The Asian American, Pacific Islander communities have been mobilizing for decades; now parties, campaigns are increasingly courting their votes
Julianne Tiu dreams of being a nurse, like her mom, like her aunties.
The 22-year-old UNLV student thought she wanted to be a lawyer for awhile. TV shows piqued her interest, and she liked the idea of helping the less fortunate, but she eventually decided to follow in her family’s footsteps.
With her sights squarely set on her biology courses, Tiu thought she would never get involved in politics. But when someone came to speak at her Filipino club about getting involved in canvassing, she decided to give it a go. After working with the progressive organization For Our Future, Tiu decided to take a job with the Asian Community Development Council (ACDC), which is how she found herself, clipboard and voter registration forms in hand, at Seafood City on Wednesday afternoon.
Tiu, who was born in the Philippines and moved to the United States at 14 to be with her family, said she loves doing voter registration anywhere where she can speak Tagalog or Bisaya. She finds culture is the biggest barrier to getting people to sign up to register to vote — or even take the step to apply for citizenship. It’s easier when she speaks the same language, she said.
“Even when I’m a nurse, I’ll be involved in ACDC, telling people to vote,” she said.
The same goes for Tom Wongaiyara, a 20-year-old student at Nevada State College. He said his favorite place to canvass is at the Thai market, since he grew up in Bangkok and moved to Las Vegas in 2010.
“Hopefully I can make something impactful,” Wongaiyara said.
Voter registration is just one small part of ACDC’s overall work, and ACDC is one small part of a broad, diverse tapestry of organizations in Las Vegas focused either in whole or in part on boosting civic engagement within the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities in Las Vegas. Their work is nothing new — some organizers in the community have been doing it for decades — but the communities have gained increased attention from both the major political parties and campaigns over the last few election cycles as the fastest growing demographic groups in Southern Nevada.
“They finally, finally recognize us. Not as much as we would like, but still better than before,” said Rozita Lee, a longtime organizer in the Filipino and AAPI communities. “They’re in the community. They’re initiating the calls, whereas in the past they didn’t do that. We had to go to them and keep reminding them, ‘Hey, we’re here and want to meet with you.’”
Now, it’s a two way street. A number of different community groups have ramped up their work, focusing on voter registration, citizenship drives, educating the community about civic engagement, hosting candidate forums and, for some groups, endorsing candidates. But the parties and campaigns are also actively trying to be inclusive, recruiting staff and volunteers that speak multiple languages and actually sending candidates, and not just a campaign representative, to community events.
Mobilizing from within
If the population in Las Vegas has ballooned since the turn of the millennium, the number of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders has exploded.
Las Vegas’s total population grew about 42 percent between 2000 and 2010, while the population of Asian Americans grew by 130 percent and the number of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders grew by 112 percent. Today, Asian Americans make up an estimated 8.8 percent of the state’s population, while Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders comprise another 0.8 percent.
Community leaders are quick to note that while their civic engagement efforts might be broadly labeled under the banner of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) outreach, the community is really made up of dozens of much smaller communities. Of an estimated 335,000 people within Nevada’s AAPI community, there are roughly 163,000 Filipinos, 51,000 Chinese, 26,000 Japanese, 16,000 Koreans, 16,000 Vietnamese and 15,000 Indians, according to data from Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote.
But by bringing together a number of different communities under the AAPI umbrella, organizations have been able to increase their visibility within the political arena. That also means extra effort from organizations focused generally on AAPI engagement to ensure that they have a broad staff and volunteer base that can reach out to all the different communities within the community.
Duy Nguyen, vice president and chief operating officer of ACDC, said it’s less about language itself than it is about a shared culture. Language is the vehicle to build trust, he said.
“When you immigrate to this country, there’s no manual of what you’re supposed to do. People come from governments in their former countries where it’s oppressive or a dictatorship or they don’t have a voice,” Nguyen said. “If you can use the folks from the same culture, but who grew up here, were born here, raised by family, and are able to speak and understand the culture, then they can translate.”
But he doesn’t mean translate in a literal sense. He means cultural translation.
“Let’s say we are not Chinese, for example, and we both walked into a Chinese community event and we don’t speak Chinese,” Nguyen said. “A third person walks in, say Evan. Evan speaks Chinese. Everyone would gravitate toward him. With a conditional soft touch, you can get a lot more return.”
It’s a holistic approach. ACDC, which is nonpartisan, isn’t just focused on voter registration, but they hold citizenship drives, health fairs and college readiness workshops. They’re planning to hold an Asian Night Market in October to bring together local restaurant owners. It’s about relationship building, Nguyen said, not just a call to action.
That’s where longtime community leaders say that parties and candidates often missed the mark in the past: Candidates would court the AAPI community organizations around election time and then disappear for the next 18 months. Now, community leaders say they’ve become more insistent on candidates building authentic relationships.
Lee, who works with a coalition of churches under the banner of Seek Jesus Ministries to focus on youth empowerment, voter registration and voter education, said that the community started getting more vocal in the 2012 cycle and became even more insistent in 2014. She credits Sen. Harry Reid, who she describes as a personal friend, with spurring her and other community leaders into action.
“‘You know what’s wrong,’ he said, ‘These guys,’ — I’m paraphrasing — ‘You guys are too quiet. You have to make noise, you know, and you’ve got to make your calls, etcetera,’” Benavides said. “He was very blunt about it. Some people said, ‘Oh my gosh,’ and I said, ‘Yes, he’s right. We have to make noise. We have to make our calls. If something affects us and we’re really upset, we have to let them know about it. Don’t just sit there.'”
She said where candidates previously would pop in and pop out of events, they started to insist the candidates at least take the time to go around the room and meet people. And they found that when they insisted, the candidates made the time.
Vida Benavides, who first came to Nevada in 2008 as the executive director of APIA Vote, said that political mobilization within the community is night and day from what it was a decade ago. She said she used to only be able to talk to a handful of leaders in the community interested in electoral participation; now, candidates know that the AAPI community’s votes make a difference.
“For a long time AAPIs had to make the case that our demographics were growing, our vote share was growing,” Benavides said. “Our potential to swing a race at the local level is now a threat to candidates.”
But in order to swing an election, people have to actually be registered — and eligible — to vote. That’s why citizenship drives and voter registration are such significant focuses for organizations focused on AAPI mobilization. Although there are about 335,00 members of the AAPI community in Nevada, only about 200,000 are eligible to vote, according to data from Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote.
Gloria Caoile, the head of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance’s Nevada chapter, said the most effective strategy in the 2016 cycle was deviating from the traditional door-to-door canvassing and instead canvassing at restaurants and grocery stores frequented by the AAPI community and utilizing the ethnic newspapers to conduct community outreach. She said they had set a goal of 3,000 and ended up registering more than 4,000.
This cycle, APALA Nevada — which is a nonpartisan constituency group of the AFL-CIO and works with the Culinary Union, SEIU and other unions in Nevada — set a voter registration goal of 5,000 in conjunction with ACDC, which they’ve already reached; their new goal is to double that number by the end of October. They’re also focusing on citizenship drives, voter education and youth outreach, like many of the other community organizations.
The biggest change, Caoile said, has been year-round engagement. When APALA started in 2002, it just focused on the presidential races every four years. Then, it began engaging in the congressional races every two years and now, starting in 2016, it’s a full-time operation.
“For example, the Culinary has a rock solid political program,” Caoile said. “But we work with them to address Asian Pacific American engagement. Our role at APALA is to mobilize those parts of folks, those groups of folks within those unions.”
While some groups focus on voter registration, other organizations, including the Asian American Group and the Asian Chamber of Commerce, have decided to spend time vetting candidates themselves and issuing their own endorsements.
Dennis Rucker, the executive vice president of the Asian American Group, said that the organization decided not to get involved in the primary this year just because of the sheer number of candidates, though it did support a select few, including Joe Lombardo for sheriff, Democratic Clark County Chairman Steve Sisolak for governor and Republican state Sen. Scott Hammond for Congress. Rucker described Sisolak as a “longtime friend” of the group and praised Hammond for sponsoring a bill creating Asian Culture Day.
The Asian Chamber of Commerce, which has about 600 members, also plans to issue endorsements through its PAC ahead of the general election in an effort to educate its members about candidates. While the chamber itself is nonpartisan, its membership leans conservative, and some of the requirements to receive the PAC’s endorsement include conservative principles like cutting red tape for businesses and reducing the administrative costs of education.
“We have a lot of business owners in our membership, so they like where the economy is going at the moment,” Vinuya said. “They’re still hoping we can do more when it comes to helping make it easier for them to conduct business, making the process a little more smoother.”
On the left, some members of the AAPI community came together to form a new progressive political advocacy group called One APIA Nevada, which was registered with the secretary of state’s office last month. Evan Louie, the group’s chairman, said that the organization has received a “pretty decent amount of funding” so far and plans to build out its own field, digital and communications operations to increase the visibility of the AAPI community.
Where ACDC focuses more on civic engagement, Louie said that One APIA Nevada will be focused on backing candidates that support issues affecting the AAPI community.
“It’s something that’s been needed for two decades,” Louie said. “We want to make sure these politicians are aware of the concerns of our community.”
Candidate and party engagement
In addition to the efforts from within the community to get involved in politics, Democrats and Republicans alike are cognizant of the importance of reaching out to the AAPI community in their efforts to propel their candidates to victory in November.
To that end, the Nevada State Democratic Party hosted a day-long “AAPI Power Summit” in March focused on voter registration, communications and volunteer organizing. The party has also hired two field organizers that speak Tagalog, conducted voter registration efforts at mosques and grocery stores frequented by members of the AAPI community and recently received $90,000 from the Democratic National Committee to focus on organizing in diverse communities, including the AAPI community.
The Republican National Committee, too, has focused on reaching out to a broad range of communities as part of its coalition building efforts ahead of November. But, instead of singling out specific communities, party officials say that they’re trying to take a broad-based approach, bringing together a number of different leaders to unite around certain values and issues instead of an identity.
“We want to bring people into the fold. We don’t want to carve up communities,” said Keelie Broom, the Republican National Committee’s Nevada communications director. “When you take this all encompassing approach, it draws people in.”
For instance, the party hosted a business roundtable discussion on Thursday that included members of the AAPI, Latino, African American and veterans communities during which participants shared their excitement about the impacts they are seeing from the tax reform bill passed at the end of last year as well as some of their struggles they face as business owners.
Jan-Ie Low, the 46-year-old owner of Satay Thai Bistro & Bar and host of the event, said that she hadn’t been involved with politics until the 2016 election, when she volunteered on President Donald Trump’s campaign.
“With the AAPI culture, we are normally not vocal. We’re very quiet. So believe it or not there are a lot of conservative AAPI out there. We don’t believe in marches, we don’t rally, we don’t come and mock the other party. Quite honestly, we’re private people,” said Low, who grew up in Kuala Lumpur. “When we were supporting Trump, we were the minority. People every day were like, ‘How could you support that guy?’ I was like, ‘You know what, he’s saying the things mostly we want to say but we’re afraid to say it.’ Granted it could be maybe topping with a little sugar coating, but in general he’s on point.”
As part of its efforts to bring different communities together, the RNC has also hired a strategic initiatives director in Nevada who speaks Mandarin, Spanish, Taiwanese and English and is responsible for identifying leaders with diverse backgrounds and plugging them into the Republican party.
Efforts by the parties to reach out to the AAPI community haven’t gone unnoticed, either. Longtime organizers within the community say the level of engagement from the parties has only increased cycle over cycle.
Benavides, who has worked on the Democratic side of AAPI electoral engagement for decades, said that she’s specifically seen an increased focus on the community over the last four presidential cycles, starting with John Kerry’s Asian outreach program during his 2004 presidential campaign. In 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama hired an Asian state director for presidential campaign, and busloads of AAPI volunteers came from California to supplement his campaign in Nevada, she said.
Benavides said that Hillary Clinton’s AAPI engagement last cycle was “unprecedented,” hiring an AAPI director and several other AAPI staffers across the state and doing culture-specific outreach. She said that Clinton’s campaign had an Asian-specific dashboard for phone banking where you could click on Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese or Filipino and just focus on a particular community.
“It was unprecedented in the Democratic ecosystem, at least on the presidential level,” Benavides said. “If you’re not part of the data, you’re not part of any strategy.”
Trump had an Asian American Pacific American Advisory Council headed into the 2016 election. Low’s husband Derek Uehara, a certified financial planner who ran for treasurer in the 2016 Republican primary, was the only representative from Nevada on the council.
Candidates at the Congressional level have also been ramping up their efforts to reach out to the AAPI community over the last few cycles.
Reid won nearly 80 percent of the AAPI vote in his re-election bid in 2010 against Republican Sharron Angle, going so far as to campaign with boxing superstar and then-Philippines congressman Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas.
“2010 was a tight race for him. Guess who came into help? The Filipino vote,” Benavides said. “Manny Pacquiao came. I was shocked, but it turned out the Filipino vote and that little gesture helped.”
And during their 2016 race for U.S. Senate, both Catherine Cortez Masto and Joe Heck courted the AAPI vote. Heck met with Asian business owners and appeared in Korean and Chinese publications, while Cortez Masto ran ads on the Filipino television station and in the Asian Journal and Chinese Daily News.
In fact, at one point, Cortez Masto’s campaign identified that they were actually behind with voters in the AAPI community and ramped up efforts there, including polling within the community to identify key issues important to voters. When they found that birth control and women’s issues were top of mind, they focused their messaging efforts there.
The question for candidates in 2018 is which way the AAPI vote will swing this year, and Republicans and Democrats feel like they both have a shot. In 2016, 69 percent of AAPI voters in Nevada voted for Clinton while 29 percent chose Trump, according to an exit poll by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
For her part, Rosen has focused on AAPI outreach both in her official office, hiring a representative to specifically focus on the community, and in her campaign. But Heller has been a strong supporter of Filipino and Filipino-American veterans, working with Democratic U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii to pass a law recognizing the dedication of those who served in World War II.
“Folks from the establishment ... need to be aware that the Asian community is significant factor,” Nguyen said. “We are the margin of victory. We could swing the election either way.”
Cultivating a pipeline
The ultimate goal of all the civic engagement efforts within the AAPI community isn’t just to increase visibility for visibility’s sake, though. It’s to get members of the community elected to office, both on the right and the left.
“We’re playing the long game, so that two years from now, four years from now, six years from now, we have a good bench so that whenever somebody comes out and says, ‘Do you know someone of Asian descent who could run for regent, school board, is qualified to run for Assembly?’ We’ll say, ‘Great, we have a list of people who are plugged in, trained and understand the issues,'” said Nguyen, who, in addition to working with ACDC is involved with One APIA Nevada’s efforts as well.
Right now, there is one half-Asian Henderson city councilwoman, Gerri Schroder, and a handful of judges of Asian descent. Those involved with the AAPI community would like to see their representation increase in local government and at the Legislature and, eventually, in the state’s higher offices.
Louie said that many candidates don’t understand some of the things that are necessary to win an election, such as proving that you can raise money or already having an established base. Oftentimes, he said candidates aim too high when they run for office instead of starting small and working their way up.
“There are things you can do like run for city council and state Assembly and build on that — speaker of the Assembly, Senate — and then make a move for a statewide for a federal office,” Louie said. “[Candidates] don’t consult with the key influencers and it makes it very challenging for them to be a viable candidate, if you will.”
Louie supported Democrat Paul Nimsuwan in his bid for Assembly District 35 in June. Nimsuwan only lost the primary by about 227 votes to the Assembly caucus-backed candidate Michelle Gorelow.
“It really brought attention, like, we need to focus on this. We need representation,” Louie said. “We’re 10 percent of the population here. Lawyer, doctor, professional, whatever it may be, you need somebody in the county to consider, and now we have close to two years to plan it and vet the candidates.”
The Asian Chamber of Commerce’s PAC has the same goal in mind and is planning to hold a series of boot camps to teach people how to get more involved in politics. Vinuya said the chamber is already interviewing people who are interested in running for office and seeing where they stand on certain issues.
“That’s the one thing that we’re really trying to change,” Vinuya said. “We don’t have a single Asian in the state Assembly or state Senate. It’s important for us to establish good relationships with our leadership because these are people who make laws for us and they don’t know us. That’s our main priority.”