Identity politics and the hotly contested race for Chinatown’s vote in District One


Christopher Marte, centre, announces his campaign on the steps of City Hall earlier this month. To his right, Steven Wong. Photo by © Augusta Anthony

After Christopher Marte lost last month’s Democratic primary to incumbent Councilwoman Margaret Chin by just 222 votes, the race for District One’s City Council seat seemed over for the Dominican-American. But a little-known election rule has allowed Marte, 28, to fight on as a third-party candidate, and he has set his campaigning sights on Chin’s electoral base in Lower Manhattan’s Chinatown.

As an Asian-American, a longtime Chinatown activist and the incumbent representative for the Manhattan neighbourhood that thousands of Chinese immigrants call home, Chin seemed a shoo-in for reelection – at least on paper.

The vote count was too close to be called by the Board of Elections on primary night last month. Chin held a very slim lead, and Marte’s team refused to concede until all absentee ballots had been counted and the votes verified. But 13 days later Chin was declared victorious, having picked up 22 votes in the final count.

But as it turned out, the race was not over, thanks to an obscure New York write-in rule. Although most registered voters in District One are Democrats, there are 2,571 active voters of the Independence Party, a center-right party with just one representative in the New York legislature. During the primary, five people casting Independence Party ballots wrote in Marte’s name – just enough, it turns out, to allow him to run in the November 7 general election as that party’s nominee.

Marte said the overwhelming support he’s received from the community convinced him to seize the unusual opportunity to run on the Independence Party ticket, “even though I’m a Democrat and always will be a Democrat.” He announced his campaign on the step of City Hall announcing his campaign, calling it “a people’s movement, and on November 7th we will prove it true.”

“I don’t think it’s ever been done before,” said Marte campaign manager, Caitlin Kelmar, just 22 and a recent NYU graduate, expressing their surprise. “Two hundred votes isn’t a fluke,” and should be seen by Chin as a warning of her unpopularity, said Kelmar. In 2013, Chin won a very comfortable 59 percent of the Democratic primary vote; last month, her share dropped to just 44 percent.

District One includes City Hall, the Financial District and other lower Manhattan neighbourhoods, but the vote in Chinatown is crucial since it is Chin’s base. The mood there is split between the two candidates, said Salina Wang NTD, a New York based TV channel serving the Chinese community. But “Chinese people want to have an Asian face in City Council,” said Wang, who was one of several Chinese reporters covering Marte’s City Hall announcement.

“Generally ethnic groups will vote for people who are like their ethnic group,” agreed veteran campaign consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who noted that incumbents have a reelection rate of around 90 percent in New York politics.

Marte and Chinatown supporters at fundraiser this month. Photo by © Augusta Anthony

But Chin is no longer a popular incumbent in Chinatown. At a press conference for Marte’s Chinese supporters shouted, “Margaret Out!” and at least 40 members of the community came out to show Marte support. A week later, a local fundraiser raised $6,300 in just two hours. As of 20th October, Marte had received a total of $89,268 in contributions for this whole election cycle.

Chin has been particularly criticised for allying with Mayor Bill de Blasio, who’s popularity has also waned since his 2013 election. She has come under fire for the proposed high-rise developments on the waterfront, and a coalition of community groups called Lower East Siders for Christopher Marte has scheduled a march today to protest Chin’s policies.

“We are sick of Margaret Chin’s lies and coziness with developers,” a press release from the organization said. “In Chin’s eight years in office, we’ve seen rising rents and prices, evictions, loss of services and programs, small businesses shutting down, and NYCHA [the city’s housing agency] falling apart.”

Marte has also received support from Steven Wong, a community leader who supported Chin in her first victory in 2009. Wong serves as the President of the Hotel Chinese Association, which represents Chinese hotel workers. He is currently on leave from that position to serve as chief strategic officer in Marte’s campaign. At the press conference for Marte’s Chinatown supporters, Wong said he has known Chin for 37 years but has grown disappointed by her record in office. Chin doesn’t “put her heart to helping people,” he said.  Wong says he has known Chin 37 years and been disappointed by her record in office. “People across backgrounds should come out to support Marte.”

But a recent controversy involving Wong could damage his efforts to help Marte. Chin’s campaign has accused Wong and an associate of voter fraud; both live outside District One, but cast primary votes there by giving their address as 98 Mott Street in Chinatown, the building that houses the Hotel Chinese Association.

“I believe this to be an illegal act and request an investigation into this matter by your office,” wrote Chin’s campaign manager Shiang Liu in a letter to District Attorney Cyrus Vance dated October 5th. When contacted, the District Attorney’s office said they have received the letter but declined comment.

“Let allegations be allegations,” Marte said, in dismissing the letters to supporters at his recent fundraiser. “It’s not going to affect our campaign,” he said, and “at the end of the day, we know our voters are still behind us.”

“There is no fraud because the address is under my name,” Wong told Chinese media at the fundraiser – though he also said that he will not vote in November.

To many at Marte’s fundraiser, the allegations from Chin’s campaign seemed like a cheap trick to sway votes. “He’s only one vote!” said 74-year-old Alice Yan, a Chinatown resident. Yan said she’s not interested in ethnicity and wants a candidate who delivers, “all the points.”

Restaurant owner Peter Lin expressed a similar sentiment in his speech at the fundraiser. “We are in America now so we cannot vote for Chin just because she is Chinese,” he told the audience in Cantonese.

But Chung Seto, president of the United Democratic Organisation, a group promoting Asian Americans in politics, said Chin should continue to represent the area. Chin emigrated from Hong Kong at age nine, founded the activist group Asian Americans for Equality and was the first Asian-American woman on the City Council.

“Margaret is a daughter of Chinatown, she has grown up with the seniors, she understands intrinsically our values and the needs of the community,” Seto said. “It’s important that we elect and continue to recruit and train and support other Asian Americans that want to succeed her.”


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