A Couple Back-Pats for a Couple of Asians

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Speaking of people of colour who don’t get the appropriate kudos they deserve for a job well done, at least some folks are breaking the race barrier and getting the spotlight they deserve.

I don’t follow sports, but thankfully my Google! Alerts do. Seems that Yankees player Hideki Matsui, who is playing his last season with the team this year, helped score six runs to lead the Yankees’s first World Series victory since 2000. No small feat, even for a talented player like Matsui; his performance earned him the first World Series MVP honour to be awarded to an Asian or Asian American player. Congrats, Hideki!

Also, a post office in San Francisco’s Chinatown may be renamed for Lim Poon Lee, who was postmaster for the area since 1966. During his tenure, Lee established the post office that will likely bear his name, and worked tirelessly to increase the representation of Chinese Americans in the postal service. This article has a full biography of Lee, who passed away in 2002, but sufficed to say, being postmaster was only part of Lee’s great accomplishments during his life.

Lee enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943, and after training as a counterintelligence specialist, he served in the Philippines and then Japan. Lee used to recount, Chan said, his company’s dispatch to Hokkaido, where they found that Chinese war prisoners in Japanese labor camps had launched a revolt against the Japanese.

The Army asked Lee to stop the riots because he was the only soldier who spoke Japanese and Chinese. His solution, as a representative of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, was to swear in the Chinese troops as members of the U.S. Army with their same ranks.

After World War II, Lee entered college and received his law degree in 1954 from Lincoln University. He continued his community advocacy while working in court systems in San Francisco, and in 1959, he helped found the Chinese American Democratic Club.

“He was ahead of his time and was very influential,” said former state Sen. John Burton. “He was one of those that encouraged the Chinese community to stand up for their rights and not be intimidated by the government.”

Chan said naming the Chinatown post office after Lee “will remind people of my children’s generation that there were Chinese Americans who, when called upon, made a difference.”

Asian American Candidates Win in Local Elections

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Although predictable to all but the most politically obtuse, John Liu made history yesterday when he overwhelmingly won the position of NYC comptroller. In doing so, Liu became the first Asian American to win a city-wide position in NYC. While this is a remarkable victory for Liu, it remains a sobering landmark moment, considering that the Asian American population in NYC has been around since the early nineteenth century.

Yet, I congratulate Liu in his victory: John Liu has been amongst the most vocal advocates, nationally, for the Asian American community, and he has worked tirelessly for his constituents in NYC as city councilman. However, his victory, and the election results in other races, also teaches us that Asian American candidates, like many other minority politicians, cannot win solely by relying on their ethnicity to carry them to victory.

Liu, as Calvin Prashad of APA for Progress points out, reached out to African-American and Latino community leaders as a city councilman and as a candidate for NYC comptroller. He became a popular political representative because he campaigned and worked across racial bounds, while simultaneously ensuring that each community felt they had an advocate in him. Liu was able to garner support from Asian American voters, locally and nationally, by using his clout as an elected representative to raise awareness regarding APIA community issues and concerns, but he did not marginalize himself as merely an Asian American candidate.

Similarly, Repubican Peter Koo overcame incumbent Democrat Yen Chou to win Liu’s old seat as city councilman in NYC’s 20th district. Prashad notes that incumbent Chou relied upon Chinese-American support in a district that includes Flushing, NY which has a large Asian population. Koo, however, counted Jewish and Korean business owners amongst his supporters, and was able to build a multi-racial and multi-ethnic voting base. Both Koo, and Margaret Chin who won a city council seat in NYC’s 1st district which encompasses Manhattan’s immense Chinatown, are prominent community leaders well-known, and well-respected, by their voting constituents.

In Virginia, Korean-American Democrat Mark Keam emerged victorious against Republican Jim Hyland to represent VA’s 35th District in the State House of Delegates. Although Keam’s district contains only approximately 10% Asian Americans, Keam won by 2 percentage points over his opponent, Keam was able to build a campaign that transcended racial lines in order to become the first Asian American elected to the Virginia State House.

Other Asian American candidates didn’t fare as well. Kevin Kim lost NYC’s 19th District to Republican Dan Halloran in part by attacking Halloran’s religious beliefs. And Sam Yoon’s campaign to be the first Asian American mayor in Boston fell flat yesterday, I believe in part because Yoon relied on schticky racial stunts to distinguish himself from the pack. At one campaign event, Yoon (who is Korean American) passed out fortune cookies to event attendees in a clear attempt to paint himself as the “ethnic” candidate.

Prashad of APA for Progress does a great job of enumerating the lessons learned from yesterday’s election results. In an act of blatant plagiarism, here’s my list for future Asian American candidates hoping to be elected to local office, some of which I draw from my own experiences (and mistakes) helping to run a local state representative race:

  • Be a community leader. Nothing beats widespread recognition as a community leader. If a diverse group of local names respect you, half your work is done — but that means that the time to get involved is now.
  • Tap the team. There are some really talented political activists within the Asian American community, and a widespread network of politicos who blog across the nation on APA political issues. These are also folks who are training the next generation of young campaign managers and lobbyists. Get these folks on your side — they can help with advice, fundraising, and just raising your profile.
  • Transcend the “ethnic” divide. It doesn’t matter what the demographics of  your district are, do not rely on an minority face and an ethnic name to carry you to victory. Voters (particularly minority voters) prefer candidates who prove themselves to be well-rounded, and who can advocate on behalf of a number of communities. Reach out to other community leaders and build a multi-racial coalition. If you don’t, you’ll look like you’re trying too hard to pander, and you run the risk of rendering yourself “out-of-touch” or even irrelevant. 
  • Don’t patronize the Asian American voter. Asian American voters are evenly spread between Democrats and Republicans, and we won’t be swayed merely by an Asian face. Shoot, Bob McDonnell, the new governor-elect of Virginia, courted the Asian American vote in the last several months, helping launch his campaign to victory over Democrat Creigh Deeds. Asian Americans are conscentious and educated voters — treat us like we are.
  • Pick a few resonating issues, and change the conversation. Don’t try to campaign on every issue under the sun (although you’d better be capable of doing so). Change the conversation to focus on a few key issues you are good at, and hammer those home with voters. Successful candidates are ones that are able to communicate their priorities to voters, and those priorities resonate.
  • Be money conscious. Don’t waste your campaign funds. If you know a guy who knows a guy who can do it just as well as a consultant for cheaper, pick your friend of a friend. Keep your materials professional looking, but the more money you save by doing things in-house, the more you have to spend reaching out to voters. 
  • Go high tech. Get a good, professional website, and make sure you use direct mailers and phone-banking to maximize your contact. Don’t shy away from radio, television, or even social networking like Facebook to spread the word about your race.
  • Don’t go negative. Nobody likes a negative campaigner, and nobody likes a negative race. It’s easy to get bogged down in bad feelings against your opponent, but you must make sure your campaign retains the moral high ground. Bottom line, just don’t do it.

Obama: One Year Later

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(Picture taken at Hotel Congress on November 4th, 2008 moments after Obama delivered his acceptance speech)

365 days ago, today, I was glued to my computer, wracked with anticipation over the 2008 general presidential election. Living in McCain country, I was largely insulated from the Obama-mania that swept the rest of the nation. I had worked for the Obama campaign; indeed, I was one of the founding members of Tucson Obama for America, before it became incorporated into the national campaign.

But, our supporters were still being harassed by local Republicans. McCain bumper stickers were abundant while Obama signs seemed to disappear from street corners almost as soon as they were erected. Obama was polling well, but I still had my doubts. Had the youth GOTV movement done enough? Were American voters ready to elect a president of colour? Would McCain pull the biggest upset in American political history, proving without a shadow of a doubt that there remains a glass ceiling for racial minorities seeking higher office?

But, as evening approached, it became clear: not only had Obama won, but he had won overwhelmingly. The energy and excitement produced a euphoric high in me: I rushed to Tucson’s Hotel Congress, where young and old Democrats were milling in the streets, celebrating the moments before the election was officially called for Obama. Four or five huge televisions had been set up, each showing the live election feed on different channels. Beer flowed into every glass, and the music blared until the wee hours of the morning.

I remember that I jumped out of the car before it had even been put into park, and ran towards the party entrance. Giddy with excitement, I found my friends and nearly tackled them to the ground. I couldn’t stop screaming —  “OBAMA! OBAMA! OBAMA!” — to everyone I met. I called up a friend of mine (whom I had coerced to vote in his home state of New Jersey) on the cell and greeted him with a chorus of “OBAMA! OBAMA! OBAMA!” in lieu of “hello”. I grinned from ear-to-ear all night, despite the outcome of several local elections (banning same-sex marriage, and the loss of a few contested seats to Republicans).

The adrenaline, the excitement, the optimism for the future I experienced was a feeling shared by a majority of the country that night. For young people like myself, Barack Obama represented overwhelming change for the White House. Obama not only promised to enact tangible change in foreign and domestic policy, he promised to change the tone and tenor of the debate. Gone would be the days of Bush era saber-rattling. 

But beyond the campaign promises — which were more numerous than one could count — Obama was a symbol. He was proof that young people and racial minorities could join together to make a difference against the established status quo. He was evidence that all the sweat, the sleepless nights, and the donated money had made an impact on our collective futures. He demonstrated the importance — the necessity, even — of getting folks to participate in the political process. There was no question this time: Obama was elected with a sweeping mandate, and finally there was light at the end of a dark, dark tunnel that had taken us eight years to traverse.

For Asian Americans, the 2008 presidential election was a watershed moment in our political history. Barack Obama was one of the few candidates on either side of the aisle to make real commitments and outreach efforts to the Asian American community. With a childhood wherein he was surrounded by Asian/Asian American faces, Barack Obama was as much our community’s candidate as any. Consequently, Asian Americans participated and voted in numbers far over-shadowing previous elections, and for one of the first times in recent memory, we were discussed as a viable voting community in national news. An APIA political machine first established during the 2004 Dean campaign re-mobilized for Obama, and produced an amazing relationship between the Obama campaign and the APIA community. Unlike in other communities, Obama’s campaign produced clear, in-depth plans about how the Obama administration planned to improve the livelihood and well-being of Asian Americans, both as first-generation immigrants and as a growing domestic constituency.

In return, countless Asian American celebrities, including Kal Penn, John Cho, and Kelly Hu, took time from their schedules to traverse the country as advocates for an Obama presidency. They spoke not just to other Asian Americans, but to voters at-large, making the case for Barack Obama. On the Internet, those of us lacking the notoriety of a Hollywood celebrity worked tirelessly to blog and organize local events for the Obama campaign. I remember, a few weeks before the election, standing back and marveling at just how powerful the APIA political community has demonstrated itself to be.

Since that night, the Obama bubble has taken a beating. The president’s approval rating has suffered a slow decline since his inauguration, and some setbacks and gaffes have marred the optimism that swept the nation on the eve of November 4th, 2008. But I, for one, remain optimistic. I refuse to give in to those who would turn the word “hope” into a dirty, taboo four-letter-word.

Contrary to the arguments of Obama’s detractors, supporters of the president aren’t idolators. We know we elected a man, not a messiah, to the presidency. I, for one, am patient with the president — he has made mistakes but I think even just changing the attitude of the White House is an amazing achievement. Consider: in Obama’s first year, the recession has taken a turn for the better, diplomatic relationships have been re-opened, and healthcare reform is experiencing a real, and viable, debate.  

Every administration includes its share of bumps along the way. But, I think we must hold on to the hope and optimism we felt a year ago. A year ago, racial minorities of every creed and shade came together to overturn the status quo and make a difference. A year ago, we refused to give up. A year ago, we elected the first person of colour as president. A year ago, we achieved victory and yet, even then, we did not stop working. A year ago, the idealists won out over the skeptics and cynics, and a year from now (or perhaps two, or three, or four) we will see even greater fruits from our endeavours. A year ago, we changed the world.

And, that is what the Obama presidency has and always will signify to me.

Homework Win!

Yeah, I know this should have been taken seriously by this student. Clearly, this was homework assigned as part of a unit on the Chinese immigrant experience during the late nineteenth century, which represents an important aspect of Asian American history.

At the same time, gold star for creativity:

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According to one of the comments, the translation is:

The life here is pretty bad. The work environment is inadequate, and there are no benefits. But don’t worry. Although everyday about 10 people get hurt, I’m very careful. 

I’ve opened a small shop, and business is slow. Even though I don’t understand English well, I can still somewhat understand what the white people are saying. 

Hopefully one day I’ll make something of myself. I will work hard and also take care of myself.  

How are you guys doing?  

Thinking of you guys, hopefully we can meet again.

The Growing Asian American Vote

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The LA Times has a story out today on a report released by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center detailing the Asian American vote in the 2008 presidential election. Gratifyingly, the report notes that the Asian American voter turnout in Los Angeles County has grown by an astounding 39% in California since 2000, showing the growing importance of the Asian American vote in the state.

For the countless organizations that are involved in improving voter turnout for APIAs, this is great news —  a validation of the countless hours spent canvassing and phonebanking Asian American voters to increase voter turnout. But it also underscores to me the importance of GOTV efforts — even with the massive increase in APIA voter turnout in L.A. County, the national voter turnout for APIAs remains 7% lower than the national average.

The 2008 election was also an energizing election; GOTV efforts must also focus now on ensuring that Asian American voters continue to vote — not just in national elections, but in local elections for propositions, city council, and state government.

The report has some interesting findings on top of its “take-home message” that APIA voter turnout has increased in L.A. county. Check out this graph showing voter trends within the APIA community and compared to all registered voters in the region. Unlike the voting population at-large, Asian American voters are predominantly foreign-born and skew older, suggesting that language, immigration, and other concerns that appeal to immigrant voters will have greater impact on our community. Indeed, APALC reports that over 90% of Asian American voters, regardless of country of origin, support improving English language training for immigrants.

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Yet, that foreign-born older voters favoured McCain over Obama — despite McCain’s chronic flip-flopping on immigration that would tend discourage immigrant interests. Could this be a manifestation of the poor outreach the Democratic Party has towards Asian immigrant voters?

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The report also has some interesting data regarding issues that the APIA community voted on. An astounding 90% of APIAs in L.A. county support universal healthcare. Yet, despite data indicating that most APIAs in L.A. county are Democrats, a majority also supported Prop 8 banning same-sex marriage.

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This support seemed to differ based on voter ethnicity and voter age. Not surprisingly, older voters (who tend to be more conservative) supported Prop 8. Yet, the ethnic data is more interesting: while Chinese Americans opposed Prop 8, Filipino and Korean Americans voted overwhelmingly in favour of banning same-sex marriage — perhaps this has to do with the strong Catholic faith in these ethnicities communities?

We must focus our energy on maintaining the increased voter activity amongst APIA voters: 2008 cannot be a flash-in-the-pan. Rather, APIA voters must continue to stay involved in local elections, deciding propositions, city council, school board and state government representatives. This means that GOTV campaigns are still critical for maintaining and increasing our voter turnout. More than ever, we need to ensure APIA voters get out to the polls by increasing voter education, helping them get to the polls, and ensuring that they have adequate language access to voting material. (Incidentally, APALC also reports that roughly 1/3 of Asian American voters experience limited English proficiency, and they also released a report showing that bilingual phone calls and mailers are highly effective in increasing APIA voter turnout.)

And why do we need to vote? Asian Americans have, too often, been discounted during campaign season because we are perceived as being too small a community to effect election outcomes. Yet, in L.A. County last year, a whopping 63% of Asian Americans voted for President Obama (although, to be fair, that number mirrors the county-wide support Obama won in the 2008 general). While Obama won L.A. County handily in the 2008 presidential election, if all 2932,000 Asian Americans who had voted for Obama voted for McCain in that election, Obama’s margin of victory over McCain would have shrunken. And certainly, had Obama carried enough Asian American votes in L.A. County in the Democratic primary, he might have won the region instead of Clinton.

With recognition that Asian Americans wield voting power comes national attention — and more importantly — campaign promises. Recognizing the importance of the APIA demographic, Obama made several campaign promises during his presidential campaign that have since paid off  for APIAs — he has appointed a surprising number of Asian Americans to his administration, and earlier this month he signed an executive order increasing federal resources addressing disparities within the Asian American community.

Long story short — in this pluralistic society, voter apathy is tempting. But, our community can’t afford to fall by the way-side. The Asian American community deserves political attention, and we can only get that by participating in the political process.