As anti-Asian violence surges in New York City, out gay Japanese-American City Council candidate Jeffrey Omura is calling for schools to teach Asian-American history to students in a bid to curb future harassment.
“It’s a lot harder to otherize someone when you realize that their history is your history,” said Omura, who is running a campaign to represent the Upper West Side, Lincoln Square, Central Park, and Clinton in District 6.
Since the pandemic started, Omura said it has been “terrifying” to watch ongoing incidences targeting Asian-American communities dating back to last spring.
“It’s like, ‘I don’t know if it’s safe for me to walk to the grocery store by myself,'” Omura said. “I’m lucky that I haven’t experienced anything targeting me specifically, but I have a lot of friends who have been targeted by violence, or just by scary hateful words from strangers on the street or on the subway.”
Currently, term-limited City Councilmembers Peter Koo of Queens and Margaret S. Chin of Manhattan are the only Asian-American officials on the City Council. If elected, Omura said he would make history as the first Japanese-American elected official in the state — and he hopes he can gain traction as he focuses on issues facing Asian-American people.
“We need to invest in the Asian-American community,” Omura said. “Right now, we’ve got this model minority myth, but one in four Asian-Americans in New York City lives in poverty.”
Omura is up against several opponents, including Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and lawyer Maria Danzilo, in a campaign to succeed term-limited City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, who launched a campaign for comptroller but dropped out of the race last summer. Omura is trailing behind in remaining campaign cash among candidates. To date, he has an estimated balance of $103,377, following Brewer, who has $202,566, and Danzilo, who has $123,280, according to the New York City Campaign Finance Board.
Omura, who was born and raised in Michigan, is an actor, artist, former political campaigner, and labor organizer who helped lead the Fair Wage On Stage campaign, a grassroots effort to advocate for higher wages for New York City performers. Early next year, out gay term-limited Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer, who is running for Queens borough president, is slated to leave his post as chair of the Council’s Cultural Affairs, Libraries, and International Intergroup Relations Committee. Without Van Bramer — who spent a decade as the chief external affairs officer for the Queens Library — Omura wants to make sure the Council maintains a focus on arts.
“I realized that all of our arts advocates are term-limited, and there may be no one left to advocate for the arts at a time when we need it most,” Omura said. “That’s when I realized that someone had to step forward to make sure we have an advocate for the arts and at least one seat at the table, because we’re going to need a lot of support within the city government to get everyone back to work.”
The arts will continue to take shape as the city recovers from the pandemic, but how the programs rebound is just as important. Governor Cuomo last month gave Broadway the go-ahead to start up again, with rehearsals first and then full capacity performances returning in September. Still, Omura raised several questions about how that would pan out.
“We really can’t do social distancing in a Broadway house because we have to be able to sell as many tickets as possible,” Omura said. “The question is, ‘Will we be able to fill those seats when Broadway reopens?’ We’re going to need those tourists. And if we can’t bring international tourists in because they’re not vaccinated, then we’re going to have to focus on domestic tourists… we need butts in seats.”
Omura is also placing a focus on different LGBTQ initiatives and health issues during his campaign. Pointing to the success of the Chelsea Sexual Health Clinic, which is part of the network of NYC Sexual Health Clinics offering low-cost or free services for sexual health, Omura said he wants to push for more funding of STI clinics throughout the city that provide same-day test results. He also wants to increase funding to house homeless LGBTQ youth and boost resources for Title IX coordinators, who could address anti-LGBTQ bullying and cyberbullying.
Omura relates to the adversity faced by LGBTQ youth because the theater became an escape from homophobic bullying in the Michigan school system.
“Middle school was absolute hell for me as it was for a lot of gay kids, getting called f****t everyday,” Omura said. “It’s really hard to wake up and go to school when that’s what you face.”
Meanwhile, he also wants to update hospital software to allow LGBTQ men to donate blood despite discriminatory regulations preventing men who have sex with men from doing so. In April, several gay men said they were unable to give blood despite loosening FDA guidelines because computers at blood centers were not updated to accommodate the new rule, according to NBC. Omura is pledging to support the reallocation of police funding toward using mental health experts to respond to individuals in crisis, though he did not say how much he would shift away from the NYPD.
His main focus, though, is on the arts — and he is hopeful that those programs can play a key role in helping the city overcome the hardship of the last year and a half.
“I believe art is how we’re going to heal after this pandemic,” Omura said. “We can go back and have those shared experiences again.”
Early voting spans from June 12 to June 20 and primary day is on June 22.
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