Asian Americans Forge Larger Political Role

Despite bitter 'donorgate' episode, an ethnic group flexes unprecedented muscle.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For Asian Americans, the campaign-finance scandal that has bubbled for 18 months and is nearing at least partial closure in the United States Senate has been one of the most bitter episodes of the post-World-War-II era.

The almost daily drumbeat of headlines linking names like Huang, Sioeng, Chung, and Trie to charges of subversion and spying was grave and deeply distressing. Practically overnight, "we went from invisible to infamous," says Frank Wu, a professor at Howard University School of Law in Washington.

It's no wonder many Asian-American leaders predicted their community would retreat from politics, an arena where many felt increasingly perceived as suspicious outsiders.

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Yet as the 1998 campaign season begins in earnest, that prediction looks emphatically wrong. Instead, the community is flexing unprecedented political muscle, offering candidates for some of the highest offices sought in years, and having record success with voter-registration drives.

The reasons are many. To some extent, the scandal has galvanized rather than intimidated. Also, longer-term forces that brought strong gains for Asian Americans in 1996 just as the scandal erupted have overpowered the funding controversy. For instance, the increased naturalization of Asian immigrants in response to welfare reform generated a larger pool of eligible voters.

But perhaps most telling is the mood of Asian Americans themselves.

L. Ling-chi Wang was active in building Asian political involvement through the 1970s. But a decade later, the chairman of the University of California at Berkeley's Ethnic Studies Department readily admits he was "disgusted and turned off," in part by the corrupting influence of money in politics. But with the campaign-finance scandal as a trigger, Mr. Wang has reengaged.

"I just felt Asian Americans were getting a bum rap," he said over a bowl of soup near his campus office. Wang has begun his own crusade for change, founding the Asian Americans for Campaign Finance Reform. No starry-eyed novice, he looks as his community and says, "I've never felt so optimistic."

Across the bay in San Francisco, a city with the largest concentration of Asian Americans in the country, a remarkable election victory took place last November, one that fueled Wang's optimism and blew a major hole in the theory that Asian Americans were retreating from civic affairs.

Two Chinese women, former housewives, launched a grass-roots campaign to build a new stretch of downtown freeway. No way, said the city's mayor and Democratic Party machine and powerful activists. But the Asian-American community rallied behind the campaign, voted at much higher rates than other groups, and achieved a stunning victory.

"Asians are redefining how politics work in this most liberal and most Democratic of American cities," says David Lee, whose Chinese American Voters Education Committee was instrumental in registering a record number of Asian Americans.

Mr. Lee says the finance scandal has only reinforced Asian Americans' independence from the major political parties and their tendency toward "entrepreneurial politics," where issues, candidates, and ethnic loyalty have stronger pull.

Howard University's Professor Wu agrees that the aftermath of the scandal finds Asian Americans "more, not less, involved in politics." But he cautions that involvement may not always translate into unity and power, given that the community is relatively small (about 3 percent of the nation's population), ethnically diverse, and geographically dispersed.

Those facts became evident as the scandal erupted last year, and the Asian-American community fumbled for a coherent response.

That led to the recent formation of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, an umbrella organization intended to give the community stronger visibility and a single voice on national affairs, according to acting chair Daphne Kwok

The scandal's electoral focal point in 1998 could be California State Treasurer Matt Fong's bid for the US Senate seat now occupied by Barbara Boxer (D). It's the highest national office sought by an Asian American this year, and the first such Senate bid, outside of Hawaii, in several years.

Complicating things for Republican Mr. Fong is the fact that amid the campaign-finance scandal last year, he returned some questionable donations from Asian contributors when he couldn't determine their ultimate origin. He may face his toughest questions on that from fellow Republicans facing him in a tough primary campaign. If he makes it to the general election in November, many analysts think Senator Boxer will be reluctant to raise the finance scandal, given her party's central role in the controversy.

Nationwide, Asian Americans have continued to increase their presence in government. The 1998 edition of the National Asian Pacific American Political Almanac, to be published in a few weeks, shows a 10 percent gain nationally in elected and appointed offices over the past two years.

"The enormously positive trends of 1996 have continued, despite the scandal," says Don Nakanishi, director of the Asian American Studies Center at University of California at Los Angeles and author of the almanac.

To gear up for the 1998 elections, several voter-registration groups have launched ambitious programs in southern and northern California.

Lee's group has for the first time expanded his city effort to the entire Bay Area. Fresh from the freeway victory, a fund-raising dinner last month raised a record amount of money and drew a who's who of local political, business, and philanthropic leaders.

For Lance Izumi, a senior fellow for the conservative Pacific Research Institute, the past 18 months have been a lesson in the divisions and relative political immaturity of the Asian-American community.

"The argument that there would be a retreat from politics was put forth by some to deflect attention from the scandal," he says. "It's difficult in any ethnic community for leaders to condemn corruption within their own community. For a community that's politically mature, it's easier to have the confidence to do that. We're not there yet."

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