By Zuag Kimberly Chang
Denver, CO- According to the Democratic National Convention Committee, the makeup of this year’s delegates at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) held in Denver, CO made it mark as the most diverse in history. Asian Pacific Islander Americans made up 4.6 percent of delegates, up from 3.9 percent in 2004. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of the DNC, the presence of Asian Pacific Islander Americans was present from the moment caucus attendees entered the Colorado Convention Center bright and early Monday morning. Feet from the security checkpoint inside the convention center doors, a suit-clad young man stood holding a sign that read, “Asian Americans Pacific Islanders for Obama.”
Inside the doors of the APIA caucus, the same sign marked every row of tables. Onlookers who represented a myriad of Asian Pacific Islander ethnicities listened attentively as Illinois Democratic candidate Tammy Duckworth took the stage and explained, “People talk about Asian and Pacific Islanders as though we are one homogeneous group. We are not. But that’s our strength. It doesn’t matter. It’s about us coming together and making a difference by getting Barack Obama elected.”
Sam Yoon, City Councilor At-Large of Boston City Council, expressed that at times, it is hard to find similarities between the culturally and ethnically diverse Asian Pacific Islander Americans, “but there is something about coming from that part of the world that unites us.” Delegate Yee Chang of Minnesota explained, “The issues that makes us one people… people don’t tend to hear it, and it’s issues about education. It’s issues about health care. It’s issues about access to opportunity.” Bel Leong-Hong, chair of the APIA caucus, noted the power of unity, “We learn that we are most powerful when our community leaders work together across cultures.” The points mentioned during the APIA caucus reflected the message that filled every convention room and hall of the entire DNC; we are more similar than the differences that we see. The unity requested would serve as a tool to accomplish three goals of the APIA caucus: vote Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama into the Oval Office, vote more Asian Pacific Islander Americans into political office, and help increase Asian Pacific Islander American voter turnout rates.
Chang explained that Obama, whose brother-in-law is Chinese American, knows the issues of Asian Pacific Islander Americans first hand. Yoon expressed an Asian Pacific Islander American connection to Obama that stemmed beyond race: values and leadership. Obama’s life told a bottom-up story about his path to power that resulted after years of struggle, hard work, undying faith, and determination. “He came into politics in a non-traditional way,” Yoon stated. Yoon paused for a moment and continued to explain that Obama had a history of leadership that illustrated “heart and willingness to serve.”
Voter knowledge about Obama was not enough for the APIA caucus however, Asian Pacific Islander Americans had to take action and vote. According to the U.S. Census, the voter turnout rate amongst Asians Americans during the 2004 presidential elections was 44 percent. When asked about speculations as to why this was, Yoon hypothesized “no one wants to feel incompetent,” however, at times due to lack of experience, knowledge of the power and influence of their vote, or language barriers, some potential voters may opt not to vote. “Education would help this,” Yoon suggested. Hung Nguyen, President of the National Congress of Vietnamese Americans Virginia Asian Advisory Board, added that awareness about the presence of interpreters at polls may also alleviate some potential voters’ worries. Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama’s half sister who spoke via a slide show and in person encouraged, “Make sure we have translators. Make sure we talk to the elders. We need to rally the youth and elders.”
The power of the Asian Pacific Islander American vote is not important just because of the 2008 presidential race, APIA caucus attendee and actress Tamlyn Tomita clarified. It is the personal power to influence and decide, regardless of party or candidate of choice, leaders who will speak and decide for the community. “You have a voice,” Tomita explained, “go out and vote. Be able to say that I am an American and I have an ability to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’… to whatever the ticket is. It’s your curiosity. It’s a duty to make this country work. And each of our voices collectively can power groups, can power communities.”
Many APIA caucus speakers emphasized that an increase in voter turnout could mean more Asian Pacific Islander American representatives in office. Duckworth and others emphasized that the minute number of Asian Pacific Islander American elected officials in the U.S. served no justice to represent the respective community population. U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison said it best, “It’s not about getting Asian Americans in to the ballot box, it’s about getting Asian Americans on the ticket.” The two-day APIA caucus ended on Wednesday, August 27th.