Asians in US Flex Political Muscle

The fast-growing and affluent minority will likely have the biggest ballot-box success at local level

BACK in his former home of Macau, Jamison Jiang, a cook, shied from politics and let the intimidating colonial regime dish out the public-policy stew.

But as an American citizen, Mr. Jiang recently claimed his place around the great democratic pot. The resident of Chicago's Chinatown registered to vote in February to fight a bill in the US House that would threaten federal funding for his job.

"I need to defend myself and make sure Congress doesn't cut my benefits," Jiang said in his native Cantonese.

Jiang is part of a growing trend toward political participation among Asian Americans. It is a civic coming of age that other minority immigrants have experienced for much of American history. And like earlier melting-pot transformations, political analysts say Asian Americans could alter, to some degree, the priorities and electioneering strategies in national politics.

Asian Americans have steadily built up their political leverage since 1965, when the government dropped racially based quotas on immigration.

But now a powerful mix of trends - including immigration legislation, racial prejudice, and demographics - has compelled Asian Americans to flex their political muscles. Their influence is growing especially in local politics, where they can best focus their ballot-box power.

"At no other period in the over 150-year experience of Asian Pacifics in this society have so many individuals and organizations participated in such a wide array of political and civil-rights activities," says Don Nakanishi, director of the Asian American Studies Center at the University of California in Los Angeles.

The number of elected and appointed Asian-American officials has surged in the past two decades from roughly 400 to more than 2,000 today, according to a political almanac released last week by the center. Also, a nationwide Asian-American coalition has launched an aggressive grass-roots campaign to register 50,000 voters.

Most striking, Asian-American leaders aim to muster between $10 million and $15 million for national campaigns in the November elections. Such a war chest would make Asian Americans the most generous campaign contributors among the nation's racial and ethnic minority groups, Mr. Nakanishi says.

"At the federal and state level you will see more and more Asian Americans take an activist role in politics," says US Rep. Robert Matsui (D) of California.

Asian Americans will not swing a national election or overturn the platforms of the two major parties any time soon. At 9.76 million residents in the United States, they are a tiny minority; only 1.2 million were registered to vote in the 1994 elections. But Asian Americans have several forces going for them.

They are the fastest growing minority. And, by some measures, they are the best educated and wealthiest racial and ethnic group. Asian Americans also are prime targets for political recruitment because they have not taken on a firm party identity. A disproportionate number of them have registered as independents, with the remainder roughly split between Democrat and Republican.

Finally, Asian Americans are a comparatively concentrated political force: In some 62 congressional districts, they represent at least 5 percent of the population. And among registered voters of various racial and ethnic groups, they boast the highest turnout rate.

"The potential for Asian Americans to be a potent political force is there, and that influence is growing and starting to make an impact on some local elections, but still the change is gradual," says Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles.

Asian Americans have rallied recently against laws that would reduce federal benefits for legal immigrants. After some blunting by opponents, the immigration bills passed the House and Senate. Asian Americans helped to defeat provisions that would have complicated efforts to bring family from overseas.

"The immigration issue really hit home and galvanized a lot of Asian Americans," says Courtni Sunjoo Pugh at the Chinese American Service League Inc. in Chicago.

Most remarkably, Asian-American activists have overlooked some longstanding tensions. "Koreans are working with Japanese and Indians are working with Pakistanis, and that is the impressive thing about Asian-American politics today," says Ravi Singh, a Sikh and administrative assistant to the Illinois state treasurer.

By some estimates, Asian Pacific Americans represent 54 ethnicities and nationalities, ranging from Bangladeshi to Yapese. On many issues they are divided, by class as well as by ethnic differences.

Low voter-registration rates also hold back one of America's newest political forces. In California, for example, Asian Americans represent 1 in 10 residents but just 1 in 20 are registered voters.

Judging from past trends, however, the registration numbers should steadily improve. Asian Americans, some 79 percent of whom have immigrated since 1970, boast the highest rate of naturalization. Voter registration often follows citizenship.

But before registering, many recent Asian immigrants must overcome a native tendency toward political passivity. Many of them come from societies that lack universal suffrage and routinely stifle dissent.

"It's not easy trusting politicians," Jiang says, explaining why he registered to vote three years after gaining citizenship. "Back in Macau everyone is afraid of the Communist Party."

The political awakening of Jiang and other Chinese-Americans in Chicago is especially striking. As recently as the late 1970s, Chinatown residents relied on a distant relationship with their alderman for their political needs, says Bernarda Lo Wong, executive director of the Chinese American Service League Inc.

Today, leaders of the 80,000 Chinese Americans in the Chicago area have regular, direct contact with the mayor, county officials, state lawmakers, and the governor. Chinatown has built its political leverage in part on registering and rallying voters. Last month, it fielded 22 candidates for four area school boards. Sixteen of the candidates won, claiming half of the available seats.

"Come the next election, including the November presidential election, we can replicate this effort," Ms. Wong says.

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