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Congresswoman-Elect Grace Meng On 'Girl Power'


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Later, we want to hear what the Barbershop guys have to say about some of the ballot initiatives that made headlines around the country in this week's election. They include measures that will allow same-sex marriage in two additional states and permit the recreational use of marijuana in another state.

The guys also want to talk about the how the country's changing demographics contributed to this year's election results. That conversation is coming up.

But first, we want to focus on a person who exemplifies those changing demographics. Grace Meng was elected on Tuesday to represent New York's sixth congressional district. She is a Democrat, currently a member of the Assembly, and she replaces a Democrat, Gary Ackerman, who chose to retire.

But with her election she became the first Asian-American to represent Congress from New York - this after an election season is which the number of Asian-Americans making congressional bids was at a historic high. And she is one of the new crop of women lawmakers heading to Washington at a time when a number of women lawmakers will be at an all-time high, also. And Grace Meng is with us now from New York.

Welcome and congratulations to you.

REPRESENTATIVE-ELECT GRACE MENG: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: Before we get into the politics, though, I do want to ask about how your constituents are faring after that extreme weather that's caused so much trouble in the Northeast. I mean, first there was Sandy, then the nor'easter. How are things in your district and how are you doing?

MENG: Well, it's been a really tough time for a lot of the people in parts of Queens. My district was relatively OK, but there are a lot of parts of Queens - and it's actually nice to see so many people mobilizing to help their neighbors. Something that we're still very upset about are that it's actually after 10 days, the number of days that our utility companies promised that families would have power back.

MARTIN: Well, good luck with that.

MENG: Thank you.

MARTIN: I'm sure that's an ongoing and pressing concern. Well, now to the politics. There are so many interesting trends that, you know, we want to talk about that you touch on. First of all, you know, Asian-Americans, in 2012, according to the exit polling, 73 percent of Asian-Americans voted for President Obama. And that was a substantial increase than in 2008. Any idea why?

MENG: I think that Asian-Americans throughout this country and in New York state especially are able to relate to a lot of the Democratic candidates who are running for office and who are talking about issues that they see most similar affecting their families and their roles in the world. So it's actually natural to me, and I'm not as surprised that they were actually voting more Democratic than Republican.

MARTIN: Well, one of the other reasons, I think, that it may be surprising to some people is that, according to the Pew Research study that we reported on earlier - I'm not sure if you're familiar with it - it was kind of a deep-dive study into the lives of Asian-Americans in the United States, and it pointed that Asian-Americans living in the U.S. are the highest-earning and best-educated racial group in the U.S.

And one of the Republican arguments was that the Democrats were promoting class warfare and essentially punishing people, or not showing esteem for people who are successful. And clearly that argument did not work with Asian-Americans. I just wondered if you had any further thoughts about why it didn't work.

MENG: Well, I mean, Asian-Americans - compared to some other groups, perhaps - seem to be doing better financially. But part of the stereotype that's unknown is that there are also many Asian-Americans who are not doing well. There are many Asian-Americans who are living in poverty, especially our senior citizens.

Asian-American elderly women have one of the highest suicide rates in New York state. And even for the Asians who are doing well financially, I think on a lot of social issues, they still align themselves more with the Democratic Party.

MARTIN: I wonder also if it has something to do with the president's stance on immigration reform. We note that - according to the Pew Research Center also - Asian-Americans have now overtaken Hispanics as the largest group of new immigrants arriving each year. And we wonder whether you think that his stance there might have something to do with it, too.

MENG: Oh, definitely. I mean, when people see Barack Obama, they don't necessarily see an African-American president. They see someone who is a child of immigrants. They see someone whose family has worked hard and struggled. And they see many similarities between themselves and Barack Obama.

MARTIN: I also want to mention that, just in regard to your own campaign, you didn't really run - if I can sort of put it this way - on being the first, you know, Asian-American member of the New York delegation. That really wasn't part of your campaign. What was central to it was, really, jobs. And one of your platforms, I can't help but note, was the idea of bringing jobs back from overseas. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

MENG: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I'm currently the only Asian-American serving in the state legislature, too. So I've had no choice but to build bridges and to work with people from all different ethnicities. So I've never seen myself as just an Asian candidate. This district is very diverse. We have a little bit of everyone, from everywhere in all corners of the world.

And so my top priority - and I even tell this to the Asians in my district, even if they just came from another country - that my priority are Asian-Americans, Americans who are living in the United States, living in my district, not necessarily Asians who are living in other countries. So I want to see America thrive. I want to see all different families here succeed.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and I'm speaking with Grace Meng. She just won on Tuesday her election to represent New York's sixth congressional district. That's an area that includes parts of eastern and central Queens, New York.

Talking a little bit more about the politics of it, you will become part of the largest class of women lawmakers in Congress ever. I mean, compared to some countries, the level of representation by women in the United States is still not what it could be, compared to a number of other countries, but it's still at a historic high.

MENG: Right.

MARTIN: And you have talked about the need for more women to get involved in politics. What difference do you think it will make to have this historic number of women lawmakers in Congress?

MENG: Just by you saying that puts a smile on my face. I think that we need more women in office. You know, I mentioned during my victory speech that America ranks, I believe, 95 in the world in terms of the percentage of women serving in their national legislatures. And that's just embarrassing. We need more women in office.

And as a little girl said on Election Day to her family, that we need to elect more women to literally protect girl power. That's how she phrased it, and that's something that is so genuine, but is at the same time so true. You know, and I think that we need a more balanced array of voices in Congress. And, you know, hopefully that will lead to more compromise and more bridge-building between people.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, though, I think Americans did vote for divided government, you know, retaining the White House in Democratic hands, the Senate in Democratic hands. But you will be a member of the Democratic minority in the House, which will remain controlled by Republicans.

You know, people talk about how they're fed up with stalemate, but then they've elected divided government. I just wonder if you have some thoughts about how - or what role you might play in bridging the divider and getting more cooperation, which Americans seem to say that they want.

MENG: Well, I think it's very important, more than ever, to reach out to the American people. I think it's important that legislators and congressional member truly hear and portray and bring out to the public the voice of the people. And I think that that's something that people, regardless of which party you represent, people on both sides of the aisle, voters across the country, they're tired of all the criticism and just saying no to the other side, no matter what.

And, you know, both sides are guilty. So we need to make sure that we get the voice of the people out more and, you know, to use that as sort of a marketing tool, that - you know, to hear, for example, that Speaker Boehner may be considering raising taxes on wealthy if the package is right, that's a small-but-amazing sign of what's to come.

MARTIN: You know, to that end, though, the most pressing issue right now is this whole question of the so-called fiscal cliff. Those are those automatic federal spending cuts and tax increases that take effect in January unless Congress acts now. This is, right now, a matter of the lame-duck Congress. This is not something that you would have an opportunity to affect, unless they kick the can down the road or find some way to move the issue into the next Congress.

But let's say it does come before you. What role do you think you can play in getting people to, you know, to bridge their differences here? I mean, this is something that the current Congress grappled with for months and could not agree.

MENG: Well, again, I think it's really important that we take this task out to discuss with the American people. I mean, if you are running a family budget, you could not simply, across the board, just enact cuts. That's something that would be devastating to the budget in your own home. And so, at the same time, you know, we need to make sure that that doesn't happen. We need to encourage and to better inform the American people of the potential disastrous effects of that.

You know, in New York state, in the legislature, we worked with Governor Cuomo, Speaker Silver and Senator Dean Skelos on opposite sides of the aisle, and we enacted tax reform that raised taxes on people who made $2 million or more and lowered taxes for everyone else in the state who made under that. And so that's an example of bipartisanship, and that's an example of something that I hope I can help bring to the table.

MARTIN: And, before we let you go, I just - I have to ask you this, even though I recognize that men are almost never asked this question. You know, I don't know if you've read this piece earlier in the year in The Atlantic. It was one of the most re-tweeted, revisited or read pieces in The Atlantic's history. It was by a former State Department official named Anne-Marie Slaughter, and the headline was "Why Women Still Can't Have It All."

She was talking about the fact that, you know, even though she had been very successful in her career up to that point, this high level government position, she left after only two years because she simply could not make it work, you know, with her family life. I cannot help but note - and congratulations to you, that you have two young children.

And I just wondered if you had some thoughts about that. I mean, it's been noteworthy that, in the United States, it has been the case that women tend to go into public life later. Women with young children tend not to be, and that's one of the reasons why people say women aren't advancing as fast as they are in some other countries. There are a lot of reasons for that. But I just wanted to ask: Have you thought about that?

MENG: Oh, definitely, every day of my life. And I'm not going to pretend, even for a second, that I would be able to do this without the tremendous support from my husband and my entire and immediate and extended family. Our house is like a bakery. Everyone's over, pitching in, helping me to raise my children.

But, at the same time, I think that that's even, you know, more reason to advocate for a lot of the issues that should help women become more involved. I'm not just an advocate for equal pay. I think, half-jokingly, that women should get paid more. You know, we have to go back home and I still, you know, as best as I can, try to clean the house and make dinner for my kids and make sure they understand and feel that I'm there for them.

We need to make sure that, to encourage businesses, corporations and even government to have policies and procedures and practices in place where daycare is a good option and that we're able to take good care of our families and to do a good job.

MARTIN: Grace Meng has just been elected to represent New York's Sixth Congressional District, and the congresswoman-elect joined us from our bureau in New York.

Grace Meng, thank you for speaking with us.

MENG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.