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More Asian-Americans Seeking Higher Political Office

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More Asian-Americans Seeking Higher Political Office


More Asian-Americans Seeking Higher Political Office

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From Hawaii to New York, more Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders launched congressional campaigns this year than ever before - 36. That's more than double the number from a record set just two years ago. NPR's Reema Khrais reports.

REEMA KHRAIS, BYLINE: Asian-Americans are the nation's fastest growing racial group. And this year, a record of 21 won their congressional primaries. Here are two of them.

DR. SYED TAJ: My name is Dr. Syed Taj. I was born in a state called Behar.

RICKY GILL: I'm Ricky Gill. I have an Asian-American background and immigrant story in my family. And I'm from the Central Valley.

KHRAIS: Taj and Gill reflect the mosaic of Asian-American candidates - some first-generation, others second. Many have roots to India and Japan and most, but not all, are Democrat.

REPRESENTATIVE JUDY CHU: It is so important to have people at the seat of the table where the decisions are being made that look like America.

KHRAIS: That's California Democrat Judy Chu, the first Chinese-American woman in Congress. She says trailblazers like herself have inspired others to seek national office.

CHU: Asian-Americans are finally seeing that it can be done. We are finally bearing fruit.

KHRAIS: Karthick Ramakrishnan is a political scientist at the University of California, Riverside. He says, true, more Asian-Americans are running for Congress, but...

KARTHICK RAMAKRISHNAN: Asian-American turnout tends to be among the lowest of any racial and ethnic group.

KHRAIS: That is changing, he says, just at a slower pace.

RAMAKRISHNAN: This is a group that is still trying to get its bearings and is increasingly wanting to get involved. And I think that is a perfect recipe for campaigns, party organizations and other groups to reach out to these populations.

KHRAIS: Ramakrishnan directs the National Asian American Survey. According to the poll of more than 3,000 Asian-American citizens, less than half are likely to vote this year. At an Asian grocery store in northern Virginia, some shoppers like Rutiwa Montri from Thailand told me voting is not an option.

RUTIWA MONTRI: I would like to do that, but we're just, you know, we're not American citizen.

KHRAIS: Asians recently surpassed Latinos as the largest group of new immigrants, and studies have shown that recent immigrants are slow to get involved in politics, which means poor turnout at the polls. Calvin Tren is a 30-year-old Vietnamese-American.

CALVIN TREN: I don't really care much about politics. I don't think it's going to change a lot whoever becomes president, so...

KHRAIS: Among those Asian-Americans who are planning to vote, most favor President Obama. But there are sharp variations within this incredibly diverse group. Almost 70 percent of Indian-Americans support Obama, while only 30 percent of Filipinos do, and a third of Asian-Americans are undecided. That's several times higher than the general population. Ramakrishnan says it'll take some time before we see some real shifts in their overall political participation.

RAMAKRISHNAN: In terms of having Asian-American participation go up in a very significant way, I think we have the example of the Latino community to look at it. For Latinos, it took a generation.

KHRAIS: But the eagerness of Asian-Americans to pursue office, he says, already reveals a lot about the political aspirations of the group. Mike Honda, a Japanese-American and California Democrat, has served more than a decade in Congress.

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE HONDA: We chose to be here. We're here to participate and to add, not to subtract and not to be a drag.

KHRAIS: Honda says it's only a matter of time before even more Asians become citizens, establish roots in the U.S. and claim a louder political voice. Reema Khrais, NPR News.

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