Kwong Hui is happy about the historic wave of Asian Americans who ran for City Council last year, but it wasn’t the sort of revolution he was looking for. “Changing faces doesn’t mean change,” he says.
Hui, the son of a garment worker and a labor activist since his days at Brooklyn College, went into his own campaign with an old-fashioned agenda: He wants government to respond to the needs of communities. Unlike those activists who refuse to sully themselves in electoral politics, Hui is adamant that however corrupt the system might be, standing apart from it makes it worse. “[Progressives] like to draw a line: Here’s us, here’s the politicians,” he says. “Wealthy people understand the importance of government. That’s why they spend so much money buying politicians.”
Hui’s intensity is surprising, considering his current job title: bureaucrat. He has been working at the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s disaster relief center since October and was recently promoted to assistant manager. Hui sees no contradiction between his two roles. “I’m here. I’m management. But I’m still fighting for the applicants. So what’s the difference?” he asks.
He took the same approach to his campaign, with a strategy colored by years in the private sector. “There’s a Chinese saying-you don’t go into battle admitting defeat,” Hui says. “That’s what they do in the progressive circle. That’s not what we do in the corporate world. We made that decision early on.” With no patience for the Democratic establishment, and not wanting to become beholden to Chinatown’s powerful ethnic organizations, Hui launched a door-to-door campaign with the help of about 200 volunteers.
But on the day of the primary his campaign strategy was put to an entirely unexpected use. The district was hit hard by the World Trade Center attack; most residents lost phone service, and the sick and elderly were left without their health care workers, who were turned away at security checkpoints. So Hui turned his volunteers into relief workers, carrying stretchers and distributing supplies. He picked up campaigning again only shortly before Election Day, winning 12 percent of the vote as an independent.
Hui says the FEMA job has reinforced the lesson that elected officials play a critical role in a crisis. As billions of public dollars get allocated for rebuilding, Hui says, with a hint of frustration, “I wish we had that voice.”
Inderjit Singh’s failed bid for City Council might have demoralized a less resilient candidate. He was booted from the Democratic primary ballot after losing a petition challenge; he spent the last three weeks of the postponed race taking reports of bias attacks against his fellow Sikhs, rather than campaigning; and, running as an independent, he won only 2 percent of the vote.
Instead, Singh has emerged determined to run again, more committed than ever to his guiding principle: that immigrants must work with the political establishment to secure their fair share. “They’re not going to give us anything on a silver platter,” he says. “We have to find ways of getting the system to be responsive to us.”
For proof, he points to the 102nd Precinct in Richmond Hill. After years of feeling ignored by police, Singh started bringing other South Asians to meetings of the precinct community council. The first time they packed a meeting, cops told them they were a fire hazard. “I told them, ‘We’ll pay for a bigger room,'” he recalls. Eventually, several South Asians joined the council, and the NYPD later highlighted the 102nd as a model precinct in a cultural sensitivity training video.
After September 11, that effort paid off; the police department quickly picked up suspects in racist attacks on Sikhs in Richmond Hill. But good will wasn’t enough to prevent the NYPD from firing a Sikh recruit who wanted to keep his traditional beard and turban. Prabhjot Singh of the Sikh Coalition, a group representing the fired recruit, says he sees Inderjit Singh’s political work as a complement to his own advocacy efforts.
A 30-year veteran of the Housing Authority, Inderjit Singh hopes to run for an Assembly seat this fall or for council in 2003. Some say he’ll need to shift tactics if he wants to win: Jamal Baksh, a banker active in Richmond Hill civic affairs, says Singh relied too heavily on the Sikh community for his support, and didn’t build strong enough ties with local Indo-Caribbeans and African-Americans.
Singh says the issues he has raised, education and housing, resonate with everyone in Richmond Hill, but his main focus remains claiming South Asians’ place at the political table. “The only way you will get what you need,” he maintains, “is if you’re part of the system.”
Although he won less than 3 percent of the vote, Sidique Wai isn’t shy about calling his run for Brooklyn’s 35th City Council seat “historic.” As the first continental African to run for office in New York, Wai credits his candidacy with “debunking the myth among Africans that you cannot be involved in politics in New York City.” Wiry and well-dressed, Wai made a point of being interviewed in the Manhattan headquarters of the United African Congress, an umbrella group for African immigrant associations.
But Wai was in no position to run an identity-focused campaign: Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and Crown Heights include only small pockets of African immigrants. Even the Bronx, with the city’s largest concentration of continental Africans, doesn’t have enough to make a voting bloc.
Instead, Wai promoted himself as an expert on health care. A health policy analyst for the Housing Authority, Wai built his career as a community organizer in Crown Heights, where he has lived for 30 years. Although it’s difficult to imagine Wai, who has the polished air of a diplomat, leading a protest, he proudly recalls organizing a demonstration against poor quality of care at Kings County Hospital.
Power, he points out, operates beyond electoral politics, too. “If you look at a community that’s new, they have to start someplace,” he says. “It gives them a chance to believe in themselves.”