New York City native Michelle Au is running for Georgia state senator as a Democrat in November, a move that might seem counter-intuitive for the daughter of Hong Kong-born parents in a conservative state with a long history of racism and voter suppression.
Her Republican opponent, real estate lawyer Matt Reeves, has accused Au of being “out of touch and mocking Georgia” and prejudiced against white people – even though she’s married to one.
But Au sees change working in her favour. The suburban Atlanta district she’s contesting has seen a large influx of immigrants. And as a woman, a member of a minority group and a doctor, she believes her candidacy dovetails with America’s shifting mood, growing diversity and focus on health care.
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“People I meet say, ‘You’re not what I thought a candidate should look like,’” she said. “The things I’ve heard in running, with people suspicious of my being an Asian minority even though I was born here. That’s part of why I’m running, to show that we all belong here.”
Au, 42, is part of an increasingly motivated, politically confident Chinese-American – and broader Asian-American – community keen to move beyond traditional strongholds in New York and California and bit parts as wealthy donors.
“In the past, when we had a national voice, it was as an ATM machine.” said David Ho, a San Francisco-based political consultant born in Macau. “People came to Chinatown for money,” leading to dollars-for-influence scandals in the 1990s involving president Bill Clinton and alleged Chinese donors, he added.
In their bid for greater political traction, Asian-Americans are making progress. They currently hold 20 seats in Congress, up 40 per cent from a decade ago, and saw their first serious presidential candidate this election cycle in Andrew Yang and first vice-presidential nominee in Kamala Harris, who is of Indian and Jamaican descent.
They are also the fastest-growing US immigrant population, led by Chinese-Americans. And they voted in record numbers in 2018, expect a repeat this year and are positioned to play a key role in several swing states.
“There’s a real opportunity here,” said Christine Chen, executive director of Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) Vote. “Asian-Americans are set to be the margin of victory in Arizona, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.” And Georgia.
That has left them grappling with a bigger challenge: how to turn their relatively small numbers and enthusiasm – driven in part by anger over racial targeting and opposition to President Donald Trump’s “Chinese flu” and “kung flu” sleights – into a sustained movement able to blunt discrimination, improve services and pass favourable legislation.
More than 2,100 anti-Asian-American hate incidents related to Covid-19 were reported nationwide between March and June, according to the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council and Chinese for Affirmative Action.
And a survey released in mid-September by a coalition of Asian-American civic groups including AAPIData found that 54 per cent favoured Democratic nominee Joe Biden compared with 30 per cent for Trump, with concern over racism and health care cited as key factors.
“This is a Trump referendum election,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of political science at the University of California-Riverside and AAPIData founder.
A model, Asian-American leaders say, is the minority American Jewish community, which punches well above its weight in mainstream politics. Jews are around 2 per cent of the US population, compared with 1.5 per cent for Chinese-Americans and 5 per cent for Asian-Americans overall.
One problem: Asian-Americans lack a unifying issue amid huge differences over Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist Party, first-generation non-English speakers and fourth-generation Americans who know little about Asia.
And that’s before considering voters of Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese and Filipino descent.
“Jewish Americans have done a phenomenal job because they have a focus on Israel, a focus for policy and non-profits,” said Phil Yu-Li Ting, a Democratic California assemblyman representing San Francisco.
Asian-Americans are also relatively new to the game, with many immigrants more worried about meeting their basic needs than politics, social issues or philanthropy.
And Asian cultures often have different views about public service, challenging authority and giving money to a cause that doesn’t bring personal benefit, said Nancy Yao Maasbach, president of New York’s Museum of Chinese in America.
“It’s the antithesis of Confucian ideology. You first focus on the family,” she said. “Often the thinking is, I’ll give US$2 million to [the University of Southern California], but only if you let my kid in. People are in jail for that.”
Asian-Americans say they are rarely contacted by political parties – in part because many recent immigrants don’t speak English and because the community is still viewed as “other”.
Another impediment: many Chinese-Americans don’t declare a political party affiliation when registering to vote, which dampens efforts to contact them. Driving this is fear of attracting trouble, given their experience in China’s one-party state, relative to South Asian immigrants far more steeped in democracy, say community leaders.
“Most who grew up anywhere close to the Cultural Revolution will never give you a party affiliation,” said Vincent Pan, Chinese for Affirmative Action’s co-executive director.
Despite the hurdles, however, political leaders see a promising path forward.
“We have to have a long game,” said Au, taking a break from campaigning. “Once you realise this is a long process, done piece by piece, it makes it much more easy to contribute on your own stage, to know you’re not first and you won’t be the last.”
One way is to maximise leverage by joining forces with other minorities on issues of common concern, something recent Chinese immigrants tend to resist.
“Some get it that we can’t go it alone, that it only weakens our voice,” said Janelle Wong, a University of Maryland professor of political science who tracks voting patterns. “People who’ve been here 20 years are starting to understand the political system.”
The community also needs to consolidate its blizzard of small political groups with dizzying acronyms into a few large umbrella organizations behind a trusted, nationally recognised leader to better fight their corner, especially given the likelihood of protracted US-China tension ahead, others said.
“Are there candidates who will stand up and say that we need to distinguish between China and the Chinese-American community?” said Lanhee Chen, a Stanford University fellow and policy director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid. “We’ll also have to see how the relationship works out with China moving forward.”
Some, like Cliff Zhonggang Li, a board member with civic group United Chinese Americans, sees greater unity happening within a decade as the community climbs the political learning curve.
“I see this coming together in one or two election cycles,” said Li, who founded a Republican political group that saw one of its fundraisers promote administration access for a price. Li said that he didn’t know about the fundraiser’s separate activities and that the controversy was fanned by political opponents and ultimately denigrated Asian-Americans.
“Community leaders are getting better and better, smarter, more effective, more result driven. In the past, it was more like a country club.”
In Georgia, which is among the least healthy US states, Au is focusing her campaign on health care, education, diversity and public transportation as she juggles three children and private practice as an anaesthesiologist. This year, she is one of 158 Asian-Americans vying for state legislative seats, up from 139 in 2018.
“We are not the frontline in this battle. We as healthcare workers stand in the back. We’re the LAST line of defense. The frontline of this epidemic is YOU, the people in the community, tasked with the challenge of keeping each other safe.” pic.twitter.com/2INJja1iAn
— Dr. Michelle Au (@AuforGA) March 23, 2020
Reeves, her opponent for the 48th District seat, is a strong supporter of Trump, lower taxes, smaller government and term limits; he also has an “A” rating from the powerful pro-gun lobbying group the National Rifle Association. (Au has an “F”.)
In mid-September, with the race heating up, Reeves released a 212-page opposition research report on his website titled “The Real Michelle Au”, a jumble of property records, fishing licences and Au’s social media postings about patients, current events and politicians going back 20 years.
The report accuses Au of ageism, “oversharing”, prejudice, dining “at elite restaurants” and not getting her driving licence “until age 31”, among others.
Reeves did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
“As a physician on the front lines of the Covid-19 crisis, I’ve seen first-hand the loss of lives caused by these types of Trumpian distraction tactics,” Au said. “My opponent just showed he is more part of the problem than the solution.”
Elizabeth Ernst, an Au aide, said Republican efforts to suppress voting were a significant concern, as is underlying racism. “Unfortunately, whenever you have a woman of colour running, you see a lot more of that no matter what,” she added.
Au, the daughter of physicians who emigrated from Hong Kong in the 1960s, grew up in Manhattan and attended public high school, Wellesley College and medical school at Columbia University. In typical immigrant fashion, the family focused on studying hard, not politics, even as she made friends at school and absorbed their social consciousness.
“The second generation, it’s obviously an interesting position,” she said. “You have a foot in both camps.”
After medical school, she got a second degree in public health that opened her eyes to health care as it relates to poverty, education and housing, she said, before moving to Georgia in 2008 with her husband, also a doctor.
She announced her candidacy in November after months of research on the electorate, although she had been considering the idea for years. “It’s an extension of the Hippocratic Oath, do no harm. You’ve got to step up and try to fix it,” she said.
Au said there has been a reckoning recently among Asian-Americans, a group that has been discounted politically but took solace in being the “honorary white minority” that studied hard and succeeded.
But the pandemic has laid bare that fallacy, she said. The so-called special status that Asian Americans enjoyed largely melted away as society tarred them as “other” and carriers of a “Chinese virus” based on racial profiling, an absurd notion, she added. “Covid-19 showed that our provisional status was a bit of a mirage,” Au said.
“When you see the leader of the entire country so casual with shocking racist tropes to take the heat off himself, it subjects everyone who’s Asian-American to this,” she said. “People are much more involved in the political process now; I think they need to be. Even people before who watched and were quiet now feel the need to step up.”
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This article Asian-Americans grow louder in their bid for a political voice first appeared on South China Morning Post