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On January 1, 2016, Elaine Wagner was sworn in as the first Chinese American city council member in Columbus, Indiana. We asked Wagner, a millennial, a woman and a second-generation Chinese American, to share her journey into the American political arena.
What prompted you to run for the Columbus City Council and how do you see yourself contributing?
My father, Ryan Hou, and one of my mentors, Fred Armstrong, who had been the previous mayor of Columbus for sixteen years, played a significant role of encouraging me to run for office. Although I have done a variety of community work, I had not thought about running for city council until they brought up the idea at the dinner table. After realizing how serious they were, I had to start thinking about why they were so excited about me running for the city council. I am a completely different face on the city council. I’m young, a woman, and a minority. I don’t look like my counterparts, and we certainly do not have the same experiences or backgrounds. I hope to inspire others who don’t look like the norm to run for office. Our current government needs more diversity and people of different upbringings in order to understand what people go through and what different viewpoints there are in the public.
What does a typical day as a city councilwoman look like?
Since serving on the city council is a part time job, my normal day still involves going to work at Cummins from 8 AM to 5 PM, but after 5 PM my life has changed a lot. In addition to attending two city council meetings per month, I sit on three other boards as a liaison or representative for the city. I also work very hard to meet with constituents, which includes going to neighborhood meetings and events in my district, meeting with city department heads to understand the agenda items which are up for vote, and writing newsletters to keep everyone who wants to know about the city council informed.
As you mentioned, you also have a full-time job and a family. How do you balance your time?
I would say being super organized and having an updated calendar are probably the two things that keep me on track all the time. First, I push myself to maintain a busy schedule, including meetings at 7 AM, at lunch and after work. Second, I’m very lucky to have a boss and a family who support me. My boss supports my community work and my family is tolerant of my busy schedule and never gets mad at me for canceling appointments or not being at home.
Asian Americans are underrepresented at all levels of American governments. From your perspective, what are the barriers that might prevent Asian Americans from participating in the political arena?
I think one of our barriers is that we aren’t overly social or involved in the community. Many Asians tend to stick together and not branch out and get involved outside of our group of friends. Many places I volunteer at or events I go to, I am the only Asian there…it would be good to see everyone get out of their comfort zone, make new friends, and get involved in the community. I know it’s not always the easiest thing, or the most comfortable, but the more you do it, the easier it gets.
What advice would you give to young Asian Americans interested in running for local public office?
Do it! Read the local newspaper every day, seek mentors who can guide you and give you honest advice (especially the feedback you don’t want to hear), and engage your base (other Asians)! Running for office was the best thing I have ever done, and I would still say that even if I had lost. I met new people, learned a lot, and grew as a person. We need more people to run for office who are not the standard politicians.
What do you usually do in your leisure time?
In my free time, I love eating good food, connecting people, and working on projects to better the community. Right now, I’m planning the first-ever beer festival in Columbus, and bringing in groups of people who are new to the city. It’s a lot of hard work but a ton of fun, and I can’t wait!
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of Elaine Wagner and do not necessarily reflect those of The International Center and/or the City of Columbus.