Growing up as the daughter of immigrants, Michelle Wu said she never saw anyone who looked like her in positions of leadership or power.
Wu also said her family was skeptical and suspicious of politics. Her parents immigrated from Taiwan and both sets of her grandparents fled the civil war in mainland China. She said they associated politics with corruption, famine and fear.
“And a whole lot of other things that we were supposed to stay far away from,” Wu said in a phone interview. “And that meant that I never once considered running for office.”
But the 36-year-old has now spent a decade in Boston politics. She was the first Asian American woman to serve on the City Council and the first woman of color to serve as City Council president in Boston, which boasts a population of over 690,000 and roughly 67,000 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. In September, she launched a bid for mayor.
“We are often perpetuating a very limited sense of what's possible for our city because we're only leaning into a narrow definition of who can lead,” Wu, who is leading the crowded race according to a May poll, the most recent, said.
Wu is one of three Asian Americans seeking to lead major cities who would make history if elected this fall: Aftab Pureval in Cincinnati and Andrew Yang in New York City are also running. Of the leaders of America's 100 largest cities, just five are Asian American. All of them are in California, the state with the largest number of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans: Fremont Mayor Lily Mei; Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan; Bakersfield Mayor Karen Goh; Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu; and San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria.
California has also seen a number of Asian Americans elected to run midsize and smaller cities, such as Garden Grove, too. In Hawaii, a host of mayors are of AAPI descent. But historically, Asian Americans have been underrepresented when it comes to major city leadership. In California, former Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, who served from 2011 to 2015, was the city’s first female and first Chinese American mayor. She was also the first Chinese American mayor of a major U.S. city. Ed Lee, who died in 2017, was the first Asian American mayor of San Francisco. And in 1971, Norman Mineta became the first Japanese American mayor of San Jose, California.
Meanwhile, Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group of eligible voters, according to the Pew Research Center. Overall, experts said, the rise of Asian Americans as a significant voting bloc has bolstered political engagement in the community, particularly when it comes to running for office.
Christine Chen, executive director of the nonpartisan civic organization Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, or APIAVote, said it is significant that in a year without a presidential or midterm election to galvanize voters, three Asian Americans are on the mayoral ballot and considered competitive.
Chen said Quan and Lee, among others, were barrier-breakers who showed that Asian Americans can lead, particularly in a big city. She also noted there have been efforts by community groups to engage this fast-growing voting bloc, create a pipeline of young Asian activists and get them into office.
“We've been trying to build a pipeline and create opportunities and provide inspiration for folks that consider running for office," Chen said. “But I think now it's even more important just because of the rise of anti-Asian violence. This is a unique time period in our history where I believe that the AAPI community overall is all leaning in at this moment and realizing that they can no longer just step back.”
Aftab Pureval, who has served as Hamilton County's clerk of courts since 2017, said in a phone interview that when he first began public service, people found it hard to say his name. But now, Pureval said he is overwhelmed by the support during his mayoral campaign.
“I am really proud of Cincinnati and how welcoming it is and how a first-generation American can run and have the opportunity to win and lead that city,” he said.
Pureval, a 38-year-old Democrat, emerged as one of the top two contenders from a field of six candidates in the city’s nonpartisan May primary. He will face off against a City Council member and former Mayor David Mann, also a Democrat, on Nov. 2. Pureval was in the lead, however, with more than 39 percent of votes while Mann received about 29 percent.
Census data shows that New York has by far the largest overall population — 8 million — and the largest population of Asian Americans of any U.S. city, which is estimated at 14 percent, and Boston has a sizable AAPI population at nearly 10 percent.
Pureval noted that Cincinnati, which has a population of over 300,000, has an AAPI population of just a little over 2 percent, according to census data. He believes that suggests Asian candidates can be competitive anywhere.
“My campaign, I think, is emblematic of Asian candidates no longer being unique but being more of the mainstream and more expected to run and to lead,” he said.
“I'm not the first; I won't be the last," he added. "If I run and I fall short, I promise you there are more people who look like me, who believe in public service, who believe in improving the lives of others and who are going to step up and run.”
Asian American voters heavily favored President Joe Biden over former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election 63-30, according to NBC News exit polls. However, both Republican and Democratic parties have historically fallen short when it comes to reaching out to these voters, Chen said.
A 2020 election survey conducted by AAPI Data, a demographic and policy research group, showed that about half of all respondents were not contacted by either major party. And roughly 30 percent of Asian American voters do not identify as either Democrats or Republicans, according to the group.
The AAPI Victory Fund, a national PAC that mobilizes Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for Democratic candidates, endorsed all three mayoral candidates — helping activate volunteers and funds.
Andrew Yang, a 46-year-old businessman who ran for president in 2020, is polling among the leaders in the Democratic field of candidates in New York City, but a growing number of Asian Americans are dissatisfied with his campaign and signed a petition, which has garnered nearly 800 signatures, arguing that "representation alone is simply not enough." However, Yang did receive the endorsement of Rep. Grace Meng, the first Asian American elected to Congress from New York.
The group cited his "pro-police" policies in the wake of calls for widespread reform and racial justice, his appearances on right-wing media and his Washington Post op-ed urging Asian Americans to show their "American-ness" during the Covid-19 pandemic. The group, which includes community leaders and local officials, also cited a New York Times report that said Yang had said the nonprofit fellowship program he started, Venture for America, might not be the best fit for Black applicants.
"As Asian Americans across the country continue to grapple with economic hardship and a staggering rise in hate crimes, there has never been a more critical time for Asian Americans to take a seat at the table," Yang said in a statement in May.
At the federal level, Asian American representation in Congress increased in 2020. GOP Reps. Young Kim and Michelle Steel, both of California, were two of the first three Korean American women elected to Congress in 2020. Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash., was the third. And Vice President Kamala Harris broke multiple barriers as the first female, first Black and first South Asian vice president.