Once again, a record number of Asian Americans and a growing number of Pacific Islanders are running for public office at the local, state, and national level.
Every week, Reappropriate will profile progressive AAPI candidates for higher office, as well as officials serving in public office. Check back at Reappropriate throughout 2020 to learn more about these candidates and find out how you can get more involved in their campaigns.
What is your full name?
Dr. Michelle Au
What office are you seeking and/or what office do you currently hold?
Georgia State Senate, District 48.
When is the election date and/or when is the end of your term?
November 3, 2020.
What is your party registration (if any)?
Tell me a little bit about your background in general, as well as your relationship to your identity as an Asian American and/or Pacific Islander?
I am a second-generation Chinese American, who grew up attending public schools in New York City. My parents immigrated to the United States from China in the 1960’s. I graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College in 1999 and received my medical degree from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. I completed residency training in anesthesiology at Columbia, where I also trained in pediatrics. In addition, I hold a Masters in Public Health from Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Currently, my family and I live in Johns Creek, Georgia, where my three children all attend public school in the district.
When it comes to my AAPI identity, I hate to make generalizations because one thing Asian Americans know intimately is that, despite how the larger society views us, we are not a monolith.
We are not all the same. There is not any one way that AAPI individuals grow up, raise families, approach education or achievement or integrate with American culture. However, I think that there are aspects to the Asian American experience that did shape me, and how I view the political landscape and our place in it.
I would not say that my family was particularly political. We didn’t have Dukakis bumper stickers or go to rallies or display lawn signs. We, in fact, had no lawn, since I grew up on the 19th floor of an apartment in Manhattan.
I think there is to some degree a mentality that is common to many immigrant families. Work hard, do well in school, don’t make trouble. There was a sense that there is a very stepwise path to success, however success was defined. But I will say that my parents always championed seeing Asian role models in public roles where we were underrepresented.
I remember, for example, my family enthusiastically cheering for Tiffany Chin during the 1987 Winter Olympics—she was on the U.S. figure skating team, and this was well before Kristi Yamaguchi, well before Michelle Kwan. You know, it’s something I’d never seen before. I also remember how proud my parents were when Connie Chung was named to be co-anchor of the CBS Evening News—again, something we’d never seen before.
And I remember my parents really supporting S.B. Woo in his Senatorial campaign in 1988, telling me time and again how incredible it was for them to see a Chinese American, an immigrant, running to represent in government at the highest levels.
We weren’t a political family as such, but I think it was ingrained early age that representation was important. That there should not be spaces where people who look like us don’t belong.
It’s for this reason that it’s important to go first sometimes into new spaces. It’s important to try. It’s a way to show that Asian people belong here, there, everywhere. It’s a way to say that, moving forward, others don’t have to be the first anymore. That maybe someday, there won’t be any more “firsts.”
How did you become inspired to seek elected office?
I became a doctor to help people and fix difficult problems. But I’ve discovered that health isn’t simply about one’s blood pressure or weight. Our health is determined by many factors, such as access to healthcare, education, economic opportunity and safety. By the time our patients get to us, if they can get to us at all, our efforts are often just putting a dressing on a larger wound we don’t have the power to heal at the bedside.
So, in 2017, I enrolled at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, where I earned a Master’s in Public Health. Diving deep into healthcare policy, economics and law led me to realize I need to expand my role of public service into elected office to be able to address the important issues that affect the health of our community every day. Improving these factors of health is, in my view, the role of government itself—the protection of and investment in its citizenry to create a stronger whole.
What three issues do you think are most important to your constituents, and what step(s) do you plan to take to address them?
COVID-19 Response and Economic Stimulus: Georgia is struggling with its response to the greatest public health and economic crisis in a century. I will fight to maximize revenues and budget resources to prioritize long-term recovery with investments in health, education and job creation. I will push for Georgia to leverage federal aid, including Medicaid expansion to provide critical resources to our hospitals and public health departments.
I will also advocate for modernizing our tax code to fund our state budget, such as raising the tobacco tax to the national average and ending special interest tax breaks. With our state budget on the chopping block, I will fight against budget cuts to education and public health that will take over a lifetime to recuperate from and ultimately slow Georgia’s progress. In addition, I support the passage of the Georgia Earned Income Tax Credit to help low- and moderate-income households.
Healthcare: I am keenly motivated to improve the shameful maternal health outcomes in Georgia and will work to improve access to, affordability of and funding for all aspects of reproductive healthcare. I will fight tenaciously to protect a woman’s right to make her own healthcare decisions.
I will fight for expanding Medicaid so that more Georgians can afford to go to the doctor and will continue to advocate for Medicaid expansion to cover women’s and children’s health, as well as expanding the window of postpartum coverage under Medicaid provisions.
Education: I have three children who attend public schools in Senate District 48. I believe all students in the district and throughout Georgia deserve the absolute best our education system can offer and am particularly committed to reducing the achievement gap for low-income students.
I support increased school funding, better teacher pay and flexibility in testing. I also want to work to address inequalities in access, including smaller classrooms, wrap-around services and discriminatory school discipline.
What impact has the current political climate had on you as an Asian American and/or Pacific Islander progressive seeking (or in) elected office?
It’s an interesting time to be a Chinese American frontline physician with a master’s degree in public health running for office during a pandemic.
I would say that the current political climate has created more divisiveness in our communities, and my campaign, more so than others, has experienced more racial targeting based on Trump’s “China virus” and “kung flu” sleights. However, it has also galvanized infrequent and nontraditional voters to engage and participate in this election.
If you’d told me as a kid that I’d ever be running for office, I’d have told you that you were crazy. It’s not so much that I was told I couldn’t do it, it’s more that it would never have entered my mind. It’s not something I saw modeled, and there were few, if any, public examples of Asian American political leaders.
I’m not the first Asian woman to run for office. But I also don’t intend to be the last. And I’d also like it if my kids, and the other people in their generation, don’t have to say that they didn’t ever see examples of people like them doing the same.
What advice would you have for other young Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders currently considering a career in politics and/or public service?
Asian Americans are the fastest-growing segment of eligible voters out of the major racial and ethnic groups in the United States. From 2000 to 2020, the number of Asian American eligible voters more than doubled, and more than 11 million will be able to vote this year, making up nearly five percent of the nation’s eligible voters. We are also the only major racial or ethnic group in which naturalized citizens—rather than U.S. born—make up a majority of eligible voters.
Being a significant voting block comes with significant power. The AAPI vote has the potential to make the difference in some key swing states. Our voices and our votes also help to move the discussion and force candidates of both parties to consider their platforms on a number of important issues, ranging from healthcare to education to immigration.
I also daresay it disadvantages parties that use inflammatory or divisive language about immigrants or who use casually racist language when discussing the pandemic.
Many of our families came to this country in search of a better life and opportunity. And what I think we’re coming to realize as a community is that our civic engagement and the power of our votes are part of shaping that better life we want to see for our kids.
Where can readers go to learn more about you and your platform?
www.auforga.com, Facebook or Twitter: @auforga, Instagram: au4ga
How can readers get involved? Are there any upcoming events you’d like for us to know about?
Sign up to volunteer at www.auforga.com, Facebook or Twitter: @auforga, Instagram: au4ga
This interview was conducted by H. Han.
If you are a progressive Asian American or Pacific Islander running for or currently serving in elected office in 2020, and would like to be profiled in this series, please contact me for more information.