Yuh-Line Niou puts politics above politics
Yuh-Line Niou, the carefree second-term MP who represents much of Lower Manhattan, is part of a group of young lawmakers who want to bring about change in Albany. For Niou, that change begins in her district office, where creating a comfortable space for her constituents and caring for her young employees are her top priorities.
When Niou was serving as Chief of Staff for Rep. Ron Kim, he was the only Asian American in the state legislature. She had this in mind when deciding to run, and even in her third year she still sees it as her job to create a seat at the table for those who have been excluded from the political decision-making process.
City & State met with Niou to discuss what’s on their political agenda and how younger elected officials are changing the status quo in Albany. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You are part of a group of legislators who are younger than ever in the state parliament. Are you doing something together? Are you forming a voting block?
It is not entirely true that we are the youngest. There were many young white men. I think this is something that hasn’t really been talked about. It’s not that we’re new because we’re young. We are new and we are women. We are colored people. And some are queer. And a little different! And so now people have to bring these perspectives to the table, and these are perspectives that were previously rarely represented in the government.
Do you ever feel that this burden is “that person”? I am thinking of the Child Victims Act vote when four of you stood up and shared these very personal stories of sexual assault or abuse. Women – especially women of color – often feel in some way responsible for personal disclosure.
Secure. And you are right. I think we feel that responsibility. Not to speak for my colleagues, but we talked about that later. When I first talked about it, it was actually at last year’s conference when they decided not to do the math – when they tried to change it, which really worried me. Then I shared it, and then we turned the votes. I think people didn’t realize that it affects people on a daily basis. You know? And nobody wanted to talk about it. And that was the first time I talked about it.
Was it a no-brainer?
No it was not. I was really scared. It was like the worst feeling you know But what can you do? You know it’s the right thing to do. And I think being a legislator is very similar because it’s not always the most pleasant job. You don’t make a lot of money; you take criticism all the time; and you are under surveillance for everything that is part of the job of a civil servant. And other people have not always lived up to this position.
Literally your seat. It only opened because of Sheldon Silver’s corruption conviction.
Yes indeed! Literally my seat. And on top of that, the environment itself can be very toxic, and women don’t – they just never had that voice at the table. Women just didn’t have that kind of support because, as you can see from the sexual harassment hearings, many things have been accumulating for a long, long time and there has been no way to complain, or leave, or feel safe about it . So the environment was poisonous. As more people are elected and the changes that come with those choices, you begin to see how people’s behavior changes.
Absolutely, 100 percent.
There are more women. I haven’t seen some of the bad behavior of the past. I didn’t see the “hot or not” list. It may still be out there, but previously there was a “hot or not” list circulating among some men in Albany. Things were strange. But it’s different now.
Let’s switch gears. So you are deep in politics. You are a politician, the legislator of a legislator.
Yes indeed! I’m a political wink, yeah. I am more into politics than politics, as you will find out.
What proposals are you currently working on?
I have a whole economic justice platform that I’m working on.
Okay, tell me about it.
So, I’ve always been a really big advocate of poverty reduction. That’s mainly where my political background comes from. I previously worked in Washington state for an organization called the Statewide Poverty Action Network, and I worked on anti-poverty legislation as a whole, but a lot of the things that I focused on were regulating predatory products that were on Color communities and low income people like payday loans, check cashers, etc. When I was elected, the first boards I wanted to vote for were banking, insurance, consumer protection, housing.
That corresponds to your platform for economic justice.
Everything is connected, right? Any policy. When it comes to the environment, when it comes to housing. The related part is that there is a huge disparity between people who are rich and poor. Every single political issue we discuss has to do with this economic interdependence. So when it comes to fighting poverty, everything has to be changed.
There is economic separation. There is environmental segregation. Why is NYCHA right next to the freeway? Nobody wants to live next to a highway with all this pollution coming in, and kids breathe in all these pollutants and get asthma. And when there is no heating or hot water, which is often the case, the parents end up in jail because they may have turned on the stove to keep their child warm and then their child touched the stove. You know? There is a huge, high price to be paid to being poor.
How do you want to go about politics?
I have bills that are essentially there to protect our usury laws. In New York we actually have very strong usury laws and we need to make sure they are upheld. And we need to stop defending ourselves against those check cashers who keep trying to become payday lenders. In New York we ban all payday loans, which is a positive. At the same time, you have to make sure you are making good products that people can use. So we have to fund things like the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund. We’re one of the few states that has community development funds, and we never financed it.
Yes. Because of this, small businesses need to obtain merchant cash advances that are like payday loans. To the right? So you have to actually ban these practices and then fund the right practices as well so that people actually get the upward mobility they deserve.
You need to address the need.
To the right. And another thing is wealth limits. I have an asset limit bill. One of the biggest things that people don’t even realize is that all of our social benefits have those terrible little things – asset limits – that make it so that you are forced to spend less. You are afraid of getting that $ 20 increase because you might get banned from Medicare or lose your SNAP benefits. If we can get rid of the wealth limits, we will also help people get into the savings mentality. If you are not forced to spend and you are actually encouraged to save, you can escape poverty. We have to change our systems.
Are you in favor of “Medicine for All”?
Everything about it.
Are you in favor of abolishing the ICE?
What are you still What other quippy tags do you have?
Everyone, man. All the best.
You are everything.
I may be more on the left than on the left. (Laughs.)
I heard you’re starting a club? A democratic association?
Oh, I have one down here. I mean, I didn’t start with it. A lot of people kept asking: “How do we get involved in the process?” “How can we change things?” Or “I’ve never been to a club before, I’ve never done that”. , I’ve never done that before, “people told me this stuff. And I’ve never been a part of any of these things or all of these people in my district. They have always been politically involved, they just never felt that they had any freedom of choice in the way things were going.
The district committee stuff, the way things played out in the special elections. And a couple of people who have never been to a club decided to start a club. So they asked themselves, “How do we do this?” And I’m the assembly woman, so they asked me and I said, “Well. These are the rules.”
What are the goals of the club, the New Downtown Dems?
I think the club’s goal is to make government more transparent. Access in the government. Anyone can join the club, no one is excluded. We got people talking about how petitions work. We turned on election lawyers. We brought them in to give these lectures on how the voting system works, what a district leader is.
At this level, the process gets a little complicated for most people.
That is much. For example, when I decided to run for the special election, I had to find out what the system was because not only was it very biased – in the sense that you had to be a club member and a district committee member – the county committee members who Half of them don’t even know they are members of the county committee because sometimes people just type in their names. And then her voice has a different weight. And the weighted vote depends on who voted for the governor in the last election – the governor’s winner. In this case, who voted for Cuomo in the last election. It so happened that a lot of people in my district voted for Zephyr Teachout, so some people who voted that vote lost their political power.
Seems to be super disenfranchised.
Super disenfranchisement! And super biased. And super not democratic. I found that to be a really interesting thing.
So how do you dismantle the whole system?
Good question! You have to join a club! So that’s why these people decided to start a club in the first place. Not because they said: “We should join the old system”, but because you can’t change dishes when you’re not at the table. It’s the same idea why I ran for office. I think there are so many things we have to do to change things and you cannot change things if you are not at the table. Very Shirley Chisholm I guess, except I don’t have my folding chair, I have my fake Eames!