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Ms. Meng Goes to Washington

A self-described mild-mannered history major while at U-M, Grace Meng is now New York City’s first Asian-American member of Congress as well as a rising star in her party.
By Daniel P. Smith

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Read time: 4 minutes

On an otherwise calm and cool Ann Arbor day in the fall of 1996, the booming pop music and colorful, oversized truck captured the attention of Grace Meng, ’97.

Bolstered by a celebrity-studded partnership with MTV, Rock the Vote stopped by the U-M campus to champion the democratic process as incumbent President Bill Clinton and Kansas Sen. Bob Dole dueled for the White House. Meng was transfixed by the spectacle and energy. The thought that she and her contemporaries, so many voting for the first time in their lives, could have a voice in the nation’s future so inspired Meng that she became a Rock the Vote volunteer helping students register to vote.

“Until then, I hadn’t given politics much thought,” Meng said.

As her first foray into civic engagement, however, Rock the Vote ignited a deeper interest in the nation’s political process, one that later blossomed into campaign work for local candidates in New York City and then her own political victories. She served first as a member of the New York State Assembly from 2009 to 2012 and now as a third-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives for New York’s 6th Congressional District.

“Being out of my comfort zone at Michigan was a real blessing because it allowed me to reflect on who I was and my life’s ambitions.” – Grace Meng

“I never would’ve predicted being in politics, let alone Congress,” said the 41-year-old Meng, New York City’s first Asian-American member of Congress and the only member of Asian descent in the Northeast. Her star continues to rise with her recent election as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee.

In many ways, Meng’s journey into politics took root at Michigan. Removed from the familiarity of her hometown of New York City, Meng relished meeting peers from across the country, the challenging academic environment, and a lively campus energized by school spirit. The experience shaped Meng intellectually and emotionally, planting seeds of a deeper social consciousness.

“Being out of my comfort zone at Michigan was a real blessing because it allowed me to reflect on who I was and my life’s ambitions,” said Meng, one of the newest members of the the Alumni Association’s board of directors.

Her college classmate I-Ching Katie (Lee) Scott, ’97, said Meng displayed an extraordinary penchant and talent for quiet service and leadership.

“(Grace’s) natural inclination is to find ways to help and lift up those around her,” Scott said of her fellow residential adviser at Stockwell Hall. “You could count on Grace to show up, work hard, and figure out how to do right.” Scott, however, never pegged Meng and her behind-the-scenes demeanor for a political career.

“Politics had negative connotations of power-hoarding, blowhard, look-at-me kinds of attitudes,” Scott said, “and that vision was not what I saw in Grace.”

Meng gained greater exposure to the workings of government when she served as a congressional intern while an undergraduate. She spent one year at a public relations firm after graduation and then headed to law school with an eye on public interest work. Her work during and after law school moonlighting for New York-area political campaigns invigorated her and dovetailed with the 2004 election of her father, Jimmy K. Meng, as New York’s first Asian-American assemblyman.

“I got addicted to campaigning,” Meng said. “I loved the ability to meet with people and talk one-on-one with them.”

In 2008, she became the headliner herself when she captured a seat in the New York State Assembly, trumping the county political machine with a mix of moxie, empathy, and diligence.

“I didn’t have any formal training or political rabbis, and I never even took a political science class at Michigan,” she said.

In the state assembly, Meng—once dismissed by opponents as too calm and nice for public office—earned praise for her ability to work across the aisle on issues ranging from language access to mortgage protection.

“People would sometimes criticize my temperament, which I always found odd because everyone can’t be politically aggressive,” Meng said.

When longtime U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman announced his retirement in 2012, Meng pursued the vacant Congressional seat. Campaigning around Queens, N.Y., Meng touted her hard-earned reputation as a consensus builder and focused on building coalitions in a diverse, heavily immigrant district. On her way to a victory that November, The New York Times tabbed Meng “a breakthrough candidate and potential star.”

Within weeks of reaching Capitol Hill in early 2013, Meng delivered on that promise. She secured legislation that allowed federal disaster relief funds to be used for rebuilding houses of worship damaged by Hurricane Sandy. For a Congressional newcomer, it was a monumental accomplishment.

Meng’s swift political success didn’t surprise Scott, who praised her former classmate’s optimism, humility, desire to serve, and genuine ability to connect with people across social groups and boundaries.

“ is what the phrase ‘ke chi’ in Chinese embodies—generous, hospitable, and polite,” Scott said.

In subsequent years, Meng has authored and worked to pass an effort to remove the term “Oriental” from federal law and provisions to enhance school bus and child car seat safety. President Barack Obama also signed into law Meng’s bill to make the desecration of cemeteries a violation of religious freedom.

“I don’t intentionally walk into the room representing any particular group, but inevitably find myself speaking up for those who need a bigger voice, particularly groups that are a part of me—women, Asian-Americans, and working parents,” said Meng, who co-chairs the Kids’ Safety Caucus, the first bipartisan coalition in the House that promotes child-safety issues. “That’s why I believe I’m here.”

And though Meng acknowledges the constant battle to balance her professional life with family responsibilities as the mother of two young sons, she charges ahead as a determined voice for her constituents.

“With so much work to do,” Meng said, “I’m focused on doing the best I can and showing people that government isn’t some distant bureaucracy.”


Daniel P. Smith is an award-winning, Chicago- based journalist who has written previously for Michigan Alumnus about Andy Friedman, co-founder of Skinny Pop, and Jerry Murrell, founder of Five Guys Burgers & Fries.

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