‘They want to be courted’
A young Filipino American finds community – and a political mission – by moving to Las Vegas. Now he’s at ground zero as Nevada Democrats race to fix the caucus process in their state, following this month’s high-tech debacle in Iowa.
LAS VEGAS – On a sunny Saturday morning, just a short drive from the neon and glitter of the Las Vegas Strip, a traditional scene from the Philippines unfolds in the corner of a nondescript office building.
We Count: Untold Voters Stories
As America prepares to make its choice in the 2020 elections, CNN ventured into the lives of voters around the country who are often overlooked in the traditional narratives about politics. In this installment, we visit the early state of Nevada, where the Asian American population is one of its fasting-growing voting blocs.
“Mabuhay,” Dan Santos, a young nonprofit administrator, says in a Tagalog greeting as a group of about 60 people prepares to scoop up crispy pieces of pork and salt-and-pepper shrimp – all part of a Kamayan, or communal Filipino feast.
But the food is just a prelude to the main event: an intensive, 45-minute training on how to participate in February’s Democratic caucuses -- as party leaders in the state work to aggressively court the Asian and Pacific Islander communities that make up one of Nevada’s fastest-growing voting blocs.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders now account for roughly 10% of the 3 million people who live in Nevada, census figures show, and Filipino Americans make up about half of that community. The number of eligible Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders eligible to vote in the state grew 35% from 2010 to 2016, zooming past the 13% growth rate for all eligible voters statewide, according to APIAVote, which tracks demographic and voting data.
In a close contest, these voters could make the difference for candidates -- particularly the Democratic presidential candidates hoping to gain an advantage in the Silver State’s first-in-the-West nominating contest on February 22. In 2018, for instance, Democrat Steve Sisolak won the governor’s race by fewer than 40,000 votes. Two years earlier, Democrat Hillary Clinton won this traditional battleground state by just 27,000 votes in the presidential general election.
“Candidates that don’t pay attention to the AAPI population will meet their demise,” William McCurdy II, the state’s Democratic Party chairman, says during a break in the caucus training at the headquarters of the local Service Employees International Union. “They want to be courted. They want face time” with candidates.
One sign of the growing importance of the Filipino vote: The state’s Democratic Party, for the first time, will print presidential preference cards for the February caucuses in Tagalog, in addition to English and Spanish.
And experts in Asian American and Pacific Islander public opinion say the national debate raging about immigration – sparked by President Donald Trump’s hardline policies – could become a wedge issue that drives Asian and Pacific Islander voters to Democrats this year.
There already are signs of a shifting landscape: Less than half of Asian American voters – 49% -- supported Democratic House candidates in the 2014 midterm elections, according to exit polls at the time. By the 2018 midterms, Asian support for House Democratic candidates had soared to 77%.
A cultural 'awakening'
Santos, 25, is part of the new wave of Filipino-American arrivals in Nevada, which has helped drive an Asian American population boom in the state.
They range from retirees, seeking a mild climate but a lower cost of living than in neighboring California, to the thousands of Filipinos working as nurses or in the state’s bustling hospitality and casino industry. Others own businesses. Still others have come to Nevada on temporary visas directly from the Philippines to fill teaching shortages.
Santos, whose parents emigrated separately from the Philippines in the 1990s, grew up in suburban Chicago and graduated from the University of Illinois in 2017. He moved to Las Vegas last April – drawn by a job with Teach for America, which recruits recent college graduates to teach in high-poverty schools.
But Las Vegas and its vibrant Asian American and Pacific Islander community sparked a cultural “awakening” for him, he says. “I instantly felt at home.”
Although about 6% of Chicago residents are Asian, “I never had mentors in politics or community organizing that looked like me – at least in the spaces I lived in the Chicago-land area,” Santos says. “It was a blessing to find that in Las Vegas right away.”
The influence of the Asian and Pacific Islander community is hard to miss.
Just visit the Chinatown Plaza, which opened in 1995 and brought an outpost of the popular 99 Ranch Market Asian supermarket chain to Spring Mountain Road, a main thoroughfare in the city.
Four years later, the Nevada governor officially declared the area surrounding the plaza Chinatown. And now, nearly 25 years after the launch, Chinatown has stretched into a bustling 3-mile-long cultural center filled with restaurants and businesses that attract the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.
“It’s truly ‘Asiatown,’ ” Sonny Vinuya, a Filipino-American banker who serves as president of the Las Vegas Asian Chamber of Commerce, says of the commercial strip. “Everybody's represented.”
Here, cultural events abound.
In the course of a single Saturday in October, there’s the Kamayan feast and caucus training sponsored by the Nevada Democratic Party and the Asian American Pacific Islander Democratic Caucus, and later that night -- inside a vast, carpeted ballroom at the Treasure Island Resort and Casino -- hundreds of Filipinos in formal attire eat dinner and bid on evening gowns to celebrate Filipino Heritage Month and raise money for charity.
And across town, more than 10,000 people throng an open-air Asian Night Market on the southwestern edge of the city – to play mahjong, eat Vietnamese lobster pho and enjoy Hawaiian poke bowls.
Santos is there, too, working as a volunteer and moving through the crowd waiting to enter the night market, reminding people to present their tickets for scanning at the entrance.
These days, Santos participates in so many Asian-centric events that on a recent trip back home to Illinois, he retrieved a traditional Filipino barong – a sheer, embroidered shirt purchased years ago to attend a cousin’s wedding in the Philippines – to sport at functions around the city.
'Slap in the face'
Santos was already a Democrat before he moved to Nevada, casting the first presidential ballot of his life for President Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012. But he wasn’t deeply engaged in politics until Trump won the presidency during Santos’ senior year in college, following a White House bid filled with Trump’s harsh, anti-immigrant rhetoric.
“It was a shock, a slap in the face and a wake-up call,” Santos says of the 2016 results. “To hear the rhetoric about immigrants and about people of color … is really just disheartening.
“It’s really motivated a lot of us to act.”
He says he began to reconsider everything about his future during his final year in college.
Santos’ father had envisioned him becoming a CEO and encouraged him to study accounting. But his father died during Santos’ freshman year in college.
Instead of immediately accepting the corporate job he had been offered, Santos hit the road after graduation, teaching high school English in Malaysia on a Fulbright grant.
When he returned to the US, he worked briefly for a multinational accounting firm in Chicago before deciding to head West to Vegas with Teach for America and beginning his investment in Democratic and Asian American and Pacific Islander activism.
He’s not sure whether he will settle in Las Vegas for the long haul; his girlfriend lives in Seattle, and his family is far flung. But right now, he focused on trying to have an impact on what he calls “the most consequential election of our lifetime” in a state where his vote counts.
Earlier this month, less than a year after moving to Las Vegas, he won a perch as chairman of the Asian American and Pacific Islander Democratic caucus, which represents the community in the county Democratic Party.
A top issue for Santos: immigration. After all, his life has been shaped by it.
His mother, Belinda, borrowed $5,000 from a relative in the Philippines to pay an agency that helped her get a visa and a nursing placement in the United States in 1990
His father’s family took a different route to America. His father’s brother – who served in the US Navy and had become a US citizen – petitioned for Santos’ father and grandparents to come to this country.
Santos’ parents met and married in Illinois.
Under the system that the Trump administration wants, that may not have happened.
Trump wants to move toward a merit-based immigration system, which gives preference to highly skilled and educated individuals. It would reduce the use of the family-based system that Santos' uncle used to bring his family to this country.
The administration has moved to make it make it more difficult for immigrants who rely on public benefits, such as food stamps, Medicaid or subsidized housing, to obtain legal status on the grounds they are likely to become a “public charge,” dependent on US taxpayers. After several court skirmishes over the Trump policy, the Supreme Court in January voted 5-4 to let the new rules take effect.
For Santos, the policies are a rebuke of his family's history. His father worked at Wendy’s when he arrived in 1990 and held factory jobs.
“My grandparents would have been people on the public charge,” Santos says. “They lived off food stamps when they came here. They lived in senior housing. And they helped raise me.”
“That’s something very common in Asian American families. You lean on the extended family. You are one unit.”
The backlog in legal immigration to the United States is particularly acute for people from Asian countries.
Of the more than 3.6 million people on the waiting list, nearly 1.3 million live in Asia, State Department figures show. After Mexico, the Philippines has the longest backlog of visa applications, with nearly 300,000 in the system.
Push to the left?
Surveys point to several factors driving the swing among Asian American voters to Democrats in the midterms: concerns about Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, alarm at Trump’s immigration policies and stepped-up efforts by Democrats to mobilize these voters in 2018, says Karthick Ramakrishnan, professor of public policy at the University of California-Riverside and founder of AAPIAdata.com. The group collected data and conducts policy research on Asian Americans.
In California, Democratic outreach to Asian American and Pacific Islander voters likely helped flip key House districts in a blue wave that upended Republican control of the US House of Representatives, he says. In 2020, both parties are expected to fight over those districts – and voters – again.
“Signs are pointing to a historically large turnout for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, very likely favoring the Democratic Party,” Ramakrishnan says.
Neighboring Nevada has been a presidential bellwether state, consistently backing the eventual White House winner – until 2016, when Clinton won the state but went on to lose the presidency to Trump.
The Silver State swung left in the 2018 midterms, electing its first Democratic governor in 20 years and tossing out a Republican US senator. Today, Democrats control three of Nevada’s four seats in the US House of Representatives and both US Senate seats.
Although a Republican presidential candidate has not won Nevada since George W. Bush in 2004, Trump and the Republican National Committee are not ceding ground in the general election to Democrats, insists Rick Gorka, a spokesman for Trump Victory, the joint Trump-Republican National Committee political operation.
Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr. both are slated to headline two Nevada events in the days leading up to the February 22 caucuses.
And on immigration, Gorka says: “We talk about it being legal, safe and fair.”
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are not single-issue voters, Gorka adds. He says the Trump team is emphasizing economic growth and the administration’s efforts to cut down on government regulation, particularly with business owners in the AAPI community.
Las Vegas restauranteur Jan-Ie Low, who immigrated to the US as a child from Malaysia, backs Trump on immigration. “I truly believe if you follow the rules and work hard, you’ll get where you should be getting,” Low says.
Low has attended a few events headlined by the Democratic presidential candidates who swing through Las Vegas, but she says she hasn’t heard anything to sway her from supporting Trump, whom she credits with helping to drive a strong economy.
Her family’s restaurant, Satay Thai Bistro, is approaching its 15th year of operation and paid out its first bonuses to the staff in the last year, she says. With a humming economy, “people are paying money to eat out more,” she says. “People are celebrating.”
Nevada Republicans canceled their presidential caucuses in a sign of solidarity with Trump. But the Democratic presidential contenders are campaigning aggressively – visiting the populous Clark County area more than 320 times as of early February, according to a tally by the Nevada Independent, an online news site founded by Jon Ralston, a veteran Nevada political journalist.
The Nevada caucuses, the third 2020 nominating contest, after Iowa and New Hampshire, offers the first chance for Democratic contenders to demonstrate their appeal in a diverse state. Nevada is one of five “majority minority” states in the country, alongside Texas, California, New Mexico and Hawaii. Latinos alone account for nearly 30% of Nevada’s population, census figures show.
But in a Democratic nomination fight with multiple contenders, “our electorate could literally shift whether or not they win Nevada,” says Evan Louie, chairman of One APIA Nevada, a nonprofit group launched in 2018 to increase Asian and Pacific Islander turnout in elections and representation in politics.
In his short time in Vegas, Santos has met most of the Democratic presidential contenders.
Sitting in a coffee shop near his downtown studio apartment, he flips through his mobile phone to share the selfie proof: There he is with California Sen. Kamala Harris, who’s wearing a traditional Hawaiian lei at a roundtable discussion in Chinatown. In another picture, he smiles broadly alongside Elizabeth Warren following a campaign rally the Massachusetts senator headlined in East Las Vegas. And in a third, he and his mother squeeze in for a selfie with former Vice President Joe Biden.
In Illinois, “I had never experienced candidates at the federal level or at the local level coming to our communities, courting our vote, listening to the concerns we care about,” he says.
February will mark the first time Santos has participated in a caucus.
He was initially drawn to Harris, who as the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants would have been the nation’s first Asian American president. But her debate performances left him cold, and she dropped out in December. Santos also was drawn to upbeat New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, whom he called the “happy warrior” of the race. Booker ended his campaign in January.
At the training following last October’s Kamayan feast, Santos focused intently as Joey Reid, the Nevada Democratic Party’s deputy field director, ran through the caucus intricacies: Four days of early voting will precede the main event on February 22. Candidate signs and swag are prohibited inside early voting sites. Deadlocks during the caucuses are determined by a draw of the cards.
After listening to the lengthy presentation, Santos decided to volunteer at a caucus site. So later this month – just 10 months after he arrived in Nevada -- he’ll serve as a precinct caucus chairman at one of the more than 2,000 precincts that will operate on caucus day.
In that role, he’ll explain the rules to caucusgoers in his precinct at Las Vegas’ Bonanza High School, tally preferences and calculate candidates’ viability before transmitting the totals to party headquarters.
That task has grown even more complicated following the high-profile failure of a smartphone app that Iowa Democratic Party officials deployed in their caucus to report results. In the wake of the Iowa debacle, Nevada officials scrapped their own planned use of the mobile phone app.
Instead, the Nevada Democrats will give each precinct chairman an iPad with pre-loaded software to tally results, Santos says in a phone interview. Volunteers were slated to receive training on the software in a series of webinars before the caucuses, he says. “Obviously, it’s a little overwhelming as a first-time caucusgoer doing this,” he says, “but I’m confident we have the resources in place to make it go smoothly.”
Santos has narrowed his choices to two candidates but does not want to publicly disclose them because of his now-official role as a caucus volunteer. But no matter who wins Nevada this month, he says, he will throw himself into volunteering for the Democratic Party’s eventual nominee – all part of his newfound political activism.
“We’re taught that a lot of people made sacrifices to help you get where you are today,” he says of his Filipino upbringing. “You can’t pay those back, so you have to pay it forward.”