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Two Asian Americans apparently elected to New York State Senate in historic first

Come January, assuming results stand, there could be four Asian-American lawmakers in the New York State Legislature.
John Liu
John Liu on April 9, 2013.Mario Tama / Getty Images file

Voters appear to have given the New York State Senate its first two Asian-American lawmakers Tuesday — one of whom would be the first Indian American to ever serve in either house of the state legislature.

John Liu, a Democrat and New York City’s first Asian-American city councilman, apparently defeated Republican candidate Vickie Paladino, conservative candidate Simon H. Minching, as well as incumbent Tony Avella, who lost the Democratic primary to Liu in September, according to unofficial results.

Avella, whose state Senate district encompasses neighborhoods in the New York City borough of Queens, still ran in the general election, though not as a Democrat.

Meanwhile, unofficial results out on Long Island showed that attorney Kevin Thomas, an immigrant from India, appeared to eke out a victory against Republican incumbent Kemp Hannon, whose district covers parts of Nassau County.

Come January, assuming the results stand, Liu and Thomas will join Democratic assembly members Ron Kim and Yuh-Line Niou as the state legislature’s four Asian-American lawmakers.

Asians make up around 9 percent of the state’s total population, according to census figures.

“The goal was to inject a voice that had been absent prior,” Liu said in a phone interview. “And the goal is also to vigorously represent the needs of this community that I’ve lived in my whole life, and grown up in, and am raising my own family in.”

As of Thursday morning, unofficial results from the New York City Board of Elections had Liu with around 54 percent of the vote, Paladino at 24 percent, Avella at 21 percent and Minching at 1 percent with close to 97 percent of scanners reporting.

The race between Thomas and Hannon was much tighter. Unofficial results from the Nassau County Board Of Elections Thursday reported that Thomas had captured 50.6 percent of the vote and Hannon 49.3 percent.

Just over 1,300 votes separated the two candidates, with 100 percent of precincts reporting, the results showed.

Thomas, an attorney for the consumer protection unit of the New York Legal Assistance Group and appointee to the New York State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, claimed victory and said he was humbled and proud to be elected the first Indian American to the New York State Senate.

“I ran to represent everyone in my district and that is what I intend to do,” Thomas said in a statement through a spokesman. “But I will also be bringing the issues of the Asian-American community to the state legislature along, I'm sure, with senator-elect John Liu.”

Hannon did not respond to an NBC News request for comment.

Liu, a former actuary and immigrant from Taiwan, is regarded as a trailblazer for Asian Americans seeking elected office. His return to public office comes after serving two terms as a city councilman, beginning in 2002, followed by four years as the city’s comptroller.

In 2013, Liu ran unsuccessfully for mayor, losing in the Democratic primary to now Mayor Bill de Blasio. Liu’s defeat came amid a campaign finance scandal in which he was never charged. After leaving citywide office, Liu took up posts at the City University of New York and Columbia University, teaching municipal finance and public policy.

Liu and Avella squared off against each other for State Senate in 2014, with Avella defeating Liu in the Democratic primary. But September brought with it a reversal of fortune, this time Liu besting Avella.

A state senator since 2011, Avella still made a bid in the general election under the Independence and Women’s Equality parties, though that wasn’t enough to pull off a victory against Liu.

Some, including progressives, had criticized Avella for being a member of the former Independent Democratic Conference, a small group that broke with their party to support Republican control of the state Senate.

With Democrats poised to take control of both the state Senate and Assembly, Liu said fair funding for all public schools and passing the Reproductive Health Act are among his top legislative priorities.

“I’m honored to be the voters’ choice,” Liu said. “The message it sends is that people want change and people favor the Democratic platform with an eye towards a more progressive government in New York State, in view of what’s happening in this country.”

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