Grace Meng discusses election victory

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Classic writers pose with Congresswoman-elect Meng. Photo by Brian Sweeney.

Grace Meng is a name that Harrisites might link with the nostalgia of the Election Simulation. But to the rest of the country, she is now the first Asian-American elected to represent New York in the U.S. Congress. In the week after attending congressional orientation, Ms. Meng discussed her past and future with members of The Classic.

Born and raised in Queens, the Stuyvesant graduate described herself as a “late bloomer” who was shy and did not get involved in politics until later in college. “I began to think that I wanted to work in a government agency or for a politician.  I never thought I would run for office.”

Nonetheless, public office ended up being in her future. Meng has served as a member of the State Assembly since her election in 2008. This fall, while certain seniors depicted her campaign in the simulation, Ms. Meng herself stirred voters with Democratic views on jobs, health care, civil rights, and education. She emphasized the need to improve Queens’s mass transit and infrastructure and supported the idea of a stronger domestic workforce. That’s not to say that the simulation campaign and the real campaign remained entirely separate from one another.

Speaking of Nily Rozic, Townsend Harris alumna and Assemblywoman-elect, Ms. Meng said, “she one day e-mailed me with a Grace Meng commercial” from the simulation. Ms. Meng described the commercial as “really cool” and posted it on her Facebook profile.

For the next two years, Meng will represent New York’s 6th congressional district, comprised of Northeastern Queens. She will still represent the community, albeit a larger one, and she will be more involved with proposing new laws. Meng notes that she’ll have more limitations being in Congress’s Democratic minority.

The new group of “freshman” Democrats in the 113th Congress is the most diverse in American history, having, for the first time, more women and minorities than white men. Describing her congressional orientation (a weeklong introduction to her new job), Meng said, “I felt like a high school or college student all over again.” She attended seminars, met new people, and went through procedural matters like choosing an office and learning about how the technological equipment worked. Regarding the new members, she said “I was pleasantly surprised about how down-to-earth they were. You read about a body like Congress and in some ways are intimidated, but to meet the freshman class and see that they all have varied backgrounds that you could relate to is very inspiring.”

Meng, as New York’s first Asian-American in Congress, recognizes that Asian-American candidates are on the rise, but she hopes that her demographic continues to turnout for voting as highly as they did for her when Asian-Americans are not on the ballot The “real indication” of a demographic’s influence, she believes, lies not in population but in voter registration and voting frequency.

On education, Meng holds the view that our system is “not as strong as it should be,” adding that a child in an underprivileged school is in “a very tough environment to learn in and be proud of.” She criticized Mayor Bloomberg’s creation of smaller schools within larger schools. In particular, she described how hard it is for parents, especially nonnative speakers, to aid in their children’s education. Given the choice, Meng says she would place more emphasis on elementary education.

In recent years, Congress’s approval rating has been steadily decreasing. Meng says that “Washington is like a world upon itself and it’s easy to get caught up in the glamour of it,” but “none of the fancy stuff necessarily allows you to continue the privilege of representing a district.” Regarding her new “classmates,” she says “when you get to know people and really understand where they’re coming from, it’s harder to be hostile towards them,” and that it doesn’t help for Congress to be at odds. One person’s bad standing is not celebrated, but disapproved, because it affects Congress as a whole. “The American people want to see us get the job done.”

Travel often occupies the time of both assembly members and congress members going back and forth from their respective capitals. Meng, who also has to balance her family life (she is married with two young boys), says that living near the airport and having access to hourly shuttles allows her to be home regularly, despite the long hours she’ll spend in Washington D.C. But for representatives that live in rural districts, the tradeoff of working for Congress could entail not being home for weeks. Speaking about her family, Meng says that they “help her a lot with babysitting. If I didn’t have that system, I wouldn’t even have run.”

When discussing students at Townsend Harris, Ms. Meng called for students to look into politics as a career only if they actively and passionately wanted to make it a profession. With the rise of social media and the scrutiny it places candidates under, she could not recommend political professions to anyone who didn’t feel they could handle being recorded and followed at all times, saying “it’s not something that everyone is willing to go through.” On the whole, however, Ms. Meng believes that most political figures are in the profession to help the greater good, despite the fact that “people always assume the worst of politicians.”

Even if students decide political careers are not for them, Ms. Meng strongly recommends that young people “get some experience in politics, because everything ends up being political, no matter what your field is.” Whether it involves volunteering, campaigning, registering voters, or spending time in a politician’s office, such activities, she believes, benefit all involved. “As a high school student, you sometimes think you’re too young, but you really have the capability of doing that right now.”

–Additional reporting by Amy Hao