As he savored his victory this week in the race for state controller, John Chiang couldn’t help but reflect on how grim the political landscape had been for Asian Americans just a decade ago.
Back then, a fundraising scandal involving then-Vice President Al Gore and a Buddhist temple in Hacienda Heights embroiled the Democratic Party and in some eyes cast suspicion on Asian American donors and politicians.
But in the decade since, the fortunes of Asian American politicians have rebounded in dramatic fashion.
Tuesday’s election marked a watershed moment for the community, with more than two dozen Asian Americans running for state office. Nineteen candidates won, giving Asian Americans a record representation in Californian public office with a total of 20 elected officials. (Before the election, there were 17.)
Democrat Chiang’s victory garnered the most headlines. But the election also resulted in a major shift at the State Board of Equalization: Four of its five members will be Asian American. They are termed-out Democratic Assemblywoman Judy Chu; board incumbent Betty Yee, a Democrat; newcomer Michelle Steel, a Republican; and Chiang, a member by virtue of being treasurer. The non-Asian is Republican incumbent Bill Leonard.
“There’s a new generation of Asian Americans getting involved in the community, governance and public policy,” said Chiang. “It speaks volumes about the resiliency of the community that a decade ago, it was under attack.”
The victories come on the heels of a study released by the Asian American Pacific Legal Center that showed the Asian American electorate grew by nearly a third in Los Angeles County and more than two-thirds in Orange County in the last few years.
Chu and others say that, aside from general population growth, registration drives and efforts to translate voter and campaign material in recent years have helped increase the size of the Asian American electorate. She also credited the popularity of absentee ballots. Of 22 million eligible voters in California, about 2.5 million are Asian Americans.
“I think after a while, success breeds more success or at least encourages people to give politics a go,” said Don Nakanishi, director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. “I don’t think running for office is in anyone’s cultural DNA, even though a lot of Asian Americans will say they never had a tradition of political participation back in Asia.”
In 1996, the political outlook for Asian Americans had soured. A controversy began with Gore’s visit to a temple in Hacienda Heights that linked the Democratic National Committee to Asian American donors who were suspected of having illegally provided the party with money from China.
The temple visit became part of a larger national fundraising controversy; ultimately, the party returned about $3 million in donations and several fundraisers were charged.
The scandal had a chilling effect in the local Asian political community, Chiang and others said. Some politicians and candidates declined to take money from Chinese American donors, and some Asian American candidates struggled to gain support, they said.
“They made them [feel like] outcasts,” Chiang said.
The fact that many Asian American candidates for statewide office are now appealing to a broad swath of voters is a testament to the changed environment.
Although candidates can win office in some city and school board elections by appealing mostly to Asian voters, victory in statewide and legislative campaigns requires coalition-building.
Some, including Chu, have developed ties to Latino politicians and labor groups, and Chiang said his parents’ story of hardworking immigrants seeking better lives in the United States for their children resonates with any voter.
And as Asian candidates reach out to the mainstream, non-Asian candidates are increasingly courting Asian voters.
Nakanishi sees it in campaign mailers in which candidates make their pitches in Chinese, Korean or Vietnamese.
This outreach is evident in Southern California, which has the nation’s largest and most diverse Asian American population.
The Asian Pacific American Legal Center’s study documented dramatic Asian American voter participation gains in L.A. and Orange counties but also showed that percentages did not equal the two counties’ overall turnout numbers.
In the 2004 general election, 78% of registered voters in L.A. County and 73% of registered voters in Orange County voted.
By comparison, 71% of registered Asian American voters in L.A. County and 68% of those in Orange County voted.
Although L.A. County’s electorate grew by 11% and Orange County’s by 12% between the 2000 and 2004 general elections, the Asian American electorate in L.A. County grew by 29% and Orange County’s grew by 68% in those years.
“To politicians, it says Asian Americans are becoming engaged in the political process. They’re increasingly a population elected officials need to attend to,” said Dan Ichinose, project director for the survey.
That means offering language assistance during campaigns and at the polls, Ichinose said.
The survey found that 40% of Asian American voters in L.A. County and 37% of Asian American voters in Orange County were deemed to have limited English proficiency. Koreans and Vietnamese voters struggled the most with English, the survey showed.
The majority of Asian American voters in the two counties were foreign born. In L.A. County, they represented 67% of 271,497 Asian Americans who voted in the 2004 general election.
In Orange County, foreign-born voters made up 80% of the 137,583 Asian Americans who voted in the same election.
Christine Chen, executive director of APIAVote, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., that encourages civic participation by Asian Pacific Islander Americans, said all eyes were on California’s changing Asian American electorate.
“We look at what happens in California and what can be replicated in other areas,” Chen said.
“It’s such a large population and there are so many more nonprofit organizations,” she said.
Chen noted that the rest of the country has been catching on.
Most recently, Jim Webb, who won a Virginia Senate seat, employed Korean American actor Daniel Dae Kim, from the television show “Lost,” to court the Asian American vote in a TV advertisement.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Recent years have seen sharp growth in the Asian American electorate in Southern California. The breakdown by ethnic groups:
Asian American voters, 2004 general election
Los Angeles County
*--* Group Voters Percent Filipino 78,770 29% Chinese 74,496 27% Korean 35,109 13% Japanese 31,130 11% Vietnamese 24,712 9% Asian Indian 12,616 5% Cambodian 3,706 1%
*--* Group Voters Percent Vietnamese 52,508 38% Filipino 25,358 18% Chinese 16,999 12% Korean 12,612 9% Japanese 9,860 7% Asian Indian 7,097 5% Cambodian 1,811 1%
Note: Does not include all Asian American groups; numbers do not add up to 100%.
Source: Asian Pacific American Legal Center.