Margaret Chin Plays Both Front-Runner and Underdog in City Council Race

BY SUSIE POPPICK

If Margaret Chin is growing impatient, she hides it well.

Just two days before New York’s city council Democratic primary, the four-time District 1 candidate breezes into her Chinatown campaign office, a serene smile on her face.

Around the small, fluorescent room, staff and volunteers work the phones — reminding district residents to vote, preferably for Chin — and make rally signs. Not all share Chin’s serenity.

“Go. Make. Calls!” campaign manager Jake Itzkowitz barks at two volunteers.

“Spanish! Quick!” another volunteer announces, tossing her phone to Lorna Chine-Nobile, who has donated her legal and language skills to the campaign.

Chine-Nobile introduces herself to the caller as a volunteer for “Margarita Chin,” then clarifies.

“Si, la china. La china es la unica mujer.”

Yes, the Chinese woman. The Chinese woman is the only woman.

New York City District 1 City Council candidate Margaret Chin rallies with her campaign volunteers in Chatham Square on Sunday, September 13, 2009. If she wins in this year's election, she will be the first Asian-American councilwoman in the city's history.

New York City District 1 City Council candidate Margaret Chin rallies with her campaign volunteers in Chatham Square on Sunday, September 13, 2009. If she wins in this year's election, she will be the first Asian-American councilwoman in the city's history.

In this campaign, Margaret Chin is often identified by two qualities she can’t control: being Asian and female. Following three unsuccessful bids for a council seat — the first nearly two decades ago — she is, for the first time, the only Chinese-American and only woman on the District 1 ballot, hoping to unseat Alan Gerson for the right to represent Chinatown, TriBeCa, SoHo, and the Lower East Side. Most of this year’s five candidates have focused their campaigns on school resources and affordable housing. Chin is trying to capitalize on her status as a mother and veteran Chinatown activist to distinguish herself.

But more than her race and sex, it is her reputation for defiance, her at-times controversial history — including a vernal membership in the Communist Workers Party — and her campaign office’s efforts to mobilize untapped Chinatown voters that will likely determine her success in this race.

“The people who have given to my campaign are retired restaurant workers and teachers and people like that,” Chin said. “It is our time.”

The lack of Chinese candidates bodes well for Chin, campaign staff said. Asians comprise about 25 percent of registered voters in the district, up from about 12 percent in 2001, and Chin’s campaign has focused on Chinatown, registering more than 800 new voters there. The last time Chin ran, in 2001, there were two other Chinese-Americans on the ballot and she came in fourth place, about 750 votes behind Gerson’s 3,310.

But unlike the last time she ran, Chin leads the other candidates this year in campaign donations, with more than $116,000, and individual contributors, totaling 1,365 — more than twice the number of donors to any other candidate.

Chin, 56, whose family moved to New York from Hong Kong when she was nine, often points out that she grew up in Chinatown, attended public schools, and raised her son in the financial district. The only other Asian candidate, Korean-American P.J. Kim, has lived in the district for one year.

Chin is married to a public school teacher, Alan Tung, and has spent her career in jobs that have followed a similar theme: 14 years as a bilingual public school teacher, 11 years at the non-profit advocacy group Asian Americans for Equality, and dozens of positions on community, housing, and census boards.

Chin also speaks three dialects of Chinese. In 2004, her language skills helped residents gain a 15-year housing extension at 210 Stanton St., a low-income housing development on the Lower East Side, according to tenant leader Marie Christopher.

Christopher said Chin helped Chinese tenants — about 10 percent of the building occupants — write letters in English to politicians and the press.

“She’s efficient, tough, but most importantly, selfless,” Christopher said. “She would come by herself at seven o’clock at night after work and she understood that the material she was translating was not simple.”

Chin’s advocacy for non-English speaking Chinese New Yorkers extends to the early 90s, when  Chin was a vocal critic of discrimination against Chinese voters. She sued the Board of Elections to print ballots and voting instructions in Asian languages in parts of the city where substantial Asian populations existed. Chin and several other advocates are credited with taking the earliest steps to push the city to expand the languages offered on New York City ballots today — for the last two years, New Yorkers have been able to vote in English, Korean, Spanish, or Chinese.

But Chin’s success as an activist will not necessarily translate to votes, said Leland Saito, the author of “Politics of Exclusion,” a book examining the impact of race and politics in New York, Los Angeles and San Diego.

“Race still matters, even in this supposedly post-racial Obama world,” Saito said. “There are two really unfortunate stereotypes of Asian-American women: the meek and the mild, and the dangerous dragon lady.”

Saito said Chin’s history as an activist may put her into the latter category in the eyes of some voters.

Chin agreed that her reputation sometimes interferes with her work, but she said she is proud of her determination.

“People see me, and I’m this petite Asian woman, [but] I mean business,” said Chin, who stands just under five feet tall. “They say I’m very combative, but I just have a lot of passion … I take things seriously. There are certain times that you’ve got to really put it out there.”

District 1 is split nearly evenly between white and Asian voters, and it is in the areas outside of Chinatown that Chin is at a disadvantage, said New York University urban policy professor Mitchell Moss. When The New York Times endorsed Kim for the District 1 council seat earlier this month, citing his business experience and Ivy League education, Chin lost a crucial opportunity to appeal to mainstream white voters, Moss said.

“The different communities within the district are coherent within themselves and bounded from each other,” Moss said. “Margaret’s challenge has always been to get votes outside of Chinatown.”

Most stigmatizing, for mainstream voters, may be Chin’s involvement decades ago with the Communist Workers Party, U.S.A.

In 1979, some of Chin’s fellow party members were killed during a Ku Klux Klan protest in Greensboro, N.C., and The New York Times published two articles about the confrontation, mentioning Chin by name. In the first, Chin and two colleagues were quoted blaming the deaths on paid F.B.I. assassins, and in the second, Chin was photographed at a press conference in front of a sign calling for a march from Greensboro to Washington, D.C., to “avenge” the party members’ killings.

Today, Chin said, she does not regret her activity in the party, but instead sees her involvement as integral to her personal development.

“It was just activism in college … it’s part of what I’m doing now, fighting for equality and justice,” Chin said. “The association really opened up my eyes to other communities with similar issues … [such as] the African-American community, the Puerto Rican community.”

Even some of Chin’s supporters acknowledge that her history as an advocate for the underprivileged make her a controversial figure among wealthier residents.

“People who don’t like her, it’s not about her race,” Christopher said. “It’s about money. There are some uppity buildings in the district and they don’t want nothing low-income near them, and they know Margaret.”

Some voters supporting Chin’s opponents say their negative perception of Chin has less to do with race and political leanings than with her visibility.

“We just never see her and we don’t know her,” said Gerson campaign volunteer Allan Horland. “She hasn’t seemed to step out of Chinatown enough.”

Horland, who lives in Greenwich Village, said Gerson has done a better job, fighting for rent stabilization.

Another tenant leader, Independence Plaza North Tenant Association Vice President Ed Rosner, said Gerson has done more significant advocacy work for his building complex than Chin, financially supporting legal action the tenants’ association took against their landlord in 2005.

“Alan [Gerson] has impacted my life and the lives of all the other tenants,” Rosner said.

But no matter who wins this year, Chin said, she plans to stay involved in her community.

“Look at my history,” Chin said. “In 1991 there were other Asian candidates that ran in the district. Where are they now?”

She pauses, and a hint of impatience finally tinges her voice.

“But I don’t want to focus on what happens if I lose,” she said. “You’ve got to have a seat at the table.”

Photos – Susie Poppick

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