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More Asian-Americans Seeking Higher Political Office

More Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders are running for Congress than ever before. A total of 36, including incumbents, launched campaigns this year — more than double the number from a record set just two years ago, according to the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies.

Of those, a record 21 contenders — 18 Democrats and three Republicans — claimed victories in their primaries and are now vying to represent districts across the nation.

The candidates running are a mosaic that includes both first and second generation Asian-Americans. Many have roots to India and Japan, and most, but not all, are Democrats.

Rep. Judy Chu of California was the first Chinese-American woman in Congress, taking office in 2009.
Lynne Sladky / AP
Rep. Judy Chu of California was the first Chinese-American woman in Congress, taking office in 2009.

A Seat At The Table

The dramatic jump in candidates brands this election year as a potential milestone for Asian-Americans in politics, says California Democrat Judy Chu, who in 2009 became the first Chinese woman elected to Congress.

"Asian Americans are finally seeing that it can be done," she says. "We are finally bearing fruit."

Candidates are building upon legacies of pioneers like Congressman Daniel K. Inouye, the most senior member of the U.S. Senate, and the labors of newer figures like Joseph Cao from Louisiana, the first Vietnamese-American to serve in Congress.

In 2010, Charles Djou, from Hawaii, became the first Republican candidate of Thai and Chinese descent to run for Congress. He is currently seeking re-election. This year, Grace Meng, a Taiwanese-American Democrat, may become the first Asian-American to represent New York. Several of the other Asian-American candidates boast similar trail-blazing careers.

The surge comes at a time when Asian-Americans are growing at an exponential speed — faster than any other group in the nation. According to the Pew Research Center, the population grew at a rate of almost 50 percent between 2000 and 2010.

"It is so important to have people at the seat of the table where the decisions are being made that look like America," Chu says.

Historically Low Voter Turnout

Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political scientist at the University of California, Riverside, says that while more Asian-Americans are running for Congress, Asian-American turnout tends to be among the lowest of any racial and ethnic group. That is changing, he says, but just at a slower pace.

"This is a group that is still trying to get their bearings and is increasingly wanting to get involved," Ramakrishnan says. "I think that is a perfect recipe for campaigns, party organizations and other groups to reach out to these populations."

Ramakrishnan directs the National Asian American Survey, and according to a poll of more than 3,000 Asian-American citizens, less than half are likely to vote this year.

At an Asian grocery store in northern Virginia, some shoppers like Rutiwa Montri from Thailand say voting is not an option.

"I would like to do that, but we're not American [citizens]," she says.

Asians recently surpassed Latinos as the largest group of new immigrants. Studies have shown that recent immigrants are slow to get involved in politics, which means poor turnout at the polls.

I don't really care much about politics; I don't think it's going to change a lot whoever becomes president," says Calvin Tren, a 30-year-old Vietnamese-American.

Among those Asian-American who are planning to vote, most favor President Obama. But, there are sharp variations within this incredibly diverse group.

Almost 70 percent of Indian-Americans support Obama. Only about 30 percent of Filipinos do, however, and a third of Asian-Americans overall are undecided. That's several times higher than the general population.

Ramakrishnan says it'll take some time before we see some real shifts in their overall political participation.

"In terms of having Asian-American participation go up in a very significant way, I think we have the example of the Latino community to look at it," he says. "For Latinos, it took a generation."

Steadily Rising Involvement

That's not to discount mobilization efforts underway this year, Ramakrishan says.

"We're already seeing indications that Asian-American voters are getting more involved," he says. "And a part of that is because they're being reached out to more."

One in six of Asian-Americans lives in a presidential battleground state, he notes, garnering a number of campaign appeals.

The eagerness of Asian-Americans to pursue office also reveals a lot about the political aspirations of the group, adds Mike Honda, a Japanese-American and California Democrat who's served more than a decade in Congress.

"It's about the desire to have our communities represented and the only way you're going to do that is sometimes to be at the table," he says. "We're here to add and participate, and not to be a drag."

Keep an eye on us, Honda says. More Asians are establishing roots in the U.S. than ever before and it's only a matter of time before they claim an equally large political voice.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 15, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous Web version of this story incorrectly stated that Charles Djou was running for election for the first time this year. Djou first ran for Congress in a special election two years ago and won.
Reema Khrais joined WUNC in 2013 to cover education in pre-kindergarten through high school. Previously, she won the prestigious Joan B. Kroc Fellowship. For the fellowship, she spent a year at NPR where she reported nationally, produced on Weekends on All Things Considered and edited on the digital desk. She also spent some time at New York Public Radio as an education reporter, covering the overhaul of vocational schools, the contentious closures of city schools and age-old high school rivalries.