97 Minutes With Grace Meng

Photo: Patrick McMullan

I know it’s weird, right?” Grace Meng says, taking a breather from all the schmoozing. It’s not so often a Chinese-American mother of two throws a Hanukkah party for about 40 Orthodox Jews. But here she is, amid the black hats and ­sheitels, in the basement of the Young Israel synagogue in Kew Garden Hills. The lights in the room are pale and the carpet ­industrial-strength, like in a hotel conference center. She wears an unassuming ensemble (­baby-blue blazer, black pants, black shoes) and sits at the end of a ­circular table, greeting supporters and trying to get her youngest, Brandon, to eat more of the kosher Chinese food and fruit she has supplied.

“Thank you so much for coming,” she tells one supporter, as Brandon climbs up her shoulder.

Subak, the boy says.

“Hey, take care, guy,” the supporter tells him.

Subak, the boy says again, repeating the word for watermelon—not in Chinese, the language of his mother’s family, but in Korean, the language of his father’s.

But the weirdest part is yet to come. In January, Meng will be sworn in among the next freshman class in Congress, representing central Queens, making her the first Asian-American congressional rep from New York—not only a historic achievement but an extraordinary twist of fortune for Meng, who says she didn’t want to run for office in the first place. “If you ask anyone I knew before college, they would be shocked I work in politics,” she says. “If you asked me a year ago if I was running for Congress, I would say, ‘No way.’ ” Her husband, Wayne Kye, a dentist, has known Meng since high school.

“Growing up, Grace told me, she didn’t want to do three things,” he says. “Live in Queens, live near her parents, and go into politics.” He laughs. “Now she’s doing all three!”

Her parents still hang over her life, though—her father in particular. Jimmy Meng had an American Dream story going: An immigrant from China, he washed dishes in restaurants and waited tables, ran a lumberyard, and founded a business association in Flushing. Then, in 2004, he tested out his own political ambitions and became the first Asian-American to win a State Assembly seat. But his victory, winning the primary by only 500 votes, was sullied when the authorities launched an investigation into voter fraud. Meng was never charged, but an aide pleaded guilty to faking voter forms. After the scandal, Meng chose not to run for reelection. Instead, daughter Grace did, though her first campaign fizzled when she was knocked off the ballot for not living in her father’s district.

An election cycle later, Grace made it to Albany. Many thought Grace would be a pushover, just a front for her ambitious father. But in her first two terms, she impressed many insiders, mostly by forging meaningful alliances, a quality that shouldn’t be so hard to find but is vanishingly rare in the always treacherous Albany sandbox. “In the three years that I was there, I passed nine bills,” she says proudly. “Of course, I had many more that didn’t pass.”

In person, she presents herself as a kind of anti-pol who says things like, “People have been so fed up with politicians,” and claims to downplay advice from advisers: “I felt my only choice was to be ­myself.” But it’s hard to figure out just who that is. ­Underneath an easy demeanor, Meng has proved herself to be a skilled operator at the state capital, playing the inside-outside game of currying support among her legislative elders, union leaders, and party bosses. When she and her father ran for office, they campaigned against the Tammany-style leadership of the Queens County Democrats. Now, those same party bosses are the ones who chose Meng as their congressional candidate, then rallied behind her. “Timing is everything,” she says.

Her boy is tugging at her, tired of playing games on an iPhone. Meng excuses herself, runs with him around the tables and over to the deli side of the buffet. At the party, her guests are whom you might expect to find: people who want things, favors, bills pushed, access, pictures taken. They’ve written their checks and wrangled votes for her campaign. In one corner is a real-estate developer (“She’s like a chameleon, no?” he whispers about Meng) and in another a rabbi—Meng has hired him on to her staff. But missing is her father. During the summer, Jimmy Meng was caught in an even bigger scandal, getting busted in a federal bribery case. The short version: He told an alleged tax cheat that for $80,000, he could persuade Manhattan prosecutors to ease up. The payment was stuffed into a fruit basket.

“It does suck,” she says of her father’s impending sentencing. “This is one of the worst situations in my family’s life happening at the same time as one of the best situations in my family’s life.” Shortly after she leaves for Congress, her father will be sentenced. “Not to get all religious, but I believe that there’s a reason for everything,” she says, holding her boy. He sticks his fingers in her face. “Maybe this is sort of one way to keep me on the right track,” she says.

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97 Minutes With Grace Meng