US Asian Voters Take a New Look at Politics

A series exploring the growing minority vote and its effect on election '92.

AS Asian-Americans go to the polls this fall, their voting patterns are far from clear.

Pollsters and political analysts say the economy is their No. 1 concern heading into elections, followed by education, foreign affairs, and recent surges in hate crimes against Asians, spurred by recession. But it is anyone's guess as to whom Asians support and in what numbers.

"Asians are being laid off just like everybody else," says Daphne Kwok, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Organization of Chinese Americans. "But just like the rest of America, `voting your pocketbook' means different things to different people."

Since 1980, Asian ranks have grown faster than any other ethnic group, up 108 percent to 7.3 million. In contrast, blacks increased 13 percent, whites 6 percent, Hispanics 53 percent, and native Americans 37 percent.

But, reportedly, only about 2 percent of eligible Asian-Americans are registered to vote. And unlike American blacks, who tend to vote in discernible blocs, usually Democratic, "the Asian community" as an umbrella term is misleading. Many people from Pacific Rim countries are emigrating to the United States en masse, adding new waves of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Singaporean, and others to first-, second-, and third-generation Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans.

"Besides problems of language, acculturation, and waiting periods for citizenship, many Asians come from social contexts that are simply hostile to democracy - they simply don't trust the system," says Alan Heslop, director of the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College. Phenomenal growth

The California-based institute has watched the most phenomenal growth of Asians occur in its own back yard, to 3 million of the US's 7.3 million Asians. Since 1980, Fresno's Asian community has experienced a 626 percent increase and Palmdale's has grown by 1,820 percent. Even small towns like Chino, Corona, and Upland are seeing influxes of Asians that are taking officials by surprise.

Evidence is growing that as their numbers increase arithmetically, their participation will grow exponentially. Citing an increase in Asian candidates in state and local elections, Mr. Heslop says, "Chinese and Koreans are on the threshold of major participation in state politics. That tends to wake up their Asian constituents and bring them into the process."

Last year, for example, the number of Asians registered to vote in San Francisco more than doubled because of Tom Hsieh's unsuccessful bid for mayor. He was the first Chinese-American to run for mayor of a major American city.

The current race for president of the county Board of Supervisors shows Mr. Hsieh on top.

"I really feel like Asians are waking up," Hsieh says. Recent fund-raising efforts as far away as New York have brought him into contact with many Asian candidates. More are running for state, local, and national offices.

"It's very significant for Asian-Americans to find highly placed Asians within the party structure," Ms. Kwok says, mentioning US Rep. Robert Matsui's recent rise to treasurer of the Democratic National Committee. Asian candidates

The first Asian to be named to a major position in the DNC, Mr. Matsui tops a list of other prominent Asians running for office: Japanese-American Mark Takano, running for Congress from southern California; Michael Woo, a Chinese-American running for mayor of Los Angeles; and Korean Jay Kim, running for Congress from San Bernardino County.

Korean-Americans in Los Angeles received a giant wake-up call to participate more fully in politics during last spring's riots. "When we looked to high places for help [during the rioting] we saw none of our own kind," says Eui-Young Yu, chairman of the Koreatown Emergency Relief Society."

"There have been major drives to register Koreans since the rioting," adds C. J. Lee, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "We have realized we must make the effort to consolidate and demonstrate our political power." Action committees

Another hint that Asians are beginning to pay attention to the American political process is the formation of local political-action committees to raise money for candidates.

"It is perhaps ironic," Kwok says, "that although Asians don't yet participate in politics in a big way, they do give lots of money," The first national Asian PAC was begun in June, she says.

Two recent studies in California challenge long-entrenched notions about Asian voting patterns. One, by Wendy Tam, a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Berkeley, questions conventional wisdom that Asian votes tend to come from poorer people and are thus more liberal.

"The Japanese are the ones who register and vote in the highest numbers," Ms. Tam says. "But their tendency to vote Democratic is not something that translates to Asians as a whole."

Another study, by Roberta Johnson of the University of San Francisco, underlines what sociologists have called the "Chinatown Syndrome." The syndrome holds that since enclaves of Chinese have grown up for generations in a single geographical area, these residents come to rely on their own network of organizations rather than those of the society at large. Thus, they don't feel the need to enter the political mainstream for basic services such as welfare and policing.

Her two-year-old study of Asians in San Francisco showed that even as Chinese-Americans moved up the income ladder and moved to such wealthier areas as Richmond and Sunset, their participation in politics did not grow.

"The usual assumption is that the better off you are, the more you vote," says Johnson. "That proved not to be the case."

Second in six installments. The first ran Sept. 22.

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