As population grows, so does Asian American influence
After being asked about the growing electoral clout of Vietnamese Americans in Northern Virginia, the excitement in Nguyen Dinh Thang's voice is palpable.
"A lot of Vietnamese Americans realize that this is a very important election. What we do [on Nov. 4] really matters," said Thang, executive director of Boat People SOS, a Falls Church-based nonprofit that assists Vietnamese refugees and immigrants in their transition to American life.
Up until recently, Thang and other groups tasked with turning out the Asian American vote had a tough time getting traction. Part of the challenge involved natural language and cultural barriers. Some was caused by a general distrust of the political system.
"Coming from a country where democracy was suppressed, it takes time to understand the [voting] process and for habits to form," said Thang. "It's also important to realize that we are a very new community, one that didn't exist until 1975. Many [Vietnamese Americans] didn't become naturalized citizens until very recently and many others are still waiting."
Similar stories can be told by Northern Virginians with ties to countries like China, India, Korea and the Philippines.
Much of the recent interest in Asian American voting habits can be traced to sheer numbers. In 1990, one in 12 Fairfax residents (8.5 percent) was of Asian or Pacific Islander descent. Last year, that figure mushroomed to one in six (15.9 percent), meaning more than 160,000 Asians now call Fairfax home.
Between 2000 and 2007, Loudoun County's Asian American community more than quadrupled, going from just over 9,000 residents eight years ago to nearly 38,000 last December. Statewide, the figure jumped from 3.7 percent in 2000 to 4.8 percent a year ago.
The group certainly played a critical role in getting Democrat Jim Webb elected to the U.S. Senate two years ago. With 76 percent of Asian American voters in his corner, Webb eked out a razor-thin victory over incumbent George Allen and tipped the balance in the Senate in favor of the Democrats.
Jeremy Mayer, a public policy professor at George Mason University, wouldn't be surprised to see Asian American voters make a similar impact next Tuesday.
"It's fair to say Asian American voters in Northern Virginia will exert tremendous influence in this election," said Mayer. "At the same time, this is not a monolithic group. What Korean Americans do is not what Vietnamese Americans is not what Indian Americans do."
That said, Mayer has seen at least one faint trend among Asian American voters over the past decade or so.
"If you look at the last four election cycles, most Asian Americans lean Democrat," said Mayer. "My sense is it's going to go that way again. Every time Sarah Palin says something about 'real America', it bothers a lot of Asian Americans. There's an undercurrent of white pride in that and it doesn't play well [among non-white voters]."
Veronica Li, a Chinese American from Vienna, is less concerned about campaign rhetoric than she is about taking the country in a positive direction.
"For me, it's more about the issues than Democrats or Republicans," said Li. "This election is going to have a big impact on my life, so it's my responsibility to know who the candidates are and what they stand for."
Li, a volunteer with the Chinese American Coalition to Get Out the Vote, is excited by the election-related buzz she has witnessed in the Chinese American community.
"There's a lot of energy, a lot of excitement," Li said. "This [presidential] race has gotten a lot of people hooked on the voting process and I think it will carry over [to future elections].
Li, who came to the U.S. as a teenager in 1967, said time spent away from China is a key factor in the voting habits of many recent immigrants.
"Politics for people from mainland China has always been dangerous and violent," she said. "We tend to shy away from it, but that changes once we familiarize ourselves with how things work [in the U.S.]"
According to Amado Uno, executive director of the Pacific Asian American Labor Alliance, there has been a dramatic shift in the attitudes and habits of Asian American voters recently.
"Our communities are starting to mature politically," said Uno, who attributes much of the change to a generation of young voters who eat, sleep and breathe politics. "We're absolutely seeing an uptick in activism and interest. And it's more than simply getting registered and going to the polls. It's also getting educated on the whole political process and its impact on their lives."
Part of the education process, Uno adds, is not aligning yourself too closely to one party or the other.
"The Asian American community is up for grabs, and that's a good thing," said Uno. "Asian Americans mirror Latinos in that there isn't a lot of party loyalty. For the most part, they're focusing on issues over party."