Grace Under Pressure: Rep. Grace Meng keeps rolling with the punches – and winning
Rep. Grace Meng stepped on stage in front of thousands at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Identifying herself as the first Asian-American elected to Congress from the East Coast, she pleaded with fellow members of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community to organize, campaign and turn out to vote in the 2016 election.
“It is critical that we elect a person who will make history for America and build a brighter future of generations to come,” she told the throng of cheering supporters. “And that person is Hillary Clinton.” Days later, Meng, 41, was elected as a vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, running on a platform of unity and outreach.
But while campaigning for the DNC position, she spoke to Democrats around the country and found that members of the party in rural and suburban areas expressed a feeling of abandonment. “In New York sometimes we take it for granted that we can go to almost any meeting and meet Democratic electeds or candidates,” Meng told City & State. “Some of these folks tell me that they haven't had any sort of high-profile Democrat attend their local Democratic Party in years. I think a lot of times the Democrats keep focusing on ‘What's our message, what's our message?’ But I think part of the problem is that there are a lot of places throughout this country that we haven't sent a messenger to.”
That seemed clear after the night of Nov. 8, when in perhaps the biggest political upset in U.S. history, Donald Trump was declared the winner of the presidential election – and the Democrats’ hopes of not only electing their history-making standard-bearer, but also winning the U.S. Senate and maybe even the U.S. House of Representatives, were shattered.
Like other congressional Democrats, Meng has been vocal in her disapproval of Trump. She boycotted his inauguration. When Trump issued an executive order to ban immigration from seven majority-Muslim nations, she sponsored legislation in the House that sought to prevent congressional funding from being used to enforce it. In a statement issued to mark the president’s first 100 days, the congresswoman blasted her fellow New Yorker, saying that Trump “has yet to accomplish anything significant, and many of his actions have been appalling.”
Yet during an interview in her modest district headquarters, Meng is humble and mild-mannered, a stark contrast from the braggadocio of many politicians. Now on her third term as the representative for the 6th Congressional District, Meng says she took a lot for granted under President Barack Obama.
“I think because of this new administration, our focus has shifted,” she said, referring to Trump. “It’s more to protect and defend our constituents and New Yorkers, versus seeing what progress we can make. So I’m a little sad about that.”
“Because of this new administration, our focus has shifted. It’s more to protect and defend our constituents and New Yorkers, versus seeing what progress we can make.”
Congress reached a bipartisan budget agreement late last month that left out many of Trump’s priorities, but many of the same policy battles will be waged again when the spending bill expires at the end of September. Looking ahead, Meng is concerned Trump wants to cut federal programs that help low-income New Yorkers, including Meals on Wheels, after-school programs and the Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides heating assistance to low-income state residents.
“It feels like panic on a lot of days, and not so much within the halls of Congress, but because our constituents are so scared,” Meng said.“I think that the sense of urgency is in response to a lot of the policies that the president is proposing.”
She’s also working on a bill that helps increase access to feminine hygiene products for women and girls who can’t afford them and another to eliminate the use of the chemical bisphenol A in plastics.
One of her biggest legislative victories happened in 2016, when Obama signed into law a piece of legislation she had sponsored that eliminated the use of the words “Oriental,” “Negro” and “Eskimo” from the federal code, demonstrating her commitment to communities of color. Two other successful pieces of legislation were one that encourages the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to hire veterans and another that ensures residents of public housing have sufficient heat during the winter.
Meng said that her identity – Asian-American, woman, mother – gives her a sense of obligation to speak up for those groups and provide input as to how policies might affect marginalized communities.
“I don't always walk into every room or every meeting thinking that ‘OK, I'm an Asian woman and what are we going to do today?’” Meng said. “But there have been so many times where I'm sitting around the table and I realize that I might be the only Asian-American, I might be the only woman of color at that table.”
Meng’s first foray into politics began when she worked as the campaign manager for her father, Jimmy Meng, who in 2004 became the first Asian-American politician elected to the state Assembly. He stepped down after one term representing Flushing, Queens, and was succeeded by Ellen Young. Grace Meng later challenged Young for the same seat in 2006, but withdrew when Young challenged her residency status. Two years later, Grace Meng challenged Young again and won.
What is now her congressional seat had previously been held by Gary Ackerman for three decades. His surprise announcement not to run for re-election came at the right time for Meng. She had initially run for the Assembly seat without the backing of the Queens Democratic establishment, but after six years working at the state level, she now had enough support to take the next step. The institutional support helped her fend off two primary rivals, New York City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley and then-Assemblyman Rory Lancman.
“It feels like panic on a lot of days, and not so much within the halls of Congress, but because our constituents are so scared.”
Her campaign was clouded by her father’s corruption scandal. Jimmy Meng ultimately was sentenced to one month in prison for offering to bribe prosecutors on behalf of a businessman. “It was smack in the middle of my election,” the congresswoman said. “So it was emotionally a very difficult time. I would probably say one of the hardest times of my life.”
But the support she received from the community fueled her, she said.
Despite the controversy, she defeated her Republican opponent, then-New York City Councilman Dan Halloran – who went on to get convicted of bribery as well and is serving a 10-year prison sentence. The victory made her the first Asian-American to represent New York City in Congress. But the personal challenges did not end there. In her first year in office in 2013, she was assaulted and robbed of her purse in Washington, D.C.’s Eastern Market area. She returned to Capitol Hill the next day. And in 2015, her brother, former Pi Delta Psi President Andy Meng, was arrested after allegedly covering up evidence when a hazing ritual killed a student.
This month, Grace Meng will give the commencement speech at Queens College and receive the school’s President’s Medal, which recognizes the receiver’s service to the borough. Queens College President Félix Matos Rodríguez echoed others in offering nothing but praise for Meng, saying she had served as an advocate for the college throughout her time in the Assembly and in Congress.
He sees choosing the commencement speaker as a gift to graduating students. Women and Asian-Americans make up two of the biggest populations at Queens College.
“I wanted someone who’s been a trailblazer, who’s opened doors,” he said. “Someone who can be a role model to our students.”
During her time in the Assembly, Meng was the only Asian member of the entire 150-seat governing body. Because there was no Asian caucus, she joined the Black, Puerto Rican and Hispanic Caucus (turning it into the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus). She described the experience as valuable, because so many of the issues that matter to the caucus directly affect the Asian community too.
In Congress, there are a record 18 Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, which have the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. But Meng is familiar with being in the minority. She speaks fondly of her time growing up in Elmhurst, Flushing and Bayside as a child of Chinese immigrants, but notes that she always felt a bit out of place among her peers.
“I always felt like I looked different than everyone else,” she said. “Sometimes when my family would pack me lunch for school, I always just wanted peanut butter and jelly or ham and cheese sandwiches and wondered why I had to have weird Asian food for lunch.”
But the neighborhoods in her district, which aside from Elmhurst and Flushing also includes Murray Hill, Bayside, Fresh Meadows and Kew Gardens, have changed; roughly a third of the population there is now Asian-American.
Then-New York City Comptroller John Liu made an unsuccessful bid for mayor in 2013, but as the most prominent Asian-American in city politics, he paved the way for others like Meng. He said he believes it’s the responsibility of elected officials who are people of color to act as representatives for their communities.
“That’s why we want diversity, and that’s why you want a legislative body to reflect the population,” he said. “She is the only Asian-American member of Congress from New York, so that does, for better or for worse, put her in a position of responsibility for the Asian-American community, as well as her congressional district.”
And despite the many challenges that may lie ahead for Meng as a member of the minority party during the Trump era, she chooses to focus on the silver lining: that there’s more engagement and interest in politics from constituents throughout New York and the country.
One example is the Women’s Action Group of Forest Hills, which was founded in reaction to Trump’s election. Members have organized and participated in rallies, are currently raising money to assist a refugee family resettling in Queens from El Salvador and are interested in campaigning on behalf of Democratic candidates. One of its members, Jody Peckett, had never been involved in politics or activism until joining the group.
Meng attended one of the organization’s monthly meetings and has since stayed connected, Peckett said.
She said that she believes Meng genuinely cared about the concerns of the group. “I didn’t feel like we were talking into the abyss,” Peckett said. “Sometimes you speak to a politician and they’re not listening, just smiling and nodding. I felt like she was taking in what we were saying. To feel heard is a very big deal.”
And Peckett said it’s significant that Meng is like the women who comprise the group. “She’s a mom with young kids and lives in Queens,” she said. “It’s nice to see someone, who reflects who we are, fighting for us in D.C.”