Iwen Chu elected first Asian woman state Senator in New York, will represent first Asian-majority state Senate district

iwen chu, the new state senator in SD17
A week after the midterm elections, Iwen Chu has declared victory in state Senate district 17, and will be the first Asian woman in the New York State Senate.
Photo courtesy Iwen Chu campaign

A new face is headed to Albany to represent southern Brooklyn in the state Senate.

More than a week after the midterm elections, Iwen Chu — the Democratic Party and Working Families Party candidate who started making waves last April by collecting signatures from more than 5,400 prospective constituents — has finally declared victory in the nail-bitingly close race, defeating Republican challenger Vito LaBella by just a few hundred votes, according to unofficial New York City Board of Elections results. 

iwen chu southern brooklyn race
Democrat Iwen Chu (center) declared victory in state Senate District 17 on Wednesday night after a close race against Republican Vito LaBella. Photo by Caroline Ourso

“We won!” Chu wrote on Twitter on Wednesday night, after days of waiting on results. “I promise every day to fight for a better New York — safer, cleaner, and more affordable for our families, and to be a voice for all our communities. I am here to serve all in SD17 as we are a community, first and foremost.”

An arduous redistricting process paved the way for Chu’s new district, the first Asian-majority state Senate district in Brooklyn. The race was open to a brand-new candidate after its old representative, state Senator Simcha Felder, decided to run in SD22, which more closely resembled the old SD17.

Chu, who formerly served as chief of staff to Assemblymember Peter Abbate, announced her candidacy for the seat in February, after the state legislature released their freshly-redrawn district maps. The new district includes South Slope, Windsor Terrace, Kensington, Sunset Park, Borough Park, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst and Gravesend, and has a larger population than the city of Buffalo — the second largest in the state — of about 320,000 residents. About 46 percent of the population is Asian.

On Election Day, 50.24% of voters took to the polls in support of Chu. Absentee and affidavit ballots pushed her further over the margin of victory. 

“I voted for Chu because my community has been hurting for years and it feels like our government doesn’t want to see it. No one addresses it,” said Jonathan Yumeng Li, a South Slope resident originally from China. “We are afraid of walking home at night in one of New York’s nicest neighborhoods and it is worse anywhere else. We, as a community, work very hard and yet we are victims of all kinds of discrimination.”

iwen chu on election night
Chu is the first Asian woman to be elected to the New York State Senate, and represents Brooklyn’s first and only Asian-majority district. Photo by Caroline Ourso

Chu’s run for office comes on the heels of a surge in anti-Asian hate crimes citywide. During the coronavirus pandemic, the Five Boroughs saw a sharp increase in harassment and violence against Asian people and communities, according to the New York City Police Department.

During her campaign, Chu vowed to prioritize mental health services and programs to prevent crime and recidivism over law enforcement. She also promised to advocate for changes to gun policies on a federal level.

“I’m hoping that, with the proper representation, things will change drastically because we need them to,” Yumeng Li said.

A history in public service

Born and raised in Taiwan, Chu graduated from the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College, and began building a name for herself as chief of staff for longtime southern Brooklyn Assemblymember Abbate — a role she held for a decade.

Shortly after announcing her candidacy, Chu started securing endorsements across the board. Dozens of volunteers took to the streets, parks, businesses and subway stations, gathering 18 times the required signatures to make it on the onto this election’s ballot, per state election laws.

In July, Chu gained the backing of the NYS United Teachers and the United Healthcare Workers East— the largest union in New York and the largest healthcare worker union in the nation. The sanitation workers’ association, Teamsters Local 831, followed suit in September, as did the New York State Court Officers Association.

“We know that Iwen Chu understands the value of public safety, and the service that our hardworking men and women provide for New Yorkers in the courts every day, and that is why we feel confident that she is the right person to represent Senate District 17,” NYSCOA President Dennis Quirk said in a statement.

“Iwen has demonstrated throughout her campaign that she understands the incredible strength it takes to do what our sanitation workers do every day, no matter the circumstances, and because she believes strongly in advocating for workers’ rights,” said Teamsters Local 831 President Harry Nespoli.

The new state senator also had heavy backing from some of New York’s biggest political players: New York Attorney General Letitia James rallied in support of Chu’s election last October, and she had the support of Congressmember Jerrold Nadler and Assemblymember Ari Kagan, among others.

Queens Congressmember Grace Meng — who made history herself as New York’s first Asian member of Congress — also supported Chu’s run for the new 17th district.

Still, some expressed skepticism in the first-time politician filling a role that’s brand new.

“It is great and necessary that someone representing our Asian community is running, but I find that Iwen Chu is being very ambitious,” said South Slope resident Amary Tucson on Election Day. “I am not convinced she is ready for the state senate since this would be her first attempt as a representative. The rhetoric in her speeches and her website is too vague.”

Other campaign promises

Under the city’s Right to Counsel Law, a majority of tenants facing eviction have the right to a free attorney in housing court, but, according to data obtained by the state Office of Court Administration, only 36 percent of tenants received legal counsel when appearing for an eviction case this year — oftentimes increasing their risk of losing their home.

During her run for state Senate, Chu promised to advocate for the city’s tenants and landlords — particularly those who are immigrants. The new state senator has vowed to provide housing attorneys for those who may need them.

iwen chu with supporters
Chu has promised to advocate for landlords and tenants — especially those who are immigrants — and has called for free universal childcare and a tuition-free CUNY. Photo by Caroline Ourso

Chu has also called for universal childcare — echoing the rally cries of some of her now-Democratic colleagues — and called for the passage of legislation which would mandate a social worker and guidance counselor in each of the city’s public schools. She also supported building more specialized high schools across the city, and hopes to help parents through the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process.

She also supports the New Deal for CUNY which would make tuition free.

“It is an honor of a lifetime to represent Southern Brooklyn,” Chu said on Wednesday night. “With tonight’s results. I am the 1st Asian woman elected to the NY State Senate — but I will not be the last! It’s time to invest in our youth and immigrant communities — to be civically active and empowered. Let’s get it done!”

Chu’s challenger, LaBella, could not be reached for comment by press time. His campaign has not yet made any public statements nor has the candidate formally conceded the race.