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.

Anti-Interracial Marriage Judge Resigns

Hey, remember that justice of the peace who refused to preside over the civil union of an interracial couple who wanted to get married?

He resigned. Which, I think, means he got fired.

Good riddance.

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.

Interracial Couple Denied Marriage License

I missed blogging about this last week when the news first broke, but don’t get it twisted: this story pisses me off.

It seems that there’s a justice of the peace, Judge Keith Bardwell, has a moral opposition to interracial couples.

“I’m not a racist,” Bardwell told the [Hammond Daily Star]. “I do ceremonies for black couples right here in my house. My main concern is for the children.”

When confronted with Terence McKay (who is Black) and Beth Humphrey (who is White) who wanted to be married earlier this year, Bardwell recused himself from conducting the ceremony. His reasoning? He said:

Bardwell said he has discussed the topic with blacks and whites, along with witnessing some interracial marriages. He came to the conclusion that most of black society does not readily accept offspring of such relationships, and neither does white society, he said.

“There is a problem with both groups accepting a child from such a marriage,” Bardwell said. “I think those children suffer and I won’t help put them through it.”

If he did an interracial marriage for one couple, he must do the same for all, he said.

“I try to treat everyone equally,” he said.

First of all, the “what about the children” argument is the same kind of crap that countless racists use to discriminate against interracial couples. Do multi-racial children sometimes have problems being accepted by the culture of one or both of their parents? Sure, they do.

But, so, too, do children of a single race. So, too, do children who dress differently, speak differently, have faith differently, or have different ambitions than their peers, regardless of race or class. All children (and even adults) struggle with “fitting in”.

In fact, it is the people who failed to fit in who have changed our country for the better. Susan B. Anthony failed to fit in. Martin Luther King, Jr. failed to fit in. Harvey Milk failed to fit in. Patsy Minkh failed to fit in. Barack Obama failed to fit in.

“Multi-racial children might not fit in” is no rationale for preventing a couple from getting married.

I am in an interracial relationship: I am Asian American, while my partner of more than ten years, is African American. For the entire time that we have been together, we have faced intolerance and racism, and yes, it has been difficult getting others to accept the two of us sharing our lives together. But, that doesn’t diminish the fact that we want to spend our lives together; yet, a story like this argues that, in the face of the challenges we have (and will continue to) confront, we can’t or shouldn’t choose to be together. 

Yet, in a nation built upon personal freedoms, what could be a more quintessential example of one’s basic human rights than the right to choose our mate, regardless of race, class or creed? 

Bardwell’s refusal to marry McKay and Humphrey is a condemnation that affects all interracial couples, and hearkens back to a time when miscegenation was grounds for lynching.

As far as Bardwell’s argument that he never prevented McKay and Humphrey (or the three other interracial couples he has refused to marry over the last several years) from getting married, his argument is identical to pharmacists who want to be able to refuse to fill out prescriptions for drugs they have moral oppositions to. Pro-life pharmacists have lobbied, for years, for the “right” to “recuse” themselves from filling out prescriptions for Plan B, with the argument that another pharmacist would be available to fill out the prescription.

But, I’m sorry — it is a pharmacists’s job to fill out prescriptions, regardless of their own judgements of another person’s life. Should pharmacists be allowed to deny filling out prescriptions to obese patients because they won’t go on a diet? Or be allowed to recuse themselves from filling out prescriptions for druggies who won’t go into rehab? What do we do if the delay to deny a person’s prescription causes illness or death? These kinds of exceptions introduce inequality into a system that should is about ensuring equality for all.

By the same argument, a justice of the peace should not be allowed to deny a couple their right to marry based on any of their own personal beliefs. Gay couples, straight couples, interracial couples, intraracial couples — all have the right to marry one another based on one’s personal right to choose one’s life partner.

In the end, Bardwell claims he is not racist, yet he refuses to marry an interracial couple because he feels the racism their (as-yet-unborn) multi-racial children will face are immutable, unchangeable, and constant. Marriage should be an expression of love and optimism for the future, not mired in backwards, anachronistic intolerance and bigotry.

Over the weekend, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal joined the call for Bardwell to be dismissed from his position as justice of the peace. And Bobby Jindal is no braintrust; if he’s calling you a moron, you’ve gotta be the lowest of the low.