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Asian-Americans See Gains in Political Clout

Asian-American voters helped elect President Barack Obama. In turn, Obama has broken through a centuries-old glass ceiling that may help Asian-Americans rise in politics.

In the 2008 election cycle, 62 percent of Asian-American voters cast a ballot for Obama. The new president, in turn, has appointed record numbers of Asian-Americans to his Cabinet. Coupled with the growing numbers of Asian-American Members of Congress, the Asian-American influence in Washington has never been stronger.

“I have no limits on my expectations anymore,” Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) said.

Not only has Obama made the possibility of an Asian-American president seem more real than ever, but he’s also welcomed members of the community into his inner circle.

In his first 50 days, the president made the high-profile Cabinet nominations of former Washington Gov. Gary Locke (D) to be Commerce secretary and Nobel laureate Steven Chu for Energy secretary — both of whom are Chinese-American.

“I’m just elated with what’s happening,” former Transportation Secretary and Congressman Norman Mineta said at a recent reception honoring the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. “I’m just very pleased that these appointments have been made. They’re tremendous. ... It makes me cry.”

Honda, who is Japanese-American and spent a portion of his childhood in an internment camp during World War II, said he never thought he would see this day.

“It’s better than the first crop of rice,” he said with a big smile on his face, referring to an old Asian expression that the first crop is the best crop of rice. “Collectively, as a political body, we bring this desire to participate, this understanding that if you don’t do that you create a vacuum and let other people define you.”

Presently there are 15.3 million Asian-Americans in the United States, making up 4.3 percent of the population, according to 2006-2007 Census data. That number is up from 3.6 percent in 2000 and is expected to double by 2050.

As the Asian-American population has risen, so has the group’s representation in Congress. At present, there are 10 Asian-American Members — eight in the House and two in the Senate. Indian-born former-Rep. Dalip Singh Saund (D-Calif.), who served in the House from 1957 to 1963, was the first Asian-American to take office. At the time, the group made up a mere 0.5 percent of the population. That number has steadily crept up ever since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which raised the number of immigrants allowed entry into the U.S.

Recognizing this growth, Honda has devoted much of his Congressional tenure to voter outreach. While serving as vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Honda targeted Asian-Americans in eight states, which resulted in the 62 percent voter turnout for Obama.

“The DNC became a great support for the kind of things I want to do,” Honda said. “Obama, to his credit, put out an Asian-American blueprint.”

Not only did the 2008 election cycle yield a high Asian-American turnout, but it also saw the election of the first Vietnamese-American Congressman, Anh “Joseph” Cao (La.).

Cao is now the lone Republican member of CAPAC, which was founded by Mineta in 1994 and has 22 members. Honda has served as chairman of the caucus since 2001 and is especially pleased the Louisiana Congressman joined, thereby making CAPAC bipartisan.

Cao, who defeated then-Rep. William Jefferson (D), said he counts Honda as a friend. Their differing political views don’t get in the way, he added. “I think that with respect to Asian issues there are no party lines.”

While Cao is pleased to see a rise of Asian-Americans in politics, he said there still aren’t enough Vietnamese-Americans involved.

“I think on the one hand it comes from the lack of interest,” he said. Many parents don’t encourage their children to get involved in politics because of their experiences with political corruption in Vietnam, he said, although he hopes he will be seen as a role model.

Cao also said he hopes to see Asian- Americans rise further in government, perhaps even to the presidency. “In regards to that, President Obama has broken the glass ceiling,” he said.

Don Nakanishi, who heads the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, said population growth is not the only reason this faction of the country has become more prevalent in politics. Nakanishi said grass-roots organizations have played a large role.

“Many of them are around all the time, and they go to citizenship ceremonies and they try to register people to vote,” he said, referencing groups such as Asian & Pacific American Islander Vote. “Every time there are some particularly attractive candidates running for office, they gear up to get Asian-Americans to register and to vote.”

Honda is confident the rise of Asian-Americans in U.S. government and politics will set a precedent for diversity that the world will follow.

“Children across the globe realize a change is occurring across the country,” he said. “We, too, can be a part of that picture.”

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