Julie Won Talks Misogyny, Housing and Education
By Iryna Shkurhan | [email protected]
Julie Won isn’t scared of conflict and confrontation, in her own words – she thrives in it.
Since assuming office in the beginning of 2022, the Western Queens councilwoman spearheaded negotiations for the largest private affordable housing development in Queens history, securing 20 percent more affordable units than developers proposed. And as someone who moved to the United States from Korea at age six, she focused on immigrant communities to pass legislation mandating vital city notices be accessible in other languages.
In a sit down interview with the Queens Ledger last week, Won used words such as pragmatic, confrontational and even rigid to describe herself. She attributes her approach as an elected official to being an Aries, a fire sign anecdotally known to represent bravery and boldness.
Won came out on top of one of the most crowded city council primaries in the 2021 cycle, with 11 other democratic candidates vying to represent Sunnyside, Woodside, Astoria and Long Island City. Despite the initial density, over 18,000 locals turned out to vote in the general election, more than double the 7,709 ballots cast in the previous election. She replaced Jimmy Van Bramer, who represented the district since 2009 and did not run for reelection.
She credits the high voter turnout to her team knocking on over 70,000 doors leading up to voting day, rejecting the assumption the District 26 “doesn’t vote” with the numbers to prove it.
While she is a political newcomer, her background in data analytics, technology and marketing easily translated to running a successful campaign and fitting into the world of budget negotiations and all things legislation. Won previously worked for IBN in various roles for a decade, most recently as a digital strategy consultant right up until she took office.
As the first Korean-American elected to city council at 32, Won is progressive without taking a full-blown Democratic-Socialist stance like Tiffany Caban and Jennifer Gutirrez in neighboring districts. She is pro-union, collaborative with organizers and supported holding the NYPD accountable for aggressive policing during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.
Won also says that she’s staunchly pro-public schools and disapproves of investments in charter schools, which critics say operate at a cheaper cost but siphon funding from public schools. And as someone who attended public schools for most of her life, Won says that her child, who recently turned one, will do the same when it’s time to enroll.
“We have to fix the public education system as they’re privatizing it,” said Won. “I don’t have a single parent in my district begging me to open up a charter school. I have every single parent rallying to make sure that a charter school does not open in this district.”
Won received some criticism for voting to approve the controversial city budget last year, which included defunding public schools by $469 million. Only six members voted against it, including Caban who represents Astoria.
She expressed that her vote to pass the overall budget does not necessarily signify a vote on just one line.
Won also pointed out that given the rate of students leaving the NYC public school system due to pandemic relocation, schools should not receive the same level of funding now. Enrollment at NYC public schools is down 11 percent since the pandemic after 813,000 students in grades K-12 left the system, according to reporting by Chalkbeat.
“If you understand the logic of what your job role is, you understand that your role as a legislator is to advocate and fight for a budget that is as close as possible to where I want it to look like,” said Won, who said that legislators who vote to reject the budget, delay long term solutions and reduce additional funding for their own districts.
Since emerging in the political scene, Won says that she has encountered a fair share of misogyny, especially since she was pregnant during her campaign and gave birth just months after taking office.
“I’m pregnant, not brain dead,” said the council member in response to critics who criticized her decision to choose both — motherhood and a far-reaching career.
In order to be present for budget negotiations, which can not be attended virtually, her maternity leave amounted to less than a month. She also pointed out that she continued to work up until 24 hours before giving birth.
“Because of my own upbringing, I think of having to be independent, I do better in high stress situations,” said Won, who secured her first job at 16 and moved out while being financially independent two years later.
That mentality got her through negotiations for Innovation QNS, where she was able to secure a deal where 45% of 3,000 units will be designated affordable. Developers initially proposed that 75% of units will be at market rate. When renderings included designer retailers in the commercial space, she pushed for more apartments instead.
Won says that in her district, 88 percent of people are renters. And with the city currently enduring an affordability crisis, contributed to by shortage of housing and skyrocketing rent, the deal was pivotal for the housing security of thousands of Queens residents.
At an Astoria rally for Good Cause Eviction legislation to be included in the state budget last month, Won shared that since she took office, thousands of constituents have come to her office distressed over eviction notices and the inability to afford the rising cost of rent and utilities.
In response she hired a housing lawyer through CUNY Law School to represent residents in her district facing eviction. Since October 2022, he has come in twice a month and met with dozens of constituents pro bono.
While she says she is not a DSA member, and did not receive their endorsement, her policy stances paint her to be socialist-adjacent. She stood alongside exclusively DSA endorsed officials and organizers at the rally in support of the progressive vision.
“I work with anybody who’s willing to work with me if our vision or mission aligns for the betterment of my community,” said Won about politicians on both sides.
That includes the Working Families Party (WFP), whose higher ups vetoed her endorsement during her first run despite the Queens chapter offering their endorsement. Instead, the WFP endorsed Amit Bagga, another progressive candidate who trailed her on election day. Won attributed it to the “political machine” being “alive and well” in a response on Twitter immediately after.
Following the rejection, her husband Eugene Noh, who also ran her campaign, said “f*** the working families party” in an interview with Matthew Thomas, an independent reporter.
During her interview with the Queens Ledger, where Noh was also present, he said “she’s happy to start fresh” with the WFP and pointed out that they endorsed her in this upcoming cycle.
It appears that Won and her husband are partners in life and work. The couple say that they have known each other since they were teenagers.
In another immigrant-supportive step, she hired local residents who speak Bengal, Nepali and Spanish to better serve her constituents in her Sunnyside office on Queens Boulevard. She says her office has resolved over 2,000 cases since taking office.
“Making sure our bread and butter is constituent services to make sure people have the constituent requests met, and making sure that I get the most money every single year for this district,” is top priority, said Won.