Mayoral Wins in Boston, Cincinnati Signal Change for Asian Americans in Politics

Mayoral wins in two major U.S. cities, Boston and Cincinnati, signaled political progress for Asian Americans—a population that has previously been underrepresented in elected office and that has run up against its own unique struggles during the coronavirus pandemic.

This year's Election Day marked the first time in Boston and Cincinnati history where Asian Americans will serve in the cities' top political office.

On Tuesday, voters in Boston elected City Councilor Michelle Wu as mayor. Wu, whose parents immigrated from Taiwan, is not only the first person of color elected to the post but will also be the first woman to serve in the office of Massachusetts' most populous city.

In Ohio's largest metropolitan area, Aftab Pureval, whose father is from India and mother is from Tibet, defeated former Democratic congressman and mayor David Mann to be Cincinnati's next mayor.

"Being elected the first Asian in Cincinnati, being elected the first Asian in a Midwestern city is, I think, a profound statement of Cincinnati's future," Pureval said.

The wins marked a milestone for a demographic that has been historically underrepresented in politics.

Asian Americans Elected Office Boston Cincinnati
Mayor-elect for the city of Boston, Michelle Wu, will be the first Asian American to serve in the city's top political office. Above, Wu speaks after voting on November 2, 2021, in Boston, Massachusetts. Allison Dinner/Stringer

A report released by the Reflective Democracy Campaign in May found that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders—the nation's fastest-growing demographic—make up only 0.9 percent of elected leaders across all levels of government, despite accounting for 6.1 percent of the U.S. population.

Representation remains low even among states with high AAPI concentrations, like New York and California.

But this year's elections and Vice President Kamala Harris' 2020 political victory suggest things may be changing.

In New York City, five Asian Americans were elected to the city council on Tuesday—the highest number the council has ever seen. The all-Democratic group includes the first Muslim woman, the first Korean Americans and the first South Asian Americans elected to council.

Even in municipalities with lower AAPI concentrations, Asian Americans made notable political strides.

Duluth, Minnesota elected Azrin Awal as its first Asian American city council member; Medford, Massachusetts tapped Justin Tseng to serve as the first Asian American city council member; and Worcester, Massachusetts selected the city's first Southeast Asian American city council member, Thu Nguyen.

Pureval said Tuesday's wins "will show not just that AAPIs can run and win on the coasts or where there's large Asian populations, but that AAPIs can run and win anywhere."

The mayoral race in Seattle is still yet to be called but Bruce Harrell, who is second-generation Japanese American and Black, is currently leading ahead of current City Council President M. Lorena González.

Over the last two years, the AAPI community has been subject to a rise in anti-Asian hate, an issue advocates have said coincides with the pandemic and subsequent use of racist rhetoric from public figures.

Former President Donald Trump repeatedly and widely referred to COVID-19 as the "China virus" and "kung flu."

A report from California State's Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism reported that hate crimes against Asian Americans increased by 150 percent in 2020 while a study from Pew Research found that 58 percent of Asian Americans believed racist views had increased towards them during the pandemic.

In May, President Joe Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act after lawmakers overwhelmingly and swiftly passed the legislation through a rare bipartisan vote in the wake of a deadly mass shooting in Atlanta, which killed eight people, including six Asian women.