Yes, Virginia, we’re here!
ASIAN PACIFIC AMERICANS LENT NUMBERS, COLOR AT VIRGINIA’S GOP ETHNIC RALLY
By: Rita M. Gerona-Adkins
ALEXANDRIA, VA --- “The myth has clearly been dispelled with this turnout today,” Peter Su told Asian Fortune with an upbeat tone, referring to the Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) who composed the largest number at the “Ethnic Rally” held Sept. 20, 2008 at the Edison High School in Alexandria, VA.
Su, one of the youngest political operators from Virginia, a battleground state in this year’s presidential elections, should know whereof he speaks. He is the AAPI national coalition coordinator of the McCain-Palin campaign.
The third event of its kind organized by Republicans in Northern Virginia, the ethnic rally, true to its name, drew not only ethnic members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community but also those of Hispanic, Black and other communities of color as they are called in America’s demographic lexicon, as well as well as Caucasian newcomers from Eastern Europe.
The AAPIs, like in previous events, came in their colorful, eye-catching native costumes – Vietnamese slim-bodied ao dai over peek-a-boo pants, Filipino butterfly-sleeved, embroidered terno, Korean floor-length dress with high waist and billowy skirt, Indian wrap-around sari ending in a shoulder-hoisted paloo, Indonesian fez, Sikh turban, Lao and Hmong bead-decked headdress, Chinese cheongsam, and other ensembles of mixed Asian and western garbs --- displaying the diversity that their growing numbers are contributing to the changing face of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Diversity Dramatically Displayed
The diversity was dramatically displayed not only in the hundreds of faces in the audience but also on the stage, with ethnic leaders sitting in comfortable equality with invited speakers representing national to state and local levels of government and the politically empowered private sector. Huge banners of various ethnic organizations hung from the stage’s rafters screaming down to the audience with their unavoidable although unwritten message “Yes, Virginia, we are here!”
There are 363,000 residents in Virginia of AAPI origin, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics in 2006, out of the state’s total population of 7,643,000.
Many congratulatory remarks were made.
The keynote speaker, Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez, of ethnic Hispanic heritage himself, struck a well-spoken message welcoming the new energies that his audience and their communities contribute to the well being of the nation.
Proudly sitting next to his son in the audience was the secretary’s deputy assistant for economic development, Ben Wu, a long-time Chinese American Republican leader in Maryland.
Nostalgia and Politics
Former Virginia Governor James Gilmore (R), who is competing with also former VA Governor Mark Warner (D) for the U.S. Senate to be vacated by retirement-bound Sen. John Warner (R), was warmly applauded as he addressed his audience with a tinge of nostalgia.
Asked what his specific message to the AAPI voters and their communities in Virginia, the ebullient governor of “no car tax” fame told Asian Fortune:
“I am personally very proud of the Asian Pacific American community, particularly in Virginia. We’ve been very close to that community over the years. I understand the community very well; I also understand their homeland where they come from. When I was governor, I spent time in Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and had the opportunity to visit other places [in Asia] as well.
“We…the people in Virginia…are very proud of the Asian Pacific Americans [for their] being part of this country.”
It was during Gilmore’s gubernatorial watch that some APAs had risen to political appointments that later launched them into their own careers as elected officials. One example is Ron Villanueva, a Filipino American of Virginia Beach whom he appointed as [the youngest-ever] member of the governing board of the Old Dominion University and who is now serving his second term as Virginia Beach City Council Member.
Former Senator George Allen, who was considered a Republican presidential material until he was bested narrowly by the Sen. James Webb in the 2006 election resulting from a misspoken term that was seen as having a racial connotation, had also expressed warm recollections of his long association with the AAPI community.
He particularly recalled his decision to support the passage of the Filipino World War II veterans’ legislation, after “Vellie [Dietrich Hall] brought this to my attention some seven or eight years ago.”
Dietrich Hall, a Filipino American political leader in Virginia’s Mason District, energized the Filipinos and other APPIs by founding the Filipino American Republicans of Virginia, and recently has won one of Virginia’s 78-member strong State Republican Central Committee. She is now on a month-long campaign tour of Virginia for the McCain-Palin ticket.
“The point is, a promise was made to Filipinos who fought alongside U.S. forces in World War II, concerning [recognition] including retirement, health benefits which are absolutely essential to them…Filipino veterans are dying out every week, and more and more will pass away,” he added with obvious emotion if not visible umbrage at a promise not fulfilled by the United States.
When informed that Republican leaders both in the House and the Senate oppose giving benefits to Filipino veterans “who are not citizens,” Allen, whom many Virginians think might go back to electoral politics, said, “I can understand fiscal concerns and responsibilities, but this has been a long-neglected matter, a promise not kept and which should not have been allowed in the [back and forth proceedings] of the legislative process…only to be tied up somewhere in the Senate. We’re too close to getting it done, and what we have to do is find a way for the process to keep it working, because what’s important is keeping our promise to those Filipino veterans.”
Regaining his humor, which is among the former senator’s winning amiable traits, he recalled an event in Virginia Beach when he danced the Filipino folk dance tinikling by jumping in between two bamboo poles to rondalla music.
“I was telling someone later that I was glad that I did not have to get my ankles hit to get me to agree to support the [Filipino veterans’] bill!”
McCain’s Brother Joe
Shows Aviator’s Jacket
It was however, Joe McCain, brother of Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain and retired U.S. Navy officer who served on the Enterprise in Vietnam, who made the goose bump-raising presentation at the event.
Holding up an old but spanking polished clean aviator’s jacket when he began to address the audience from the podium, the white-haired sibling who is a spitting image of a brother who might yet become the next President of the United States, announced, as the audience gasped in reverence, “This is what my brother John wore when he was shot down in Vietnam.”
Later he sat among the emptying rows of chairs with a serious AAPI pre-teen youngster who was taking notes as he gave him pointers of what to do in preparing himself later in life to qualify for the Navy.
Interrupting his impromptu lecture, he replied to Asian Fortune’s question about what he and their family felt about his brother’s confinement and torture by the enemy in Vietnam:
“We are a military family,” he said, referring to their famous father, a U.S. admiral who was one of the key commanders of the war in Vietnam, “so we are used to that thing happening… but more than that, we thought for two days that he was dead, shot down and killed. When we later heard that he was taken as POW [prisoner of war], we were happy about it because he was alive. But it was hard after that…we saw pictures of how terribly wounded he was.”
Then with what has become a well-known iconic McCain trait of resoluteness, he said, “I never had any doubt that he was going to come home.”
Like his famous brother, and even more so, Joe McCain likes to tell stories, including personal ones, such as why despite his being named Joseph after his uncle “who still runs the family land” and from whom he got the nickname “Joe,” he is called “Pinky.”
“If you promise not to call me that, I will tell you why,” he told this writer obviously enjoying a chat. He then went on to recall that when he was about seven years old, he and some friends saw a red-haired girl miss catching her curved ball.
“I picked it up, gave it to her and we all had a good time. When I came to school that following Monday, they called me ‘Pinky’.”
While the name was meant to tease the sensibilities of a young boy, it also has an unsavory ideological connotation to grownups. For a stalwart anti-communist that the McCains are obviously committed to be, Joe still shivers with discomfort about being called “Pinky,” despite his getting a good laugh about it.
AAPIs hold Endorsement Sorties
Addressing the APPI community’s political involvement, Peter Su cited examples of AAPI Republicans’ campaign-related efforts that show, to him, that the days are gone when AAPIs were viewed as a politically silent minority.
“We already have many communities hosting endorsement parties,” he said. “As we grow closer to Election Day, more and more of them will also take place, such as the Vietnamese American community is doing one on October 11. One is being held today in Las Vegas and in Ohio, and another one next week in Washington State,” he said exuding confidence and obvious pride.
“So you see, we have endorsement parties by AAPI communities all over across the country.”
Business, Traditional Values
Other than national security, victory in Iraq, tax issues, gun control and other issues on the Republican plate, this writer asked him what he observes as issues that primarily are coming from members of the AAPI community themselves.
“There are many AAPI business owners. They are naturally concerned about things that impact business. Regarding the terms of the pro-growth agenda, they recognize Sen. McCain’s policies will enable them to keep more of their earnings, and they will have better opportunities in terms of trade policies,” he said, and this was just two weeks before the Walt Street meltdown that is causing alarm to both Republicans and Democrats.
Turning to other issues, he added, “Also we are very traditional in terms of family values…Sen. McCain is a very strong supporter of traditional values, which we hold dearly in AAPI families.”
He did not elaborate whether traditional values, from the AAPI perspective, also refer to abortion, stem cell research and giving equal rights to gay and lesbian members of their communities.
The Woman Factor
Dr. Vien Nguyen was among those in the audience recognized for her leadership in the Vietnamese American community. Like many others, especially women, around the country, she is very much impressed with Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, whom McCain chose over more seasoned Republican politicians, as his running mate for Vice President.
“It’s wonderful that a woman is chosen to be Vice President candidate. It’s historic, and I’m very happy that it’s been decided that way,” she told Asian Fortune.
Referring to how she had been characterized by some members of the media who, short of not having been granted interviews by the campaign organizers, wondered about her experience especially on foreign policy, she said, “It’s better to look at her as a woman with a family and children, who also is starting from the middle class and rising up to be so successful and well known at this point. I think that it’s something that every woman in America can relate to.”
As a candidate for an executive position that is heart beat away from the presidency, the question was raised: can she ran the country?
“I think that she is completely capable of running the country, in a system with Sen. McCain,” she said.
Dr. Nguyen is president of an international committee that supports a nonviolence movement for human rights in Vietnam.
Justice for Simran Singh
The bereaved family of Simran Singh, a 21-year old who was found dead in a car last year and whom they suspect was a victim of hate crime, also made visible their plea for attention and justice with their placards, and by approaching candidates, including Gilmore. This unsolved case has rallied the Sikh community, including ethnic media, to an aggressive campaign – a demonstration of a minority exercising their civil liberties in a democratic society.
“We don’t know why anyone did it…” Neena Singh, the victim’s mother, told Asian Fortune.
Chuck Smith, chairman of the Republican Party in Virginia Beach and former Navy Judge Advocate General in Norfolk, also delivered a rousing speech.
A staunch campaigner for McCain, and being black like McCain’s Democratic opponent Barack Obama, Asian Fortune asked him if he were ever asked the question: What are you doing?
“Nope, I have not, but some people have been asked to ask me that question,” he replied with the most engaging smile.
“You see,” he explained, “This race is not about color. It’s about experience. We have it, and they don’t. If you look at the kind of war that’s going on in the world today, you come to conclude that this is not the time to give the leadership of the free world to one who can write a good speech. It’s time to hunker down and decide on issues that are important, not just on the economy, but also on foreign affairs, national security… Hands down, John McCain wins that.”
Babies being carried around – a la mom Sarah Palin – were also evident in the event. Ben Wu introduced his one-year old to this writer, after saying that while McCain may not probably win in his state, he looks like he is doing quite all right at the national level.
Virginia State Senator Dave Albo, who is inseparably from a young child that he carries on public appearances, may have even upstaged Palin by at least one election earlier. In 2006, Asian Fortune first met him already carrying a young child in his arms as he deftly handled questions about his candidacy.
The event was also festooned with banners and flyers of GOP candidates, including State Senator Ken Cuccinelli, John Brownlee and Mark Foster for VA Attorney General; and Mark Ellmore for VA’s 8th Congressional District.
AAPI leaders who were among the movers and shakers in organizing the event include Sue Wilson, fetchingly dressed in a traditional Korean dress, Puneet the Bunny Rabbit energizer contributed by the South Asian American community, and Harold Pyon, who never drops his busy look even when enjoying himself.