C(API)TOL CORRESPONDENT: AAPIs are making it to the political playoffs, but can they win the championship?


Strong history-making electoral victories in recent months continue to show that Asian American and Pacific Islanders are not a fly-by-night phenomenon in the political arena.

Last month, Manka Dhingra won a heavily-contested state Senate seat in Washington that flipped the chamber to Democratic control. In Virginia, Kathy Tran became the first Vietnamese American elected to serve in the House of Delegates. Further north, Hoboken, N.J. voters elected Ravi Bhalla to become the first Sikh mayor of the city. In addition, voters in Edison, N.J. ignored racist appeals and elected two Asian Americans to the school board, Jerry Shi and Falguni Patel.

These victories are inspiring and validating after decades of virtual AAPI invisibility in elected office. How much longer before AAPIs field a viable candidate for the highest office in the land? The Asian American and Pacific Islander communities will have to wait until 2020 to see if American voters are ready for an AAPI president. The political community is already speculating that superstar California Sen. Kamala Harris, who is Indian American and black, is seeking the nomination.

Perhaps the best indicator of AAPI political maturity … and resolve … will be the California governor’s race in 2018. State Treasurer John Chiang is running for governor against Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Mayor of Los Angeles Antonio Villaraigosa and former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin. Republican businessman John Cox and Republican Assemblymember Travis Allen are also running, but few believe that they have what it takes to make it past California’s top-two primary system.

Public polling implies that Chiang is trailing Newsom and Villaraigosa. Chiang currently lags behind Newsom and leads Villaraigosa in fundraising. Clearly, winning the governorship will be a high hill to climb for Chiang. If he wins, he will lead the world’s sixth largest economy, a global nation-state leader in environmental policy, and the heart of the political resistance movement against the Trump Administration and the Republican-controlled Congress.

Data and history shows that AAPIs face a bamboo ceiling in C-suite promotions and governorship of California is one of the most coveted C-suite positions in U.S. politics. To be fair, AAPIs have held governorships before in Hawai‘i, Washington, Louisiana and South Carolina, but these states are much smaller than California. The question is: Can state Treasurer John Chiang show the nation that AAPIs are ready for the political corner office in the state that ostensibly leads the world?

The answer is YES.

Public polls are flawed. Current public polls were conducted in English and Spanish only. According to AAPI Vote, California is home to nearly 3.7 million AAPI voters.

Any poll not conducted in Asian languages will undoubtedly result in undercounted AAPI support for Chiang. The polls also used ballot titles for Villaraigosa (mayor) and Eastin (state superintendent of public instruction) that will not be allowed on the 2018 ballot. Furthermore, one of the polls failed to rotate candidates during the survey and another oversampled the Bay Area, thereby skewing results in favor of Newsom. Privately commissioned polls, such as one conducted by the Asian American Small Business PAC, show that Chiang is a serious threat to Newsom.

Chiang has already beaten Newsom four times. Chiang received more raw votes than Newsom in the last two primaries and general elections where both were on the ballot. Furthermore, Chiang has been on the statewide ballot more times than Newsom, Villaraigosa and Eastin.

In the year of #metoo, the boring bureaucrat with bad hair beats the player politician. Chiang’s long history as a low-key public servant/tax nerd provides voters with a strong contrast to Newsom’s flashy style and steamy personal life while serving as mayor of San Francisco. More importantly, Chiang’s steady leadership in the offices he has held and impressive victories in standing up to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attempt to reduce worker pay and the unpopular state legislature’s attempt to pass an unbalanced budget will play well to nervous voters when juxtaposed with Newsom’s abandonment of San Francisco during an economic recession and his lack of accomplishments as the state’s governor- in-waiting.

AAPIs will have to step up. Chiang will only win if AAPIs step up to the plate. AAPI voter turnout always lags white, African American and Latino voters. AAPI voters will need to turn out and vote for Chiang like they have never done before. When AAPI voters turned out in record numbers in Los Angeles, they defeated the establishment candidate and a gerrymandered district to elect the first Korean American to serve on the Los Angeles City Council, David Ryu. AAPIs will also have to vote with their wallets to help Chiang cross the finish line. AAPIs lead all races in average annual income and a large number of AAPIs have the personal net worth that could determine the outcome of this race. As special interest and celebrity financial support flood Newsom’s war chest, AAPIs must take it upon themselves to make Chiang financially competitive in this race. AAPIs clearly have the net worth to do it, they just need to believe that winning this race is more important to their pride and a stronger path to lasting respect and power than what’s in their driveway or on their wrists.

In an era when anti-immigrant sentiment and hate crimes are on the rise and one of four AAPIs feel discriminated against, the California governor’s race is a must-win situation.

Bill Wong is a political consultant with nearly 30 years of experience. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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