By Arlene Kiyomi Dennistoun
Northwest Asian Weekly
In a show of force, about 2,000 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) gathered in Tacoma on Sept. 15 in what was likely the largest unity and civic engagement event held in the nation. To mobilize AAPI voters, the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition (APIC) brought in busloads from eastern Washington. The Asian Counseling and Referral Services (ACRS) organized translators to remind the community of the power of their vote in 27 different languages and dialects. Gubernatorial candidates, Gov. Jay Inslee and Bill Bryant, discussed issues in a forum moderated by a long-time political reporter, Robert Mak.
Before the summit, Inslee and Bryant provided statements to the Northwest Asian Weekly. Inslee said, “The last four years, I’ve worked hard to build a stronger economy and better future for every Washington family, and I look forward to sharing my record and positive vision for Washington state at the Asian Pacific American Statewide Civic Engagement Summit, put on by the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition.” Bryant said, “The Asian American and Pacific Islander community is an important part of the fabric that makes Washington special. From the cultural influences that give us our unique identity, to the investments in our education and economy, Washington is a great place to live because of our vibrant AAPI community.”
2016 is another crucial election year that could result in restrictions on immigration and social services, as well as make impacts to small businesses, to the state’s thousands of homeless people, and to policies affecting climate change. Statistics on low AAPI voter turnout are staggering when considering AAPIs are the fastest growing racial group in the state and the nation. The Washington State Democracy Initiative issued a 2015 press release stating that only half of eligible AAPIs registered to vote in 2014. And of those registered, a mere 50 percent voted.
The APIC democracy summit hoped to empower and mobilize AAPI voters. The summit happens once every four to eight years, coinciding with election years. The APIC was formed in 1996 to “counter anti-immigrant provisions in the Welfare Reform Act of 1996,” resulting in the “denial of cash, food, and medical assistance for low-income, elderly, and disabled non-citizens,” according to the APIC’s website. Twenty years later, similar anti-immigrant rhetoric and proposals by political candidates continue to threaten the quality of life for AAPI families.
The ACRS staff helped organize the summit. The communications manager, Hong Chhuor, and civic engagement program manager, Monica Ng, continually scanned the crowd, seemingly unfazed by the noise and clamor, and showed up in the right places at the right time. Ng said while most of the crowd were already registered to vote, they registered about 50 more people and handed out change of language cards, so voters would receive their ballots in their native languages.
A variety of voices
Curiously, there was a smattering of young adults in the mostly senior crowd. It turned out the Khmer Student Association of the University of Washington was one of the 80 organizations that sponsored and endorsed the summit. The students who came said they wanted to educate themselves about the issues and candidates, and enjoy the entertainment.
Lonny Dara, 21, has voted since she was 18. She explained how difficult it was for her to get practical voter information. “Imagine how much harder it is for our community’s elders.”
Katherine Eng, 20, echoed Dara’s frustration, and that’s why Eng is closely watching the governor and the secretary of state races. Eng tried to help her family register to vote after they moved and she was extremely frustrated when the secretary of state’s office failed to provide assistance. Eng said at least one family member’s vote didn’t count because she didn’t register in time. Eng needs to have faith that elections are run fairly and that everyone’s vote will count. Eng and Dara want to learn how the system works, so they can be more helpful and empower the Cambodian community.
Diane Narasaki, executive director of the ACRS and co-chair of the King County chapter of the APIC, stood before the packed room, her expression serene and determined.
Narasaki urged the diverse crowd to “use the power of the vote in the November elections.”
Faaluaina “Lua” Pritchard, chair of the Pierce County chapter of the APIC and executive director of the Asian Pacific Cultural Center, emceed the summit. She introduced elected officials, including Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who welcomed summit attendees.
Rep. Judy Chu, representing California’s 27th District, and the first Chinese American woman to be elected to Congress, appeared in a video, urging summit goers to get involved, and above all to vote, calling AAPI voters the “sleeping giant in this election.”
Pritchard then led a rousing call for AAPI civic engagement. “Our votes build our power to make good things happen for our community and all others! We are the fastest growing racial group in the nation, and our votes can decide close elections!”
The summit’s keynote speaker, Martha Choe, gazed at the throngs of people of color in the audience and said, “This is a beautiful sight. E Pluribus Unum — for out of the many, one. Today, we are indeed one. We have a voice that is important and must be heard in our American democracy.”
Choe chaired the White House Initiative for Asian and Pacific Islanders, served as a Seattle City Council member, was chief administrative officer of the Gates Foundation, and is an honorary co-chair of the Asian American and Pacific Islander Democracy Initiative. Her parents immigrated to America from South Korea in 1948, eventually became U.S. citizens, and voted in every election. Choe recalled being called names while growing up in New York City.
“We are strong with one voice,” Choe said. According to Choe, because of the AAPI community, this year’s King County ballots and election information will have more Asian language translations. Choe shared her fond memories of thousands of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who attended legislative assembly days. Elected officials always made time for the community, said Choe, because the community cared enough to come together as one, and are holding elected officials accountable come election time. “But it only matters if we turn out to vote,” warned Choe. “This is an election where every vote counts.”
Who will be governor?
During the candidate for governor forum, summit-goers heard Inslee’s and Bryant’s different views on issues meaningful to AAPI voters.
The first question from the moderator involved carbon emission taxes and climate change. The AAPI community, said Mak, are concerned about climate change — rising seas, severe typhoons in Asia, and impacts to Pacific Northwest industries, such as fishing.
Bryant told voters he believes in climate change and that “humans contribute to it.” He wants to reduce carbon emissions, but not at the cost of losing middle-class jobs. Inslee also said he believed in climate change and cited to a new rule passed by the Department of Ecology that caps carbon pollution.
Mak’s next question for the candidates was about raising the state minimum wage. Inslee supported raising it to $13.50, and said, “It’s time to give our families a living wage.”
Bryant said he doesn’t support an increase because the economy and cost of living vary in different areas of Washington. If the minimum wage is raised too quickly based on the cost of living in King County, he fears small towns may end up cutting hours, benefits, or jobs.
Neither candidate would commit to supporting new taxes or fees to fund education, although both candidates agreed they don’t support cuts to social services. Both candidates talked about growing state revenue to fund education, rather than creating new taxes. Both candidates also supported continuing state social programs when people do not qualify for services under federal programs.
Arlene can be reached at email@example.com.