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Asian American Candidates Win in Local Elections

Cross-posted: Reappropriate

Although predictable to all but the most politically obtuse, John Liu made history yesterday when he overwhelmingly won the position of NYC comptroller. In doing so, Liu became the first Asian American to win a city-wide position in NYC. While this is a remarkable victory for Liu, it remains a sobering landmark moment, considering that the Asian American population in NYC has been around since the early nineteenth century.

Yet, I congratulate Liu in his victory: John Liu has been amongst the most vocal advocates, nationally, for the Asian American community, and he has worked tirelessly for his constituents in NYC as city councilman. However, his victory, and the election results in other races, also teaches us that Asian American candidates, like many other minority politicians, cannot win solely by relying on their ethnicity to carry them to victory.

Liu, as Calvin Prashad of APA for Progress points out, reached out to African-American and Latino community leaders as a city councilman and as a candidate for NYC comptroller. He became a popular political representative because he campaigned and worked across racial bounds, while simultaneously ensuring that each community felt they had an advocate in him. Liu was able to garner support from Asian American voters, locally and nationally, by using his clout as an elected representative to raise awareness regarding APIA community issues and concerns, but he did not marginalize himself as merely an Asian American candidate.

Similarly, Repubican Peter Koo overcame incumbent Democrat Yen Chou to win Liu’s old seat as city councilman in NYC’s 20th district. Prashad notes that incumbent Chou relied upon Chinese-American support in a district that includes Flushing, NY which has a large Asian population. Koo, however, counted Jewish and Korean business owners amongst his supporters, and was able to build a multi-racial and multi-ethnic voting base. Both Koo, and Margaret Chin who won a city council seat in NYC’s 1st district which encompasses Manhattan’s immense Chinatown, are prominent community leaders well-known, and well-respected, by their voting constituents.

In Virginia, Korean-American Democrat Mark Keam emerged victorious against Republican Jim Hyland to represent VA’s 35th District in the State House of Delegates. Although Keam’s district contains only approximately 10% Asian Americans, Keam won by 2 percentage points over his opponent, Keam was able to build a campaign that transcended racial lines in order to become the first Asian American elected to the Virginia State House.

Other Asian American candidates didn’t fare as well. Kevin Kim lost NYC’s 19th District to Republican Dan Halloran in part by attacking Halloran’s religious beliefs. And Sam Yoon’s campaign to be the first Asian American mayor in Boston fell flat yesterday, I believe in part because Yoon relied on schticky racial stunts to distinguish himself from the pack. At one campaign event, Yoon (who is Korean American) passed out fortune cookies to event attendees in a clear attempt to paint himself as the “ethnic” candidate.

Prashad of APA for Progress does a great job of enumerating the lessons learned from yesterday’s election results. In an act of blatant plagiarism, here’s my list for future Asian American candidates hoping to be elected to local office, some of which I draw from my own experiences (and mistakes) helping to run a local state representative race:

  • Be a community leader. Nothing beats widespread recognition as a community leader. If a diverse group of local names respect you, half your work is done — but that means that the time to get involved is now.
  • Tap the team. There are some really talented political activists within the Asian American community, and a widespread network of politicos who blog across the nation on APA political issues. These are also folks who are training the next generation of young campaign managers and lobbyists. Get these folks on your side – they can help with advice, fundraising, and just raising your profile.
  • Transcend the “ethnic” divide. It doesn’t matter what the demographics of  your district are, do not rely on an minority face and an ethnic name to carry you to victory. Voters (particularly minority voters) prefer candidates who prove themselves to be well-rounded, and who can advocate on behalf of a number of communities. Reach out to other community leaders and build a multi-racial coalition. If you don’t, you’ll look like you’re trying too hard to pander, and you run the risk of rendering yourself “out-of-touch” or even irrelevant. 
  • Don’t patronize the Asian American voter. Asian American voters are evenly spread between Democrats and Republicans, and we won’t be swayed merely by an Asian face. Shoot, Bob McDonnell, the new governor-elect of Virginia, courted the Asian American vote in the last several months, helping launch his campaign to victory over Democrat Creigh Deeds. Asian Americans are conscentious and educated voters – treat us like we are.
  • Pick a few resonating issues, and change the conversation. Don’t try to campaign on every issue under the sun (although you’d better be capable of doing so). Change the conversation to focus on a few key issues you are good at, and hammer those home with voters. Successful candidates are ones that are able to communicate their priorities to voters, and those priorities resonate.
  • Be money conscious. Don’t waste your campaign funds. If you know a guy who knows a guy who can do it just as well as a consultant for cheaper, pick your friend of a friend. Keep your materials professional looking, but the more money you save by doing things in-house, the more you have to spend reaching out to voters. 
  • Go high tech. Get a good, professional website, and make sure you use direct mailers and phone-banking to maximize your contact. Don’t shy away from radio, television, or even social networking like Facebook to spread the word about your race.
  • Don’t go negative. Nobody likes a negative campaigner, and nobody likes a negative race. It’s easy to get bogged down in bad feelings against your opponent, but you must make sure your campaign retains the moral high ground. Bottom line, just don’t do it.
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