The Magnolia Room at Bourbon Street, a Bayside bar, was filled with delight mingled with some surprise on primary night. Democrat John Liu, the former NYC comptroller, beat the incumbent state senator in NY District 11, Tony Avella, by more than 5 percent. He was one step closer to representing residents in Queens’ Bayside, Flushing, Whitestone, Douglaston and College Point in the state senate, as the first Chinese American.
However, the politician’s victory gave rise to an uproar in “Residents Alliance”, a WeChat (a Chinese online conversation platform) group that gathers over 1,000 Chinese parents in the New York area, but not a jovial one.
“We need to talk about what to do next,” said Alliance co-founder Donghui Zang, a dad of two school-age kids, said in the WeChat group after the result came in.
Zang admitted to a reporter at a small petition signing in Queens last Saturday that most of the Alliance group members voted for Avella.
“I know John Liu has done a lot for the community, and in Flushing, I understand he has support from a lot of Chinese Americans,” said Zang. “But this is about children.”
Among the issues that set this Chinese group against Liu is education, SHSAT to be more specific. SHSAT, or the Specialized High School Admission Test, is the sole criteria for admission for eight of the New York City’s elite high schools, where Chinese students have been enjoying one of the best acceptance rates among all ethnic groups.
Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to scrap the test as the only criteria for admission in an effort to boost ethnic diversity in these schools, and to give more opportunity to Black or Latino students. Although Black and Latino students make up about 67 percent of the New York City public school system, such students have typically only received about 10 percent of offered seats to the specialized high schools in recent years. The Mayor’s plans to change admissions alarms many Chinese parents who don’t want to see it changed.
“Chinese Americans normally shy away from politics,” said Yin Yin, a middle-aged mother who also appeared at Saturday’s petition signing. “That is different when education is involved.”
Despite the Mayor’s proposals to change the SHSAT admissions, the power to change testing admissions to the specialized high schools actually falls under the power of the state legislature making Liu’s stance even more relevant for voters.
In Liu’s previous senate challenge against Avella four years ago, he stated his support for the bill to eliminate the SHSAT test, while his opponent offered to do his best to support the test. Although Liu switched his stance to supporting the SHSAT test this year, his past is not to be forgotten by the Chinese parents.
David Lee, a leader of Coalition Edu, another New York-based group that defends SHSAT, said the coalition members determined that “Avella was truly against changing the SHSAT and that Liu could not be relied upon to preserve the SHSAT” after examining each of the candidate’s records.
“Since Chinese Americans lack political capital in this country, it’s important for them to elect officials who will represent their will, regardless of the race or ethnicity,” Lee said when interviewed by the reporter by email.
To achieve that goal, both Residents Alliance and Coalition Edu had organized rallies and petitions around this year’s primary, calling for voters to support Avella.
Liu is aware of that. “I don’t expect to get every single Chinese community to support me. Just as I have much Italian support and my opponent is Italian,” he said prior to casting his vote on primary day. “Not everything is based on race, and not everything is based on ethnicity.”
The parents are not giving up hope. Despite Liu’s win, Tony Avella’s name will still be listed on the general election ballot in November under the Independence Party and Women’s Equality Party lines.
“We are still trying to contact Avella’s office, to see if he would still run in the general election,” Zang said.