolic, "but it's also a sign for us to be able to be respected and accepted by the mainstream American community."

According to Meng, Asian Americans are not there yet.

"A few months after I started in my congressional office, a woman called and my staff was very helpful, and this woman asked: 'Where is Mr. Ackerman (who was my predecessor)? What kind of name is Grace Meng?' "

"That came from one of my constituents, part of a district which literally is one of the most diverse districts in the entire country and there are people thinking like that," Meng said.

"Whether you are first-generation immigrants or second or third generation, there are a lot of people who think you are foreigners, even if you speak perfect English, or because of your appearance or last name, you are not thought of as Americans," she said. "We may be proud of the success we have as Asian Americans, but we have a long, long way to go. "

(China Daily USA 02/07/2014 page10)