C(API)TOL CORRESPONDENT: AAPI political power on the rise in face of new threats

A few rays of hope for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders penetrated the dark shadow cast by hate crimes and the resurrection of the white supremacy movement following the presidential election in November. AAPI candidates won a historic number of races and broke new ground in communities where AAPI elected officials are few and far in between.

image courtesy of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS)

image courtesy of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS)

Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Grows
More AAPIs are now serving in U.S. Congress than in any time in history. Tammy Duckworth and Kamala Harris joined Mazie Hirono in the U.S. Senate, while Pramila Jayapal from Washington state, S. Raja Krishnamoorthi from Illinois, Stephanie Murphy from Florida, Ro Khanna from California, and Colleen Hanabusa — a former Congresswoman from Hawai‘i who is returning to Congress to replace Rep. Mark Takai who passed away last year — joined Representatives Judy Chu, Ted Lieu, Mark Takano, Doris Matsui, Ami Bera, Tulsi Gabbard, Grace Meng and Bobby Scott along with Delegates Gregorio Sablan, and Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen.
Eighteen AAPIs now will serve in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate combined.

California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus Grows
Like the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, the California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus made history again by growing to 14 members — despite losing two members to term limits, one member who was defeated for re-election, and one member who vacated her Assembly seat and unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the upper house — Todd Gloria (D-San Diego), Vince Fong (R-Bakersfield), Phillip Chen (R-Brea), Steven Choi (R-Tustin), Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), and Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) joined Rob Bonta (D-Alameda), Ed Chau (D-Monterey Park), David Chiu (D-San Francisco), Kansen Chu (D-Milpitas), Evan Low (D-Campbell), Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) and Janet Nguyen (R-Garden Grove).

Muratsuchi made a stunning comeback to win his old seat after being defeated two years ago when voter turnout in his district plummeted. At the same time, former assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva ran an effective campaign reaching out to AAPI communities to win back the seat that Young Kim took from her two years ago. Ling Ling Chang vacated a safe re-election to the Assembly to run for the state Senate, where she was narrowly defeated by political newcomer Democrat Josh Newman.

Incremental Gains Show Barriers Still Exist
As much as it would be nice to attribute election gains to growing AAPI mastery of the rough and tumble world of politics, it would simply be dishonest. Do we have great candidates that work hard and are qualified to win? Yes. Did they win just because they worked hard and were qualified? No. Just look at the candidates that lost.

Jane Kim is a bright and rising star in San Francisco and known nationally as the fierce and appealing progressive future of the AAPI community. She came in slightly ahead of fellow Supervisor Scott Weiner in June, but suffered a stinging defeat in November where she was outspent three to one. While significant outside groups came to Kim’s aid, even larger and more powerful groups backed Weiner and won.

Similarly, Warren Furutani and Mariko Yamada were both respected and liked former assemblymembers who ran for state Senate and suffered defeat at the hands of opponents with stronger ties to major political interests with vast monetary resources.

Big money also played in the race involving Ling Ling Chang, but a more troubling factor probably was the key to her defeat. Democrat and former Irvine mayor Sukhee Kang significantly outraised novice Democrat Josh Newman in the primary and was expected to win and go on to face Chang in November.

In what would be an outcome that would foreshadow things to come in November, Newman defeated Kang. Voter data guru Paul Mitchell credited Kang’s defeat to racially polarized voting where AAPI voters were split and white voters unified — seemingly despite partisan differences — to deliver a victory to Newman who is white. It’s also possible that Ling Ling Chang’s “foreign-sounding” name added to the racial polarization and pushed anti-immigrant votes toward Newman despite his Democratic Party affiliation.

AAPI Republican candidates with “Americanized” names like Phillip Chen, Steven Choi, and Vince Fong won in Republican stronghold districts with pro-Trump, anti-immigrant voters similar to those in the district where Newman beat Chang.

Money was not as much of an issue in the race involving Young Kim’s effort to get re-elected to the Assembly — both sides had plenty of political action committee support. However, Young probably suffered from the national presidential campaign as Trump’s continued attack on immigrants soured non-Korean Republican AAPIs from turning out for Kim and energized the significant number of Latino voters in this Orange County district in favor of Quirk-Silva. Quirk-Silva had won this district in 2012 and lost it in 2014 when Latino voters decided to stay home. Quirk-Silva also made a conscious decision to win over AAPI voters with multiple pieces of targeted mail in Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean and Tagalog. Quirk-Silva’s team also hit Kim for supporting a controversial local redistricting effort that split the AAPI community’s voting power.

Hope & Challenges On The Horizon
The gains by AAPIs in 2016 certainly outweigh the losses. However, there are strong lessons to be learned from this election cycle that can be applied to future races.

Organization and allies matter. First, the AAPI candidates that did the best had strong backing from a diverse set of powerful political interests. AAPI candidates that engage allies that align along similar political interests are more likely to get strong external support and a better chance at winning.
Second, the only easy day was yesterday. Gone are the days of clear-cut political fights with a few AAPI candidates to focus community support for. We had an unprecedented number of viable and competitive AAPI candidates and incumbents calling for financial support. The AAPI community will need to double down on political donations and volunteer hours in support of AAPI candidates to have a real role in ensuring continued political diversity at all levels of government.

Furthermore, choices will be tougher. This year, AAPIs had to choose between Rep. Mike Honda and challenger Ro Khanna. They also had to choose between Ash Kalra and Madison Nguyen. As more and more qualified AAPIs run for office, the AAPI community will have to choose sides in races with two or more AAPIs running against each other. Intra-race battles are a stage of political maturity that African Americans and Latinos have reached decades before and they both still prosper politically.
Ironically, Honda’s early and persistent efforts to politically empower AAPIs may have laid the very political foundation that allowed Khanna to defeat the veteran congressman.

Why It Matters
The first one hundred days of the Trump presidency poses a terrifying prospect as proposal for a Muslim registry and mass deportations are being considered. Even more disturbing is the appointment of an openly white nationalist to PEOTUS’ inner circle of advisors in the White House. At the front lines of the efforts to repel anti-immigrant proposals stands a legion of overwhelmingly progressive AAPI elected officials at their strongest numbers in the history of this nation. Key AAPI operatives that had the opportunity to hone their political skills in the last election cycle are more prepared than they have ever been for the fight ahead.

Even as President-elect Trump is poised to occupy the White House, President Obama and his AAPI staff are not exiting without making a statement. In December, the White House hosted a poignant conversation with Japanese Americans who valiantly served this nation and survived the government-ordered incarceration and members of the American Muslim community who are now under threat of similar racially fueled fear-based policy proposals. The White House event featured moving testimony by both Japanese American community members and the American Muslim community. This event was made possible by the leadership and commitment of senior White House staff member Alissa Ko and the support of a president that supports diversity, inclusion, and tolerance. That’s why the active political participation by AAPIs matters today, tomorrow and four years from now.

Bill Wong is a political consultant with nearly 30 years of experience and is the political director for the Asian American Small Business PAC. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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