More Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are running for Congress than ever before. A total of 36, including incumbents, launched campaigns this year — more than double the number from a record set just two years ago
Of those, a record 21 contenders — 18 Democrats and three Republicans — claimed victories in their primaries and are now vying to represent districts across the nation.
The candidates running are a mosaic that includes both first and second generation Asian Americans. Many have roots to India and Japan, and most, but not all, are Democrats.
The dramatic jump in candidates brands this election year as a potential milestone for Asian Americans in politics, says California Democrat Judy Chu, who in 2009 became the first Chinese woman elected to Congress.
“Asian Americans are finally seeing that it can be done,” she says. “We are finally bearing fruit.”
Candidates are building upon legacies of pioneers like Congressman Daniel K. Inouye, the most senior member of the U.S. Senate, and the labors of newer figures like Joseph Cao from Louisiana, the first Vietnamese American to serve in Congress.
This election year, Charles Djou, a Republican from Hawaii, is the first candidate of Thai and Chinese descent running for Congress, while Grace Meng, a Taiwanese American Democrat, may become the first Asian American to represent New York. Several of the other Asian American candidates boast similar trail-blazing careers.
The surge comes at a time when Asian Americans are growing at an exponential speed – faster than any other group in the nation. According to the Pew Research Center, the population grew at a rate of almost fifty percent between 2000 and 2010.
“It is so important to have people at the seat of the table where the decisions are being made that look like America,” says Chu.
Historically Low Voter Turnout
Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political scientist at the University of California, Riverside, says that while more Asian Americans are running for Congress, Asian-American turnout tends to be among the lowest of any racial and ethnic group. That is changing, he says, but just at a slower pace.
“This is a group that is still trying to get their bearings and is increasingly wanting to get involved,” Ramakrishnan says. “I think that is a perfect recipe for campaigns, party organizations and other groups to reach out to these populations.”
Ramakrishnan directs the National Asian American Survey, and according to a poll of more than 3,000 Asian-American citizens, less than half are likely to vote this year.
At an Asian grocery store in northern Virginia, some shoppers like Rutiwa Montri from Thailand say voting is not an option.
“I would like to do that, but we’re not American [citizens],” she says.
Asians recently surpassed Latinos as the largest group of new immigrants. Studies have shown that recent immigrants are slow to get involved in politics, which means poor turnout at the polls.
I don’t really care much about politics; I don’t think it’s going to change a lot whoever becomes president,” says Calvin Tren, a 30-year-old Vietnamese American.
Among those Asian American who are planning to vote, most favor President Obama. But, there are sharp variations within this incredibly diverse group.
Almost 70 percent of Indian Americans support Obama. Only about 30 percent of Filipinos do, however, and a third of Asian-Americans overall are undecided. That’s several times higher than the general population.
Ramakrishnan says it’ll take some time before we see some real shifts in their overall political participation.
“In terms of having Asian-American participation go up in a very significant way, I think we have the example of the Latino community to look at it,” he says. “For Latinos, it took a generation.”
But the eagerness of Asian Americans to pursue office, he says, already reveals a lot about the political aspirations of the group.
Mike Honda, a Japanese-American and California Democrat, has served more than a decade in Congress.
“We chose to be here,” Honda says. “We’re here to participate and add, not to subtract and not to be a drag.”
Honda says it is only a matter of time before even more Asian Americans become citizens, establish roots in the U.S. and claim a louder political voice.