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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

A place at the table

Led by California's Senate hopeful Matt Fong, Asian-American politicians come of age

By Romesh Ratnesar

TIME magazine

It is an indication of how far Asian Americans have come in politics that John Lim, who is running for U.S. Senator in Oregon, thinks his thick Korean accent is actually an asset with voters. "They love it," he says. "They know I speak with a sincerity about who I am." Lim, 62, immigrated to the U.S. in 1966 and worked odd jobs--janitor, gardener, house painter--before entering the real estate business. In 1990, as a political neophyte, Lim finished second in the Republican gubernatorial primary. Two years later, he won a seat in the state senate. Now Lim has spun his tale into a populist alternative to Democratic incumbent Ron Wyden. "I'm running to set an example--not just for Asians but for all Americans," Lim says. "I want people to say, 'Look at John. He came here as an immigrant without a penny in his pocket, and through hard work and tenacity, he has a chance to be in the next U.S. Senate.' What a story to tell!"

Alas, it will have to be told much more: most analysts think Wyden will be re-elected comfortably. Still, winning the Republican nomination in a state with an Asian population of just 3% was no small feat for Lim. For Asian Americans, it is one of several heartening political breakthroughs that began with the 1996 election of Washington's Gary Locke as the first Asian-American Governor in the continental U.S. Two other national candidacies have boosted Asian visibility this year: in California, Republican Senate candidate Matt Fong, the taciturn state treasurer, has pulled into a dead heat with Democrat Barbara Boxer; and in a hotly contested race for the House seat in Oregon's First Congressional District, Taiwanese-born lawyer David Wu holds a slight lead over Republican Molly Bordonaro. Nationally, the number of elected Asian or Pacific Americans at all levels has grown to 2,000 in 33 states--a 10% increase since 1996.

All of which means that Asian-American representation in the hallways of power has gone from barely noticeable to modestly influential. Despite being the fastest-growing, best-educated and most affluent minority group in America, Asians have traditionally been somewhat diffident when it comes to politics. Nearly two-thirds of Asians in the U.S. are immigrants, many from countries with checkered democratic traditions; most push their kids to become doctors and engineers, not lawmakers. Many saw the 1996 campaign-finance scandal as a Yellow Peril witch-hunt. One Indian aspirant for a House seat in Indiana, R. Nag Nagarajan, lost in the spring primary mainly because, a local Democratic official said, "his name conjures up some Middle East monster." When Lim's wife Grace approached a potential supporter at an Oregon county fair in August, the man told her, "I won't vote for a foreigner."

But that kind of resistance is melting, and Fong's rise is proof. Early this year he looked like a long shot to get out of the Republican primary; now he is poised to become the Senate's first Chinese American from outside Hawaii. He can thank Boxer for that. Already a G.O.P. target for her strident partisanship, Boxer invited still more attacks for her belated criticism of President Bill Clinton's adultery. (Her daughter is married to the First Lady's brother.) In contrast to the vociferous Boxer, Fong, who is pro-choice-in-the-first-trimester, delivers speeches like a CPA explaining tax law. "His biggest advantage," says a G.O.P. strategist, "is that he's not Barbara Boxer."

Another advantage may be his race. Though Asian Americans make up only 6% of the state's registered voters, they could be a deciding factor in a close race with low turnout--if they vote as they did in June's open primary, when Fong took 3 out of 4 Asian voters, many of them "crossover" Democrats motivated more by ethnic pride than ideology. "Asian Americans can only think of themselves as a swing vote in a very close election," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. "But this appears to be that kind of race--a race in which crossover voters could make the difference."

The Asian vote is expected to be 10% of California's electorate by 2000. Nevertheless, it cannot be courted as if it were a single-minded bloc. Says Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles: "There hasn't been a stand taken by either the Democrats or the Republicans that has unified Asian Americans behind one party." If Asian-American voters share one thing, it's a predilection toward socially moderate, pro-business pragmatism, which is what Asian-American Democrats like Governor Locke have in common with Asian-American Republicans like Lim and Fong. It is also what makes Asian-American candidates so palatable to non-Asian voters. "Traditionally," Cain says, "they've been the most successful of all minority candidates in winning white votes." So win or lose, Fong's candidacy will probably be a bellwether. Says Howard University law professor Frank H. Wu: "Asian Americans don't want just to be photographed with people with influence. They want to be the people with influence. They want a seat at the table." Now the parties just have to make room. --With reporting by David S. Jackson/Los Angeles

Nationally, the number of Asian-American elected officials at all levels has grown to 2,000 in 33 states--a 10% increase since 1996


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Cover Date: October 12, 1998

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