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Asian Americans Face Unique Odds When Running for Office

Despite challenges, candidates from immigrant group have found success in American politics, especially in California, which is home to about one-third of the nation’s Asian Americans.

Asian Americans have been described as the “Next Sleeping Giant” in American politics. The Asian American electorate is projected to double in the next 25 years, as the overall Asian population expands by 74 percent. The western state of California is home to about one-third of the nation’s Asian Americans, and some of them have chosen a political career, including immigrants who have become U.S. citizens. But these candidates have learned that running for office poses some unique challenges.

“First of all I’ve a different color face,” said Sukhee Kang, former City Council member and mayor of Irvine, California. California state assembly member, Ling Ling Chang, describes going door-to-door asking for support and encountering a woman who said she would "never, ever vote for an Oriental."

But despite these challenges, immigrant candidates, such as Chang and Kang, have found success in American politics, especially in California. Kang immigrated to the United States from South Korea when he was 23 years old. He is a Democrat running for a seat in the California State Senate. Chang, an immigrant from Taiwan and a Republican, is also running for the same Senate seat. Chang came to the United States when she was three years old.

Dealing with stereotypes

“There are some stereotypes that you have to defeat,” said Chang. But she found that persistence and talking with constituents helps break down stereotypes and win elections. “I always believe that there’s an opportunity to change people’s hearts and minds if you just engage,” said Chang.

Kang has also found that engaging with constituents works. “I started walking door to door, knocking on doors, course, many times I was shut down because of my face and other party affiliations, whatever, but I kept on knocking on doors and by the time the election happened, I ended up walking to about 20,000 homes,” said Kang.

Kang and Chang are a part of a growing trend of immigrant candidates who are running for office and winning elections at the local and state levels in California.

“We’re still in the relatively early stages of seeing how the recent influx of Hispanic American and Asian American immigrants, are beginning to move from economic, taking advantage of economic and cultural opportunities to now beginning to take advantage of political opportunities as well,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

Kang said what’s happening in California is a precursor for what the rest of the United States could look like in years to come.

”Asian Americans are the fastest growing community in the nation in terms of economic, social and also politically. So we need to really capitalize, said Kang. "We are just about to take off to the next level and this is what we can use, the model that we have done in California and spread out to the other states,” Kang added.

Politics: an unexpected career

Kang and Chang said they never expected to pursue a career in politics, but felt it was a way to make a difference in their communities.

“First generation Korean American coming to America and becoming the mayor of a major city, I see that as power," Kang said. "There’s a possibility this great country is giving to all of us."

Chang said it is important to remind Asian American families to be engaged, "because you can’t change anything unless you engage,"

When asked about the woman who told Chang she would never vote for an Oriental, Chang remembered the outcome fondly. “Somehow we ended up bonding over the fact that we own the same shotgun.”

Chang ended up winning her vote.