By Janice Nesamani
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The 2020 census shows that Washington state has over 470,000 eligible Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) voters. In King County alone, AAPI citizens of voting age constitute a hefty 14% of the electorate which means on Nov. 2, we have a strong say on who enters public office and what causes those officials choose to espouse.
President of the AAPI Victory Fund, Varun Nikore, whose organization aims to mobilize eligible AAPI voters and encourage more AAPIs to run for public office, digs into the data to highlight the inherent strength of the community on the local, state, and national arena.
“In the last national election, the AAPI community closed an almost 15-17 point undervoting gap in almost one election cycle,” Nikore said. “It’s never happened before in the history of our country!”
He points out that less than 0.2% of all philanthropies invest in AAPI causes and the same is true for political causes. “Our estimate shows that less than 0.2% of campaign dollars of the $14 billion were spent on AAPIs in the previous national election.”
“We still didn’t get invested in during the last election, but we self-organized and over delivered. Certain analysts even credit us for flipping Arizona and Georgia for Joe Biden,” he said.
Off-year elections, like the one on Nov. 2, tend to be bell weathers for federal elections the following year, and Nikore points out that this election will show whether the AAPI voter momentum, that picked up after the wave of anti-Asian hate, will continue to be a factor.
To him, Donald Trump, as well as the signing of very restrictive abortion rights in Texas, are major drivers for AAPI voters.
Nikore sees a national trend with more AAPIs running for mayor, perhaps as a stepping stone, but certainly as a legitimate pathway to public service.
He points out that earlier AAPIs ran for mayor in smaller towns or primarily blue states, but this year, in addition to Bruce Harrell in Seattle, you see Aftab Pureval running for mayor in Cincinnati and Michelle Wu in Boston.
“Their breakthrough speaks volumes to our ability as AAPIs to break through entrenched machine politics and play our own machine politics.” Nikore added, llThe first Asian American elected governor on the mainland United States and first Chinese American elected state governor in the U.S., Gary Locke has noticed the large turnout of AAPI voters made the difference in the final outcome of some very close races in the past year.
“It is very encouraging to see greater participation and interest from AAPI voters. It demonstrates we have political power. Knowing that we have political power, we should use it, especially if we care about issues facing our community, region, or nation,” Locke said.
Locke is pleased to see more Asian Americans running for office, whether it’s the school board, city council, members of Congress, or even president of the United States.
“Throughout my eight years in office, I tried to be the most effective and respected governor knowing that if I could, I would have the type of reputation that encouraged more Asian Americans to run for office and make it easier for Asian American candidates,” Locke said.
He feels the divisive rhetoric over the last seven years, especially during the pandemic, made it more legitimate for people to show discriminatory attitudes and disrespect toward AAPIs and that manifested in blatant violence against the AAPI community.
He states that around the time of Covid, the AAPI Hate organization documented around 9,000 reports of violence against Asian Americans in one year.
“The first six months of 2021 equal all of the reports of violence for the year before,” Locke said.
“This has created activism especially among the young, who are demanding action from government officials, that we be treated as loyal American citizens, contributing members who helped create the prosperity and security of the U.S., and not be vilified.”
Locke is pleased to see the activism.
“AAPI voters have to get involved if we care about what is happening in our communities or country. Whether it is anti-Asian violence, having safe streets and sufficient police, smart policing, a good education system, to having opportunities for good pay and nice jobs for our families, we have to make sure we elect people that have these issues and priorities that match ours,” Locke added.
Bruce Harrell, who has set his sights on being Seattle’s next mayor, feels that the spike in violence that Asian Americans recently experienced is certainly not new and familiar to the Black community.
“Data suggests nearly a third of Asians are fearful for their safety because of the anti-Asian hate violence,” Harrell said.
Having grown up in a Japanese and Black family, Harrell said, “When communities are intentional about joining one another, better understanding their differences, they understand what they have in common and that is when the magic occurs.
“We start frequenting each other’s restaurants, social clubs, and organizations. We start unifying our energy around a common goal and we have so many common goals.”
Harrell finds the partnerships, voter turnout, and civic engagement in the Asian community inspirational.
“Historically, members of the AAPI community thought a wise course of action would be to stay under the radar and simply work hard,” Harrell said. “Their role in political discourse was ambiguous at best.”
Harrell recalls that AAPIs witnessed Executive Order 9066. They remember the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. “They have seen how laws have worked to their detriment and believed that if they were patriotic and worked hard that things would be okay.”
He continued, “Now, they realize the power of the vote and the power of representation and the power of political discourse and this is where good things can happen for all communities.”
Harrell harkens back to when Locke was elected governor and the effect it had on politics.
“Sometimes it takes representation to matter, and I know that my candidacy has excited members of the African and Asian American communities,” Harrell said. “I have been warmly received and am very proud of how these communities have catapulted my visibility in this race.”
Joe Nguyen, the first Vietnamese American elected to the Washington State Senate, whose hat is in the race for King County Executive, feels fortunate to have an AAPI community rich with experiences and talent in Washington, but feels that in order to make sure our voices are prioritized—we need to vote.
“We need leaders who reflect our community and the way for that to happen is to get engaged. It is an honor to serve alongside Representative Thai as the first Vietnamese legislators in Washington state. We may be the first state legislators, but cannot be the last,” Nguyen said. Seeing more AAPIs engaged on issues that are important to the community fills Nguyen with hope.
“Possibly more important than the issues themselves, is proving that we are more powerful than even we could’ve imagined. It’s a shift from feeling as if we’re guests in this country to owning the fact that we belong.” Nguyen added, “My hope is that we continue to grow and build on the work from our elders who came before us to create an inclusive and welcoming state.”
A father to three children, Nguyen believes that the people we elect now as a community will have an impact on our future and our kid’s futures.
“We need leaders who are engaged and willing to do the work in order for our region to grow and prosper. We may not always agree on every issue, but it is important for us to vote and for people who we believe will represent our values.”
Janice can be reached at email@example.com.