‘Vax Daddy’ Gives Politics a Shot: Pandemic Hero Runs for Queens State Assembly Seat
Huge Ma, the coder behind COVID vaccine appointment-finding website TurboVax, is taking his brand of civic tech activism to the campaign trail. But will his virtual folk hero status help the political novice oust a longtime incumbent?
When Huge Ma shuttered his TurboVax website this spring after helping connect countless New Yorkers to COVID-19 vaccine appointments, he found himself starting to “think more about my place in the world.”
Two million people had visited his website over four months, frustrated by clunky city and state portals. He became a virtual folk hero, earning reams of thank-yous from people who credit him with saving lives.
“I code for a living,” said Ma, 31. “I never imagined that I could have that sort of tangible impact on all these people’s lives.”
Now he’s hoping to exert a new impact with a run for the New York State Assembly: He’s filed paperwork to launch a Democratic primary challenge for a seat currently held by longtime incumbent Cathy Nolan in the Queens district where he was raised.
He’s vying to represent a hunk of the borough that includes Sunnyside, Ridgewood, Long Island City, Astoria and Maspeth — and currently overlaps part of the congressional district held by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who upended the Queens Democratic establishment in 2018.
Although he has always followed local politics, it was the popularity of TurboVax that pushed him to pursue a career in public office, he said.
“I only did what I thought was right and what was good for my neighbors,” he said of his website and Twitter presence connecting people to the vaccine. “I think that this is an extension of that.”
Ma is hoping to use his civic techie credentials to oust Nolan, who was first elected to the Assembly in 1984. She fended off a challenge from two left-flank candidates, Mary Jobaida and Danielle Brecker, in 2020.
Jobaida has also announced she’s running in next year’s contest, which could be affected by redistricting.
In a text, Nolan told THE CITY she felt “ready for anything.”
‘You Saved Us’
Ma was working as a software engineer at Airbnb when he launched TurboVax in mid-January to scan user-unfriendly city and state websites to quickly find available appointments for New Yorkers seeking the jab.
He also used the site and his considerable Twitter following — his posts have garnered 120 million views — for social and political activism.
After a surge in Asian hate crimes, Ma temporarily closed TurboVax in late February, encouraging his followers to call their representatives and take other actions to stop bias incidents. He also raised nearly $200,000 to support businesses in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
When running for mayor, Andrew Yang vowed to give Ma the key to the city, and a job, if he was elected.
He never received a key from Yang, but he gets hugs from strangers.
“You saved us, you really did,” Kafia Saxe, an owner of Communitea in Long Island City, said through tears after realizing Ma was in her cafe during an interview with THE CITY.
“Because of you and your dedication and brilliance, we got our vaccines,” she told him, before asking for a hug. “And everybody did. It made us all safer here.”
‘I Became a Fixer’
Lauren Baer, a managing partner at the political organization Arena and a former congressional candidate in Florida, said her organization has seen a surge of newcomers drawn to politics because of the pandemic.
“I think that one thing the pandemic has certainly made real for people is both the importance of government services and policies, as well as the limitations of those government services and policies based upon who is currently in office,” she said.
“People have seen their real-world experiences can be incredibly useful in government,” she added.
Ma grew up an only child in Astoria, living the “immigrant grind” of his parents, who both emigrated from Hong Kong, he said. The family spent their rare days off in Astoria Park or at the $3 movie night at the Sunnyside Center Cinema on Queens Boulevard, he said.
When Ma was a sophomore at Stuyvesant High School, his father died of a stroke. He quickly learned to solve problems on his own.
“I became a fixer,” he said, recalling how he helped run his late father’s modest eyeglasses shop while navigating college applications. Ma later attended the University of Pennsylvania, studying economics, and has worked in tech since.
So when Ma tried to make a vaccine appointment for his mom, a nurse, last January, he saw a problem to solve for both himself and others — especially busy working and older people without his technological background.
“I feel like our government really needs to tackle our problems of today with urgency and creativity,” he said.
If elected to the Assembly, he said he hopes to work on some of the most pressing issues faced by the city and his district — including transportation, affordable housing and the effects of climate change.
He also wants to bring his technical expertise to the state Legislature.
“Technology is such a crucial part of how the government delivers services, and I feel like we accept when government technology is not OK,” he said. “But when we’re thinking about the truly life or death services that the government provides, we should have the highest expectations.”
Ma Salutes Mom
The first person who told him not to run for office was the same person who inspired him to launch TurboVax: his mom.
“She said, ‘You’ve done a great thing, you have a wonderful job, you have health care and benefits — why are you going to give all that up for this risk?,’” Ma recalled.
He explained to her that his running in some ways honors the sacrifice she made for him — working in a Long Island City garment factory while attending school to become a nurse.
“Very seldom do people have an opportunity to advocate for their neighbors, to improve their lives,” he said. “I am running to do justice to her sacrifice.”