Benming “Benny” Zhang ’16 was elected to the Williamsburg City Council yesterday, becoming the second William & Mary student and the first Asian-American to ever do so.
Zhang was one of three people to win four-year appointments on the council, including W&M alumni Paul Freiling ’83 and Barbara Ramsey ’75. Elaine McBeth, associate director of W&M’s public policy program, and Greg Granger also ran in the election.
“This was an especially challenging but rewarding experience,” Zhang said in a press release. “I ran an honest, positive campaign. I would like to thank the community for trusting in the experience and perspective I bring to city council. I look forward to serving all citizens for the next four years, and I am eager to get to work making Williamsburg a more inclusive and vibrant city.”
According the City of Williamsburg’s communications specialist, Zhang is believed to be the first Asian-American to have ever been elected to the council. Scott Foster ’10, J.D. '14 was the first William & Mary student, beginning his work with the council in 2010 shortly after his graduation – just as Zhang will.
“It’s tough; it’s definitely a juggling act,” Zhang said of campaigning while finishing his senior year at the university. “But it really forced me to get as organized as possible. I can’t imagine what it’s like for candidates with families and a job to juggle, too. So it’s not all that impossible, but it definitely was a big challenge. I had to always remember that I was a student first and then a candidate.”
Zhang has been involved in Williamsburg politics since his freshman year at William & Mary, when Mayor Clyde Haulman appointed him to the Public Housing Advisory Committee. In addition to his four-year term with that body, Zhang has also served as a member of the Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance and the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Revolutionary Society.
Zhang began his time at William & Mary as a Sharpe Community Scholar, and, in that role, helped found the tutoring program Merrimac Mentors. He is a self-designed major in Asian-American studies, and his senior honors thesis focuses on Arthur Matsu ’28, who is believed to be W&M’s first Asian-American graduate. Zhang, who will graduate on May 14, plans on applying to W&M Law School following a gap year.
Zhang’s campaign, “My Neighbor Benny,” was organized and run by current William & Mary students with additional help from alumni. According to a press release, more than 50 volunteers worked on the campaign, getting more than 1,000 people registered to vote since January.
“These guys are just really motivated, and I’m very thankful to have them on the team because they really made this possible. … Most of the things that have been done were done by students, and it’s just a testament to how capable William & Mary students can be when it comes to this race,” Zhang said.
Students were also responsible for a town hall meeting held at William & Mary on April 26. The event, organized by The Flat Hat and Student Caucus, allowed four of the five candidates (Ramsey couldn’t attend) to discuss their views on the various issues facing the City of Williamsburg.
Zhang said that he decided to run for the council because of some issues he wanted to see addressed by the city, whether he won or not.
“There were some ideas that I wanted to see the city move forward with, and I didn’t think the other candidates were going to pursue those ideas,” he said, “so I decided to jump into the race and at least get a discussion going – if nothing else amounted, I’d be happy.”
Zhang’s first priority will be getting more familiar with the how the council operates, he said. However, he also hopes to begin work on making the government more inclusive of students and exploring redevelopment options such as the implementation of “tourism zones,” which provide economic incentives to businesses related to tourism.
“It would be really cool to start a conversation there and see what kind of businesses we can attract to the area,” he said.
Although originally from Long Island, New York, Zhang plans to stay in Williamsburg for the foreseeable future.“I think this will be a great place to invest some of my early years and see what I can do to be an active community member and make it a better place than when I first came to it,” he said.