By Jenny Chen
According to the 2014-2015 National APA Political Almanac, over 300 Asian Americans hold political positions at the state and local levels compared to the 13 Asian Americans who hold seats at the federal level.
James Lai, an Associate Professor of the Political Science Department at Santa Clara University says that the increase in Asian Americans elected officials at the local level is encouraging. Lai says that it’s a start for getting more Asian Americans elected to federal office.
“You need political capital starting at the local level,” Lai said. He cites Congresswoman Judy Chu as an example: the U.S. Representative for California’s 27th congressional district got her start on the local level as a board member for the Garvey School District in Rosemead, California in 1985. In 1988 she was elected to the city council of Monterey Park, where she served as mayor for three terms.
This process is what Lai calls vertical integration but it’s related to another concept vital to sustaining Asian American representation in the United States government: the pipeline. Lai explains the political pipeline as a system for Asian American elected officials to pass on their position to other Asian Americans once they have vacated to fill higher positions. This can be achieved by having current elected officials mentor and appoint young Asian Americans as well as having organizations like the Conference on Asian Pacific American Leadership (CAPAL) and the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS). CAPAL’s chairman of the board of directors Dan Lam says that the organization has put together numerous programs to address APA underrepresentation in public service by placing scholars and interns within Federal agencies. In the past year the organization has also provided these 24 Scholars and Interns with over $80,000 in financial assistance, the most ever distributed in the organization’s history.
However, these organizations are still few and far between: “One reason we don’t have a large number of AAPI elected officials is that we don’t have enough AAPI and South Asian Americans in the political pipeline,” US Representative Ami Bera told Hyphen Magazine in their article “Representin'”.
The importance of having Asian Americans in political office is obvious. Asian American elected officials are more likely to provide better representation for their Asian American constituents – “It’s the idea of shared experience and linked fate,” said Stella Rouse, assistant professor in the Department of Government and Politics and Assistant Director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland.
This is true at both the local and national level. At the local level, Suhas Naddoni who is a council member for the city of Manassas Park, Virginia, said that he understood that many immigrants feared and distrusted people in authority and uniform. “For that reason, I constantly push the city government and staff to take that into consideration when making policies or enforcement actions,” Naddoni said. Grace Han Wolf, council member for the city of Herndon, Virginia, said that there are some issues that non-Asian representatives are not attuned to such as issues of language access. Wolf has worked to support her Asian Americans by increasing language access for voting information and instruction with the Fairfax County’s Registration office. At the national level, Representative Judy Chu recently was a loud spoken opponent of the sex selective abortion ban in California, which she contends has racist undertones towards Asians.
Rouse also said that when elected offices stay within the traditional demographic of white males, the political system can “get caught in a net where there isn’t a whole lot of innovation going on.”
Janelle Wong, Associate Professor of American Studies and the Director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Maryland said that much of the financial support for Asian American candidates comes from outside the candidates’ state, which suggests that Asian American elected officials often find themselves representing the greater pan-Asian community in the United States rather than just in their state.
On the other hand, in order for Asian American elected officials to truly succeed, they have to reach beyond their racial and ethnic niche and appeal to people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, said Lai. He used the example of Mike Honda as an example: “A lot of people conflate being Asian as being an immigrant but Mike Honda is fluent in Spanish he’s able to move around in different circles effortlessly.” Lai said that in today’s political climate, Asian American politicians have to be able to break out of the mold of being an ethnic candidate in order to succeed on the national stage.
Council member Wolf agrees. She said that in her next election, she plans to make her website available in Spanish and Korean. “My campaigns have always started in the mainstream as well as the AAPI community for support – when you get elected, you serve everyone so it’s important that you have support from all aspects of the community to run and serve effectively. All of my events are open to everyone but some of my event are specifically targeted – for women, for AAPI, for my local community, and they are advertised via mainstream media/social media as well as ethnic media,” Wolf said.
When the votes come rolling in this fall, it remains to be seen if Asian American elected officials are able to appeal to that broad group of constituents and if that will translate to better representation at the national level.