In April, when Andrew Yang’s name was plastered across news sites and the onetime presidential candidate topped polls in New York’s Democratic mayoral primary, it seemed like a sign of changing times: Here was an “ABC” (American-born Chinese) hoping to seize the top seat in the nation’s largest city — and standing a real chance of winning.
But several months later, Yang would finish a distant fourth in the mayoral primary, becoming the first serious contender to drop out. For many Asian Americans, the loss came as little surprise. Despite a boost in visibility for AAPI issues over the past few years and recent successes at the congressional level, Asians are underrepresented in the mayoral seat, compared with their share of the urban population.
Asians are America’s fastest growing ethnic group. In the past 20 years, the Asian American population has nearly doubled, to 23 million people. Of these, more than 97 percent live in metropolitan areas as of 2016, compared with 81 percent of white people. Asian Americans’ share of the population is particularly high in many coastal cities: 34 percent of San Jose, Calif., is Asian, for instance, as is 14 percent of New York.
Yet, when it comes to municipal contests, Asian Americans consistently underperform, even compared with other minority groups. While Asian people make up 7 percent of the U.S. population overall, they made up just 2 percent of all elected city officials as of 2020. By contrast, Black people, who make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, held 21 percent of municipal seats. Of America’s 100 most populous municipalities, just three were led by Asian mayors in 2019 — all in California. Even looking at the 25 large cities with the highest proportion of AAPI residents, just eight have ever elected an Asian chief executive — again, all in California.
Outside California, Asian mayors are almost non-existent. Asian residents form the second-largest racial group in Seattle, at more than 15 percent of the population, but the city has had only one Asian American leader: former City Council member Bruce Harrell, who ran unsuccessfully in 2013 before serving as acting mayor for a mere five days in 2017, after his predecessor had resigned. Honolulu, a municipality of nearly 1 million people, 62 percent of whom are Asian, has never elected an Asian American mayor.
What explains the dearth of Asian American mayors, and can it change? To gain insight on the unique challenges Asian American candidates face in mayoral elections, POLITICO Magazine spoke with Sam Yoon, the first Asian American to run for mayor of Boston, in 2009. As the city’s first Asian councilor, Yoon, a Democrat who is Korean American, garnered support during his run for mayor from Asians across America, in states like California and New York. But he ultimately finished third in the preliminary election.
Yoon says that while AAPI legislative candidates might benefit from campaigning on their “newcomer” image, Asian mayoral candidates still have a harder time convincing voters that they have the right experience to be the executive of a large city. “Asian Americans get bundled up with the sense of, ‘Well, you’re new. You have less experience. You’ve just arrived. You might not know as much as you say you do,’” says Yoon, who later moved to Washington, where he led the Council of Korean Americans and the lobbying group Korean Americans in Action before becoming a high school math teacher in the Virginia suburbs.
While Yang’s loss in New York might have been disappointing for many Asian Americans, Yoon says trailblazing Asian politicians like mayoral candidate Michelle Wu in Boston and U.S. Rep. Andy Kim in New Jersey still give hope for a wave of AAPI political representation in the near future.
A condensed transcript of the conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.
JOEL LAU: What was going through your mind watching Andrew Yang’s campaign in New York?
SAM YOON: Seeing Andrew Yang’s race, the thought occurred to me: How might people vote differently in a mayoral race versus a congressional race or even a senatorial race? The role of a lawmaker and the role of a chief executive are very different. It made me question whether Asian Americans have a harder time convincing the public that they can be a strong executive.
When you run for lawmaker, those campaigns can be more about the ideas and the ideals of your platform or your party. What made Andrew Yang really notable as a presidential candidate was his ideas. I’m not sure how deeply voters were thinking about, you know, his ability to govern as an executive. But that’s the calculus, and it becomes a lot more personal when you run for mayor of a city like New York. He had name recognition, but how would he interact with the superintendent of schools or the police commissioner or the unions? How would he handle the rigors of being a chief executive?
And I do think that Asian Americans get bundled up with the sense of, “Well, you’re new. You have less experience. You’ve just arrived. You might not know as much as you say you do.”
When I was elected to the Boston City Council in 2005, I heard people say that the Sam Yoon vote in that election was a “feel-good vote” — it felt good to vote for someone different. But to vote for mayor, you have to believe the direction of the city is going awry enough that we need someone who is really different to turn things around.
LAU: Similar to Yang’s run in New York, many in the media and in the public really thought that you might become Boston’s first Asian American (and first nonwhite) mayor. Why did the hype around your bid not translate into votes?
YOON: Those things are hard to assess when you’re inside. It’s like being in the middle of a storm, and it’s hard to have that bird’s-eye view of what is actually going on. And part of that is probably because I’m not a political junkie and certainly not a veteran with any other kind of experience to frame what I was experiencing at the time. It was all very new.
The campaign really had to emphasize how different I was and how new I was, even to the point of risking the perception that I was naive or inexperienced. I mean, those are the downsides of being new. The newness message had to be pushed to that extent, just to get the attention I would need.
LAU: Why do you think Asian American candidates have a harder time convincing voters they can be mayor?
YOON: You’ll laugh, but it’s true: My physical appearance — my face. This is something all Asians deal with. We look younger than our age. I’m in my 50s, and last year, I got carded. [Laughs.] I’m with my teenage son, and they’re like, “Can I see your ID?” It’s just a fact. We have less facial hair; our hair doesn’t grow white as quickly as others.
The stark contrast for me in my 2009 mayoral race was one of my opponents, [Michael] Flaherty, whose hair turned white very early, even for an Irish American. It was unnaturally white — but we were exactly the same age. I was close to 40, but I could have passed for a college student.
And I do remember a columnist after a debate writing, “I just cannot imagine someone as young as Sam Yoon running the city of Boston.” But I’m the same age as Michael Flaherty! What are [they] talking about? They looked at my face, and in politics of course your image matters.
So, if I were to reengineer that aspect of my campaign, I definitely would have gotten some — I don’t know if they sell hair dye that’s white? [Laughs.] I would have put a little bit around the ears just to indicate I have enough life experience to be mayor of the city.
And, honestly, I think it’s harder for Asian men. Men who have a youthful facial appearance are going to be ranked lower on whether they are experienced enough, or whether they are wise enough to run something big. It naturally works against the expectation that people have for men. [Voters think,] “The lines in your face really tell me that you’ve really seen a lot and that nothing’s gonna ever faze you.”
LAU: This reminds me of the national conversation on Asian Americans being the “model minority” and the image of being book smart but not street smart. Is that at play in mayoral elections?
YOON: Exactly. That’s exactly right. “You can be the engineer that codes the software. But guess what, in the boardroom and the C-suite, we need somebody who can really maneuver and back-slap and do the deal-making that needs to be done to really run things. But we’re fine if you can come up with the algorithms that count the beans.” I’m sure that dynamic exists in the electorate.
LAU: Does the Asian American voter base pose a challenge as well? There have been reports showing that Asian voter turnout is one of the lowest in the nation.
YOON: When the population of Asian Americans in cities like New York and Boston are around 10 percent, then you’re not really starting with a strong base to begin with. So, you need to convince all the other demographic groups that you’re the real deal.
In New York, it looked like people were looking for a reform candidate in Eric Adams. I know he campaigned almost exclusively in working-class Black and Latino neighborhoods. So, he has a base that knows politics and knows him. Andrew Yang’s base was small, and that’s because of the size of the Asian electorate in New York. [Asian Americans are] much newer to politics. So, I think that was a disadvantage from the get-go.
[And in my mayoral run,] the Asian American vote in Boston was probably going to be 5 percent or less [of the total voting-eligible population]. And of those that did vote, there was probably a component that voted out of pride, like, “Wow, it’s great to see an Asian American candidate.” But it’s not enough to really turn the tide. I don’t want to sound dismissive and say Asian American votes didn’t really count — they would have counted at the margin. However, the quantity matters.
LAU: Asian Americans in general are America’s newest demographic, with many families immigrating in the past few decades. Does this newness make campaigning harder?
YOON: The burden of representing, I think, is generally true of Asian Americans in politics. They not only have the burden of representing a constituency, they have the strong burden of representing the entire Asian American community. And to the extent that Asian Americans supported me, knowing the demographics of Boston, a fraction of those supporters were Boston voting residents.
There was plenty of donor support for me outside of the city of Boston proper and even nationally; that was by just sheer necessity. I don’t have generations of Bostonians in my family who are used to donating to their candidates. Whether you’re a taxi driver or a schoolteacher, there’s a tradition of supporting and being involved in local politics for your community. This goes back generations.
How many generations go back for Asian Americans — like a half? We’re very new, and there are so many Korean Americans and Asian Americans who have never donated [to a political candidate] before or are donating for the first time.
LAU: After your unsuccessful campaign in 2009, you left Boston to go into lobbying and advocacy before leaving politics altogether to work as a high school math teacher. What’s next for AAPI candidates like Andrew Yang?
YOON: The civic-minded Asian American in me really hopes that candidates stay engaged in the political mix, because in order to overcome that perception of inexperience, we need more Asian Americans who can demonstrate that they have the competence to run governance.
But the human side of me — we’re all human after all — just recognizes how hard it is to maintain a political life and have a happy marriage and raise happy kids. It’s very hard.
Maybe I’m being a little down on myself, but could I have continued, should I have continued? I almost stayed in Boston. To really cultivate a political career, it would have made sense to stay in Boston. But it was difficult to do so. And I had to think about my family; I had to have some way of making money. The reason I hesitate is, I don’t know. If you want to have a career in politics, should you do it the way I did? I don’t know if that’s the right answer.
But I think we’re getting there. I know Andrew Yang can inspire other Asian Americans to do what he did. Every Asian American watching the presidential debates had a completely different thing going on in their mind and in their heart when Yang spoke. With new generations embracing the idea [of going into politics] and seeing that as community service, we will find that critical mass for another superstar to rise and break new ground.
LAU: It sounds like you’re really optimistic looking to the future. Why do you feel this way?
YOON: A major barrier for me and others who have run who are Asian American is, simply put, the lack of role models. There was a lot of convincing my family that what I was doing was not insane.
But there will slowly be more and more Asian Americans who enter politics successfully and sustainably. But just like every pioneering generation, they need a lot more collective support. As Asian Americans, we have to believe in them more strongly, just to get off the ground, which is why someone like Rep. Andy Kim in New Jersey — I send him checks regularly, even though I’m in Virginia. He’s the first Korean American Democrat in Congress.
LAU: What do you think of Boston’s mayoral race this fall? Almost every major candidate is a person of color, with the four frontrunners all being women, including Michelle Wu, a Taiwanese American topping nearly every poll.
YOON: For Michelle, I think it’s going to be a tough road to climb, but she already knows that. But just looking at the trends and seeing the shift in the makeup of the Boston City Council, [which is now majority-women and majority-people of color,] if she can ride that into the mayor’s office, that would be quite something. But the other [top] mayoral candidates, Kim Janey, Annissa Essaibi George, Andrea Campbell — all women of color. That’s incredible. That’s just amazing.
So, yeah, I am optimistic. I am optimistic that, as small as we are, that [Asian Americans] will continue to punch above our weight and make a political career and vocation something that’s ingrained in what it means to be American.
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