Asian-Americans' Politics Evolving

Senate race indicates group's growing clout

Republican Matt Fong is counting on a big crossover vote in November to help him become the next United States senator from California. That vote would be from his mother, March Fong Eu, a veteran Democrat who served as California's secretary of state for 20 years.

But it's more than just a family affair. Asian-American Democrats from all over the state flocked to Republican Fong in the June primary, and many are expected to do so again this fall.

The heavy crossover vote is an indicator of how Asian-Americans have become energized as a political force in 1998, and how they are rewriting the norms of minority politics in the US.

While African-Americans and Latinos have become overwhelmingly committed to one party, the Democrats, Asian-Americans are emerging as a minority group still up for grabs in a political sense. They are not closely wedded to either party and are more than willing to cross party lines for a deeply felt issue or preferred candidate.

Joined with that fluidity are surging ethnic pride, born in part from perceived slights during the Asian campaign-finance scandal of a few years ago, and the simple fact that their numbers and experience are reaching critical mass in areas where they have the greatest concentration.

"It's a population in the making, in a political sense," says Paul Ong of the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies at UCLA. "It's very unlike other minority groups. There is no strong party affiliation and even when there is, party affiliation does not predict voting patterns."

Analysts are divided on whether Asian-Americans will commit more to any party over time. But as their numbers rise and the major parties scramble for new members among the nation's rapidly growing nonwhite population, their political leverage is likely to increase.

That dynamic is already under way in California, destination for one-third of the country's new immigrants each year and home to twice as many Asian-Americans as any other state.

Party affiliation in California clearly distinguishes Asian-Americans from other minority groups. African-Americans are registered Democrats by a ratio of about 8 to 1 over Republicans. Latino Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2 to 1. But Asian-Americans tilt only slightly toward the Democratic Party, and a high proportion, 20 percent, decline to state any party affiliation.

History best explains why Asian-Americans' political orientation differs from other minorities'. African-Americans used the political process to empower themselves during the civil rights era. The first generation of Latino leaders was also forged by the civil rights movement, though new immigrants are reshaping Latinos' political culture.

"For Asian-Americans, the path to the middle class has not been through government or politics," says Mr. Fong.

Rather, a focus on economic achievement and education came first, and only now are Asian-Americans beginning to have "real political currency."

Asian-Americans represent only about 3 percent of the US population, so a tooth-and-nail fight for their votes is unlikely. But in California, Asian-Americans make up about 6 percent of the electorate and their numbers are growing rapidly. In areas where they are concentrated, like San Francisco, they are already showing clout.

Even in statewide races that are close, Asian-Americans can make the difference.

They're certainly prominent players in Fong's bid to unseat Democratic incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer.

A poll last week by the Field Institute indicates the contest is neck and neck. And Fong might not even be in the race if it hadn't been for the surge of Asian-American crossover votes he got in the primary against his Republican foe.

David Lee of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee in San Francisco says the Fong race, and in particular Fong's strength across party lines, is proving a wake- up call for the state and national Republican Parties.

"They realize they have to find friends outside of their traditional base, and Asian-Americans are an attractive target," Mr. Lee says.

Indeed, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee in Washington says, "The amount of time we've spent with [the Fong campaign] is unusual. We're very involved...."

A big part of Fong's appeal across party lines is his Chinese heritage. But it's more complicated than that, analysts say. Asian-Americans stray frequently from their supposed Democratic inclination, and it could be that Fong's more moderate views, compared with Ms. Boxer's, are a major draw.

Also, the ethnic tug in this case appears to have intensified because of what many Asian-Americans see as blatant racism during the 1996 scandal over campaign contributions from Asia.

"It's a backlash against both parties' attacks on Asian-Americans and their rights as citizens," Fong says.

Still, Fong's task is formidable. As state treasurer, he lacks Boxer's name recognition; she's known as one of the Senate's most passionate liberals. And in a year when most voters seem happy with the status quo, she's the incumbent.

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