For the first time in their 150-year history in the United States, Asian Americans are forming a national civil rights organization that they hope will provide them with a unified voice and the meaningful political participation that has eluded people of Asian heritage.
The movement is designed to provide the country's fastest-growing group with political clout like that of well-established associations such as the NAACP, which guards the rights of African Americans, and the Anti-Defamation League, which is vigilant in defense of American Jews.
Formation of the National Asian Pacific American Network Council has been spurred by the campaign fund-raising controversy that has occupied center stage in national politics and the front pages of major newspapers since last fall.
"This crisis has given us huge momentum," Francey Lim Youngberg, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Institute, told community leaders in Los Angeles last week. "This is the year to do it."
In the past year, the relentless news coverage and political battling over the fund-raising scandal focused attention not only on central figures such as John Huang but also on the Asian community's long-standing frustration with its inability to secure political access and power.
The scandal erupted in 1996--a year that many had hoped would be a watershed for Asian Americans in politics.
The nation had a president who not only openly courted Asians but counted Asians among his circle of longtime friends.
Attractive Asian American candidates were running in local, state and national races. And California was on the cusp of adding a second Asian lawmaker to the state Legislature.
A nationwide voter registration drive enfranchised 75,000 new Asian American voters. And Asian Americans were stepping into prominent fund-raising roles, particularly for the Democratic Party.
"We were elated and excited," said former Monterey Park Mayor Lily Lee Chen. "We were saying, 'My gosh, we are on our way to real participation.' "
Instead, as the scandal enmeshed about a dozen figures of Asian descent, the community found itself bewildered and besieged. It felt stigmatized by the alleged impropriety and illegality of a relative few, especially the suggestion that some may have represented foreign interests.
But the community also came to realize some of its own needs and shortcomings:
* That meaningful political power requires sophisticated organization, an understanding of the system and not merely money;
* That the community needs the ability to respond in a swift, unified and forceful fashion when it comes under attack;
* That it needs to establish national leadership that commands the respect of the political establishment and can speak with authority.
"Asian Americans are starved for political representation, legitimate influence and empowerment," said Stewart Kwoh, president of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California. "We have long wanted to have a voice in how public policies are decided. Oftentimes, such important issues as immigration, education and welfare changes are being decided without Asian American participation."
This spring, during the height of the fund-raising controversy, prominent Asian American community leaders held a summit meeting in Washington, D.C. to plan the formation of a national council next May.
A task force representing seven Washington, D.C.-based organizations recently has been traversing the country, building grass-roots support.
Asian American community leaders have been talking about forming a national council for years. But the idea never got off the ground, in part because the community is so complex and fractious.
"It took a crisis like this one," said Youngberg, who serves on the task force.
To others, Asian Americans may appear to be a monolithic group. In reality, they are 10 million people tracing roots to dozens of ethnicities with many languages.
"Some of us are binational, some of us are third and fourth generation and some of us are immigrants," said Ron Wakabayashi, executive director of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission.
Wakabayashi, a third-generation Japanese American, says the complicated picture too often has been replaced by stereotypes. Particularly offensive to Asian Americans was a National Review magazine cover featuring a coolie-hatted, bucktoothed President Clinton with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in a Maoist uniform and Vice President Al Gore in a Buddhist monk's robe, holding a donation cup. Asian American groups condemned it as racist and sought an apology, but the magazine's management said the complaint had no merit.
Community outcry also was prompted by a comment from Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) referring to Huang's pay arrangement with the Democratic National Committee--"No raise money, no get bonus."
Fallout from the fund-raising controversy has engendered deep soul-searching and much debate in the community.