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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.


The 80-20 Initiative calls for aggressive federal efforts to combat workplace discrimination and for placing more Asian Americans in prominent policymaking roles, including Cabinet posts.

Woo says that wealthy Asian Americans, especially those in the Silicon Valley, are waiting to hear the organization's choice so they can make donations.

Many Asian Americans saw the Democratic convention last week as a chance to showcase Los Angeles' Asian American community, the largest in the nation. They also viewed the convention, where Asian Americans were more visible than ever before, as a time to put the 1996 fund-raising controversy behind them.

Because of the scandal, the Democratic National Committee had returned about $3 million in donations, raised mostly by John Huang, after it was suspected that the contributions were linked to foreign sources and thus illegal.

A number of figures connected to the controversy, including Los Angeles immigrant consultant Maria Hsia, who raised funds for Gore, have been convicted of or have admitted illegal activities. Hsia was convicted last March of five felony counts stemming from her role in a fund-raising luncheon that Gore attended at Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights.

Huang, a former executive with the Indonesian conglomerate owned by Riady family members, who are longtime friends of President Clinton, pleaded guilty to one felony charge of conspiring to violate federal election law.

The news coverage and televised hearings of the scandal, in which about a dozen figures of Asian descent were implicated, bewildered and angered the community. Especially troubling for Asian Americans was the suggestion that they would put foreign interests before those of the United States.

"What lesson was learned was that the fund-raising component of participating is only one way to become effective," said Maeley Tom, senior advisor to the California Democratic Party. "Asians [now] understand that they cannot rely on their ability to raise money."

Unlike most African Americans nationally and Latinos in California, who tend to vote for Democrats, Asian Americans have diffused their potential political voice because they are more inclined to vote on the basis of candidates and issues, regardless of party.

But after California's anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994 and congressional proposals to restrict the welfare benefits of noncitizens, the ranks of Asian Democrats have grown.

In last March's presidential primary election, a significant percentage of Republican Asian Americans in Los Angeles and Orange counties crossed over and voted Democratic, according to an exit poll by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

Voters Split Among Parties

The legal center's survey of 3,000 voters--1,200 of them Asians--in heavily Asian areas in the two counties showed that 45% of Asians identified themselves as Democrats, an increase of almost 10 percentage points from the 1996 election.

In the center's 1996 exit poll, 40% of Asian voters said they were Republicans, 36% said they were Democrats and 24% had other affiliations.

Most Japanese Americans are Democrats, while Koreans and Vietnamese are more likely to be Republicans. Chinese Americans are evenly split among the two major parties and independents.

The Asian American community still lacks a politician whose name has the recognition akin to that of Henry Cisneros, the former Clinton administration Cabinet member. But the ranks of politically prominent Asians have been growing in the past decade, and now include veterans Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, Rep. Bob Matsui of Sacramento, and Commerce Secretary Norman Mineta and newer faces such as Washington Gov. Gary Locke and Oregon Rep. David Wu. All are Democrats.

In Washington, one indication of a growing Asian American influence was felt during the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May, when Clinton attended two Asian American events on the same day.

That same week, Gore promised a summit of Asian American leaders that if elected, he would appoint an Asian American to his Cabinet.

What was seen and said that week did not go unnoticed among Asian American insiders who have spent years learning the ropes.

The most important lesson for Asians is to be "involved and be smart about it," said Hayashi. "The most important thing to do is to learn how the process works."

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