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Group Seeks to Boost Profile of Asian American Voters

Politics: The nonpartisan 80-20 Initiative is holding its convention here as part of campaign to be heard on U.S. policy.


Now that the Democrats have shouted their final convention hurrah at Staples Center, another political gathering--much smaller but significant--is coming to town.

Thirty-three Asian American delegates from across the country, representing Democrats, Republicans and independents, will decide Sunday whether George W. Bush or Al Gore best represents the aspirations of the Asian American community, 11 million strong nationwide, 4 million in California and 1.5 million in the Los Angeles area.

Then the 80-20 Initiative, whose members include former UC Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien, will urge Asian Americans to donate money to and vote for the candidate it endorses.

The group's model is the Jewish American community, half the size of the Asian American population, but wielding considerable influence on U.S. domestic and foreign policy. One way to emulate the Jewish community, members of the 80-20 Initiative believe, is by getting at least 80% of Asian Americans to vote as a bloc.

Achieving that will not be easy. It will require bringing together voters who not only split their votes among Democrats, Republicans and independents, but also are from 30 distinct ethnic groups separated by language, culture and, for some, historical enmity of their ancestral nations.

Asian Americans range from fifth-generation Chinese and Japanese Americans to Southeast Asian refugees and burgeoning populations of Filipinos, Koreans and Indo-Americans. Each ethnic group is too small by itself to make a difference politically. What they all have in common is an eagerness for political recognition that has eluded them despite their individual successes in academia, business and professions.

"The notion of pan-Asian community is still a work in progress," said Dennis Hayashi, director of the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, who previously served in the Clinton administration. "We have to work through some of these [challenges] together."

One such challenge for the community has been Japan's crimes against its Asian neighbors during World War II--old baggage that still affects Asian Americans. Last year, Assemblyman Mike Honda (D-San Jose) sponsored a resolution urging Japan to apologize for its wartime atrocities. The Legislature easily passed the nonbinding resolution.

Honda, who is running for Congress this year, may have alienated some of his Japanese American supporters. But he also won many friends among Chinese, Korean, Filipino and other Asian Americans whose ancestral countries suffered under Japanese imperialism. Since taking a stand, Honda has emerged as a leader who represents the broader interests of Asian Americans.

Some Asian Americans are still smarting from the beating they took during the 1996 Democratic fund-raising scandal, when the image of the entire community was tarnished by the improper and illegal actions of a few.

During the 1996 campaign, Asian Americans had thought that writing a check to a politician was the way to gain influence. Now, they say, "smart giving" to specific candidates is more effective.

"We are learning from our painful experience [of 1996], and we are growing," said former Monterey Park Mayor Lily Lee Chen, a delegate to the 80-20 Initiative.

Asian Americans are meeting other challenges head-on by conducting vigorous naturalization and voter registration drives. They are also recruiting and supporting viable office-seekers at the local, state and national levels.

As a rallying call, community leaders underscore that Asian Americans, who make up 6% of California's registered voters, could help decide the state's presidential race in a close election. Nearly 40% of the Asian Americans in the country live in California.

The 80-20 Initiative is relying on electronic messaging to get its word out. The group can already send e-mail to more than 300,000 supporters, and by November 2001, it anticipates being able to communicate with 1 million Asian Americans online.

That e-mail reach was demonstrated recently when the group put out a notice seeking Asian American actors for 30-second TV spots. Within 24 hours, 60 actors and producers had responded.

Former Delaware Lt. Gov. S.B. Woo and Tien are among the leaders of the 80-20 Initiative, which is a nonpartisan political action committee. It was put together two years ago in reaction to the frustration that Asian Americans felt over the fund-raising scandal.

The organization's 33 delegates, nominated by 60 founding 80-20 members, were elected online by group supporters. Representatives of the Democratic and Republican national committees are scheduled to appear Saturday at the 80-20 convention at the Universal City Hilton.

The representatives will be questioned on what each party has done to improve the status of Asians in the United States.

"We want to squeeze the political establishment as much as possible," said Woo, a physics professor at the University of Delaware.

Seeking to Combat Bias

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