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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A Political Status Symbol

Asians now have it -- their own lobbying group

By Susan Berfield and Stuart Wolfendale / Los Angeles


THIS IS A TALE of politics and identity, money and influence. The main characters are the 10 million or so Asian Americans and their community leaders. Elected officials, political fundraisers and the media figure in it. Prejudice plays an important part too. It is a very American story, maybe even the American story of the 20th century.

We begin somewhere in the middle, somewhere in Chicago. It is July, and Asian Americans are feeling the heat from the campaign fundraising scandal known as "Donorgate." A few Asian-American moneymen are central characters in Senate and Justice Department investigations. They are accused of accepting illegal donations (some on behalf of foreign governments) for the Democratic Party. But it seems that all Asian Americans are suspect. Their money, and loyalty, is seen as questionable.

Senators make disparaging remarks; auditors hired by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) aggressively inquire about the financial backgrounds of 1,200 donors with Asian-sounding names. Sam Brownback, a Republican senator from Utah, says that if John Huang, a key fundraiser for the Democrats, "no raise money, no get bonus." The senator later apologized, and so did DNC officials. But others do not. In this environment few expect them to. Mike Woo, a former Los Angeles city councilor, says it is the "most profound crisis since the internment of Japanese Americans [during World War II]."

Prejudice was back. Fear and frustration in Asian-American communities were soon to follow. "All our achievements are being forgotten," says Francey Lim Youngberg, executive director of an institute that supports the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. "Do we have to prove we are Americans over and over again?" Here the story takes an unexpected turn. In Chicago a conference of Asian- American leaders forms an organization. Not just any organization, but a national coalition that is supposed to bring together all the Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino (to name a few) groups. What could be more American?

Or more symbolic. Politics and identity are central concerns of most ethnic communities in America today. But not for many Asians, not until now. "Asians say that the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. But keeping quiet has not worked," says Martha Choe, a Seattle city councilor. "That's no use in a country that celebrates the squeaky wheel for making the most noise." Some Asian-American groups have spoken up for themselves over the years, of course, but no one has been the voice of all Asian Americans. That is because there has been no common cause. There is today. Already 18 organizations have filed a petition with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, accusing the DNC, Republican senators and the media of "engaging in a pattern of bias" against Asians.

The new coalition has, for now, a rather unwieldy name (the National Asian Pacific American Network Council) but it wants, one day, to be a household word. The founders hope the organization will have the political clout of the NAACP (which defends the rights of African Americans) and the political sophistication of the Anti-Defamation League (which protects American Jews). The coalition has a clear purpose, but to succeed it will have to keep its members focused.

Forming a national civil rights organization seems like a rite of passage. But that Asian Americans are doing so now is particularly ironic. They were supposed to come into their own in 1996. President Clinton openly courted Asians; many hoped he would name an Asian American to his cabinet. Gary Locke was elected governor of Washington state, the first Asian American to hold that office in the continental United States. A voter registration drive had signed up 75,000 Asian Americans.

And the DNC wanted their money. It was a welcome opportunity, then. Fundraisers estimate that Asian Americans gave at least $10 million during the presidential race, most to Democrats. So far the DNC has returned nearly $1.5 million to 77 contributors, most Asian American. That is just over 1% of all the money it has raised since 1994.

Not much, but enough for congressmen to call early inquiries "the tip of the egg roll," and refer to Clinton's "chop suey connection to Beijing and Jakarta." The DNC's auditors asked donors their income levels, social security numbers (for credit checks), and if they were citizens.

The Senate investigation has so far failed to show any links between Asian- American donors and foreign governments, particularly the Chinese. But it has exposed many dubious, if not illegal, fundraising practices and introduced Americans to more than a few Asians who donated money in suspicious circumstances. It has given Asian Americans a more prominent role in their country's political life. In a very American way.


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