Dems risk Asians seeing ‘red’ if NY Assembly yanks Lester Chang’s win

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The red wave — not a red wave, a red ripple! — crashed on a select few shores during the midterms. One, of course, was New York, and much of the froth was reserved for the suburbs. But plenty of it came for the five boroughs, especially chunks of Brooklyn and Queens. There were the usual Republican voters, the vanishing white ethnics and the ascendant Orthodox Jews, and the newer cohort of Asian Americans, many of them first- and second-generation. They were drawn to the Republican Party for a variety of reasons, from the law-and-order rhetoric to concerns about public and private education. 

At the top of the ticket was Lee Zeldin, the candidate for governor who won 47% of the vote, and below him were the many House candidates who stormed to victory and the legislative candidates who rode their coattails.

In Brooklyn, Peter Abbate, a Democrat who has held his Sunset Park and Dyker Heights Assembly seat since 1987, was defeated. Abbate himself had come to power ousting a Republican. Political life, it seemed, came full circle. 

The man who beat him was Lester Chang, an Asian American Republican. He had run twice before in Manhattan, both times unsuccessfully. Chang, according to allies, put in a real effort to defeat Abbate, despite being badly outspent, but the real reason he won was the sheer number of people in the district, Asian and white alike, voting for Zeldin for governor. 

Chang took 52% of the vote. Zeldin, meanwhile, trounced Hochul, winning almost 62% in the outer borough seat. Abbate, an Italian American legislator, had long represented an area growing heavily Chinese, and it was always thought that, at some point, a member of that community would replace him. (The district is majority Asian.) This came to pass. It just happened Abbate’s successor was not a Democrat.

Dems caught napping

Peter J. Abbate, Jr.
Peter Abbate, Jr. has held his Sunset Park and Dyker Heights Assembly seat since 1987.

Chang, a Navy veteran, said he lived in his mother’s house in Midwood, a neighborhood several miles beyond the district. He claimed this even as he voted in Manhattan in November 2021. Had Abbate or the Brooklyn Democratic Party managed to challenge Chang’s residency during the petitioning process, they could have driven him from the ballot. 

But they were too inattentive, too lazy, which is what happens when political machines atrophy. Chang sailed through, won the race, and Abbate — a long-serving if forgettable lawmaker — was driven into retirement.

Except the State Assembly may not seat Chang at all.

The body’s judiciary committee is investigating Chang’s residency and will produce their findings in January, just before the start of the new session. In a redistricting year, a candidate for office only needs to live in the county they are running in one year before the election and Chang’s Midwood address would normally pass muster. Election law in New York State is quite lax and a candidate can live in multiple places while claiming residency in one. The trouble, of course, is Chang voted outside the county in 2021. 

Lester Chang is pictured during an event in Brooklyn with Lee Zeldin.
Chang and Lee Zeldin (second from right) beat their opponents in the district during the midterm elections.
Courtesy of Lester Chang

Still, an election was run and Chang won it. The voters, knowing (or not knowing) the particulars, made their decision.

“Until my wife passed in 2019, I lived with her in a Manhattan apartment,” Chang said at a December press conference. “Even then, I still had residence here in Brooklyn. It was my childhood home. I never left.”

Just as state election law is lax, the state Legislature has wide latitude to not seat elected members or expel those already in the body. More than a century ago, the State Assembly voted to expel five socialist lawmakers during the Red Scare following the First World War. 

Chang, a Republican, would face opposition on ideological grounds as well, since the Assembly has a Democratic supermajority. As tenuous as Chang’s residency claims in Brooklyn may be, it is difficult to imagine the Assembly ever trying to block a Democrat, particularly one from a marginalized group, from taking office.

Demographic change

Peter J. Abbate, Jr.
Abbate, Jr. could run again in a special election if Gov. Kathy Hochul calls for one.

Carl Heastie, the Assembly speaker, has a decision to make in the coming weeks. His party, in New York at least, is rapidly losing support with the city’s fast-growing demographic. Asian American voters increasingly do not think Democrats respect them or take them seriously. Chinese in Bensonhurst and Sunset Park are fast becoming staunch Republicans, along with a growing number of Chinese and Korean voters in Flushing and eastern Queens. Will this trend continue or reverse? 

English speakers do not quite understand the power of the Asian media in New York, which exhaustively covers, in Chinese and Korean, issues often neglected in the mainstream press. If Chang, who would become one of the only Asian American state legislators in New York, is denied the seat he rightfully won, the local media will revolt. 

Chinese voters across the city will know the name of Lester Chang like they know John Liu, who remains a celebrity in the community as the first Asian American ever elected in New York. Chang will be remembered as the Navy veteran the Democrats stole a seat from. He will be a political martyr. 

If the Assembly votes him out, Gov. Kathy Hochul will call a special election. Abbate, in theory, could run again if he has the appetite. No matter what happens in that scenario, though, Democrats will have lost. A generation of Asian American voters will see the Democratic Party as fully aligned against them, willing to crush one of their duly elected own. They will head into voting booths with a simple vow: Never vote Democrat, no matter what.

Ross Barkan writes at rossbarkan.substack.com

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