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Drive-By Victims of DNC Greed

March 16, 1997|Don T. Nakanishi | Don T. Nakanishi, a political scientist, is director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and a professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies

The November 1996 elections were supposed to be the defining moment for Asian Pacific Americans in electoral politics. They were to be a celebration of a successful nationwide voter-registration campaign that enfranchised thousands of new voters. In California, where 3 million Asian Pacific Americans represent one in 10 residents, the thought that the state's electorate might someday reflect this demographic profile no longer seemed farfetched.

Campaign fund-raising records were expected to be set by both Democrats and Republicans as they traveled along an increasingly lucrative circuit to mine the gold mountains of Asian America. Indeed, it seemed like only yesterday, when I first began my studies on Asian Pacific American politics in the early 1970s, that an elder in the Japanese American community took enormous pride in telling me that he had just convinced nine other Japanese American Republicans to join him in purchasing a table for 10, at $100 each, for a Richard M. Nixon fund-raiser. In July of last year, by comparison, nearly 1,000 Asian Pacific Americans paid $1,000 each to attend a Century City gala for Bill Clinton. The event raised almost a million dollars.

And, maybe this time around, the president, in assembling a Cabinet that "looks like America," would appoint at least one Asian Pacific American. Berkeley Chancellor Chang-lin Tien and former Rep. Norman Y. Mineta were prominently mentioned as serious contenders.

That's how the story was supposed to go. But recent events have followed a far different script. Allegations of "illegal" or questionable foreign campaign contributions solicited by some Asian Pacific Americans, disclosed in several seemingly sensational newspaper articles and editorials and by Bob Dole and Ross Perot during the final days of the presidential campaign, have not disappeared. Indeed, they dominate Washington politics today. The center stage of Asian Pacific American politics that was to have been occupied by the confirmation hearings of Mineta or Tien will now showcase campaign-finance hearings involving John Huang, Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie and Johnny Chien Chuen Chung.

It's the kind of attention that is neither flattering nor desirable. Asian Pacific Americans, in and out of the Beltway, are angry and frustrated at the way in which, until recently, they have been the almost exclusive targets of questionable fund-raising allegations. A national coalition of civil rights and community groups, led by the Japanese American Citizens League and the Organization of Chinese Americans, has been formed to prevent the Asian Pacific American community from "becoming the drive-by victims of the DNC fund-raising controversy." They believe "our whole community [is being stereotyped] as suspect and foreign."

But the anger and frustration do not end there. Increasingly, Asian Pacific Americans openly criticize the Democratic National Committee and the White House for their virtual public silence on Asian Pacific Americans and campaign fund-raising--political expediency at the expense of Asian Pacific Americans. Instead of defending the right of the Asian Pacific Americans to participate in the electoral process, the DNC has abandoned them in the face of intense media scrutiny and GOP attacks. In addition, the DNC's internal accountants identified and audited only Asian-surname contributors on their citizenship status. Bob Sakaniwa, the Washington representative for the Japanese American Citizens League, noted that if Connie Chung had given money to the DNC, she would not have been audited; however, if she had identified herself as "C. Chung," it is likely she would have been among the many who were interrogated out of the blue.

Finally, there is growing dismay toward Huang, Trie and other Asian Pacific Americans linked to questionable campaign contributions. The Asian Pacific Americans for Campaign Finance Reform, for example, believe that Huang and others took advantage of the hard-earned reputations of Asian Pacific Americans and used them to benefit foreign interests rather than those of the Asian Pacific American community.

Many have speculated that the fund-raising scandal will have a "chilling effect" on Asian Pacific American political participation. This episode revives the long-standing issue of whether America will ever truly accept Asian Pacific Americans as Americans rather than foreigners. The way in which certain instances of questionable campaign fund-raising has played out in the media and in politics has not been colorblind. Indeed, it recalls the frenzied internment of Japanese Americans (not Italian and German Americans) during World War II.

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