Asian-Americans take higher profile in congressional races

The 2012 campaign cycle marks the highest number of viable Asian-American candidates ever – and not just on the West Coast. Their success could help Democrats regain ground in the House.

Cliff Owen/AP/File
Tammy Duckworth, then-assistant secretary of the US Department of Veterans Affairs arrives at the World War II Memorial in Washington for a ceremony honoring World War II veterans who fought in the Pacific on March 11, 2010. A former helicopter pilot and the first female double amputee in the Iraq War, she ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the US House of Representatives in 2006 and is running again in Illinois's 8th congressional district in 2012.

A record number of Asian-American candidates are running for the US House and Senate this fall, and they have a message: It’s time for a seat at the table that reflects their numbers in American society.

Just 5.8 percent of the US population is Asian, but only 12 out of 535 members of Congress, or 2 percent, claim Asian heritage, two in the Senate and 10 in the House. Now the numbers may be starting to catch up. Including Pacific Islanders, 30 Asian-American candidates launched congressional bids this cycle, compared with 10 in 2010 and eight in 2008, according to the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies in Washington.

“This is a real opportunity for our community,” says Gloria Chan, president and CEO of APAICS. “It really showcases our political power right now.”

While six Asian-Americans were defeated in their primaries, 12 other contenders – 10 Democrats and two Republicans – will advance to the general election.  Three running competitively for seats in New York and Illinois are poised to become their state’s first Asian-American US representatives. This campaign cycle features the greatest number of viable Asian-American candidates in history, says David Wasserman, House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington.

Most are running as Democrats, and though Republicans will likely retain their House majority, the victories of several Asian-Americans could give the minority party a leg up, Mr. Wasserman says. He points to districts like Illinois 8th, where Tammy Duckworth is running, and California’s 7th, where Ami Bera is running, as key opportunities for Democrats to seize.

“Asian-American candidates certainly are critical for Democratic hopes of gaining seats,” he said.

For the past three-to-four decades, Asian-Americans have increasingly participated in both the Democrat and Republican parties, says Don Nakanishi, director of the Asian American Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. Population growth, opportunities opened by civil rights movements, and the election of other racial minorities are driving forces behind the shift,  he says.

Mr. Nakanishi, who founded the National Asian Pacific American Political Almanac, says that last year’s edition included more than 3,000 elected and major appointed Asian-American officials serving at the state and federal level. The first almanac printed in 1976, he says, largely contained candidates from West Coast states and had a page count so small it could be easily stapled.

This political activism also reflects increased professional success in fields like medicine and academia, says Manan Trivedi, an Indian-American and a Democrat, running for the first time in Pennsylvania’s 6th district.

“It makes sense that the next step is to get involved in policy and politics,” Mr. Trivedi said, in a phone interview. “That’s where the rubber meets the road.”

Many of the districts Asian-Americans are vying to represent do not have Asian-American majorities, a trend some note as another sign of progress.

“A lot of people think if there aren’t enough people who look like you, you can’t get elected – that’s nonsense. You can win the people’s trust anywhere,” says Gautam Dutta, executive director of the Asian American Action Fund, which backs Asian-American Democrats running for Congress.

Two-term Rep. Judy Chu (D) of California, chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) and the first Chinese-American woman elected to Congress, says that Asian-Americans have historically faced difficulty in running because political networks for Asian-Americans are still developing.  Moreover, the relatively small number of Asian-Americans in elected office had in the past made it harder for newcomers to compete, she says.

“Right now we are developing that infrastructure,” says Ms. Chu, pointing to the caucus’s recently launched CAPAC Leadership PAC. “It’s a different world today.”

Six-term Rep. Michael Honda (D) of California has long spearheaded efforts to boost the electoral prospects of Asian-American candidates. In addition to mobilizing Asian-Americans to vote, he’s acting as an Asian-American surrogate in key congressional races and for the Obama campaign.

For Mr. Honda, the motivation is partly personal. As a toddler, he and his parents were sent to a Japanese internment camp during World War II, an experience he says highlighted for him the importance of having Asian-American representation in Congress.

“It took about 60 years for us to get an apology from our own government,” he says. Now, "we have to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

When Asian-Americans run for Congress, voters "start to look past our perceived foreignness and look at us as participating Americans who can contribute to this country,” he adds.

Challenger Duckworth, the Democrat challenging Rep. Joe Walsh (R) of Illinois, says that Asian-Americans from Midwestern areas like hers represent constituencies that have traditionally been shut out.

“Places like here have never had Asian-Americans elected to office, not even to state office, or even an alderman,” Duckworth says. “There’s a good chunk of the population that’s not getting all of its concerns represented.”

Those concerns may be magnified as the Asian-American population continues to grow. Thirty-six percent of new immigrants to the US were Asians in 2010, compared with 19 percent a decade ago, according to a Pew Research Center report in June.

According to the report, Asian-Americans tend to vote Democratic, though UCLA's Nakanishi notes they are not as solidly liberal as other minority groups, such as African-Americans and Latino-Americans. Of the 30 Asian-Americans who filed to run in the 2012 cycle, 24 are Democrats, according to the APAICS.

In 2008, about 60 percent of the Asian-American population voted for Barack Obama. In November, the Asian-American vote could be decisive in battleground states like Nevada and Virginia, says Ms. Chan of APAICS.

"We’re a force to be reckoned with in the coming election and for years to come,” she says.

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