On July Fourth, while much of the country was attending cookouts and celebrating with fireworks, Yuh-Line Niou was dealing with something far less pleasant: She took to Twitter to post about the harassment she said she’s faced as a Taiwanese American New York assemblywoman.
The tweet wasn’t necessarily new information to her followers; she has opened up before, both in interviews and on social media, about the death threats and sexual harassment she said she receives regularly online. Niou, 38, knows it comes with the territory, she said: “A lot of women of color who run for office get that.”
Still, “some of the things have gotten really extreme. When people send you pictures of their penises and their guns, it’s a very strange message,” she recently told The Washington Post.
A day after her July 4 post, Niou talked more about that type of harassment in a virtual discussion with comedian and actor Ronny Chieng. The event capped off a long day of campaigning for what she hopes is her next role — in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“My mom and my dad were very concerned for the more elevated scrutiny and the more disturbing commentary towards me,” Niou told Chieng of her profile as an outspoken state legislator during a time of increased harassment and violence against Asian Americans. “They did not feel like I was always going to be safe. But they also recognized the fact that the only way to stop the terrorism, the hatred, the hate, is to be more visible.”
This experience — dealing with harassment amid an increasingly tense climate for Asian American women — is part of what Niou said helps her understand key elements of her New York State Assembly district, one that she has represented throughout a surge in anti-Asian rhetoric and violence since the beginning of the pandemic.
But looking forward to the Aug. 23 Democratic primary for the U.S. House seat, Niou faces an unusually crowded field. To win, she’ll have to beat 14 other Democrats, including former New York mayor Bill de Blasio, to represent New York’s newly delineated 10th District. In a solidly blue district, the winner of the Democratic primary is all but guaranteed to go to Capitol Hill.
The new congressional district — which, Niou often points out, includes two Chinatowns — was redrawn to reflect the 2020 Census results. It also includes Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, Wall Street and the Financial District, and the Lower East Side. In addition, there are Brooklyn’s Park Slope, Sunset Park — home of the borough’s Chinatown and a large Latino community — and parts of the Orthodox Jewish enclave of Borough Park.
Although significant portions of the 10th District are White and wealthy, Niou often speaks in terms of the most marginalized when it comes to policy, arguing that the rights of the most vulnerable are universal. Disability, racial, social and economic justice issues affect everyone, she said, and “we all benefit from making sure that we have diverse representation.”
Niou has served in the state legislature for six years, during which she has worked toward increasing financial resources for less resourced communities and increasing funding for New York City Housing Authority repairs, as well as advocated for tenant protections. She was also one of the legislators who established the state’s first Asian Pacific American Legislative Task Force.
Niou aligns with the liberal wing of her party, to the left of current Democratic leadership. She said she supports single-payer health care, the Green New Deal, investment in public housing and eliminating U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“It’s important that we’re holding accountable people who rigged our economy, trashed our climate, profiteered during a pandemic, cheered on the rise of white supremacist violence like Buffalo,” Niou said. “It’s important to fight and vote for laws that will actually bring material change to so many lives, policies to make sure that no one in our community gets left behind.”
In June, she received a key endorsement from the Working Families Party, which had endorsed several of her rivals in previous races. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu (D) and New York state Sen. Julia Salazar (D) have also endorsed her.
But the road ahead remains challenging.
“She’s distinguished herself in the state legislature and has been a strong advocate for her constituents during covid and a rise in anti-Asian violence,” said Basil A. Smikle Jr., director of the public policy program at Hunter College. “But the Manhattan portion of the district that contains her assembly seat and where she’s strongest is still going to be very competitive. To win, she’ll have to overperform based on previous elections.”
She’s also part of a continuous groundswell of women, and women of color specifically, running for political offices, propelled by Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 presidential election, experts say.
“Basically, the number for the Democratic women House candidates doubled between 2016 and 2018,” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
This year could set another record for women running for the House of Representatives. For Democrats, the numbers hit a record in 2018 and held in 2020. A record number of Republican women ran in 2020, too.
“It’s also fair to say we’ve seen an increase in the racial and ethnic diversity of those women candidates who are running” in both parties, Dittmar said.
Niou’s identity has been inextricably linked with representing her community. She has organized vigils, attended funerals and helped families cope with the death of loved ones, including that of 35-year-old Christina Yuna Lee, who was fatally stabbed in her own apartment in February.
But as more women, especially women of color and LGBTQ candidates, run for office, they face increasingly targeted harassment, Dittmar said. And for female political candidates, the goal of these attacks is very clear, she added: “to push women out of the political sphere.”
“The underlying motivation is to prevent the increase in women’s political power,” she said. “It can be physically harmful, it can be mentally harmful, but it can also be harmful in a way that it actually prevents the very thing that would change these institutions, which is getting more women and more diversity of women within them.”
Niou gets emotional talking about the challenges she has faced in her time as an assemblywoman — but not necessarily as it relates to her own run for office. Instead, she said, she has been driven to action after watching those in her district suffer during the pandemic.
“It was so hard, and it’s still not over. We don’t have time to grieve, we literally keep going,” she said. “Our constituents really are the ones that had to fight for themselves in a lot of ways because our state, our city, our federal government, wasn’t helping.”