Power and Politics - I am Not the Yellow Peril

The life and times of an Asian American activist who tells all the truth (and dishes news and analysis) but with a leftwards slant.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Asian American investment - Obama v Clinton

Jeff Chang wrote a good analysis of the APA and Latino vote in California, with the central premise being that:
The reason Hillary won is because the Latino and Asian American votes remain emergent, not yet insurgent.
Here's my analysis: early on, Clinton had the name, the money, the institutional backing, and the power. She hired the top staffers, the most connected ones who have a deep understanding of the APIA community. She was the front runner from day one.

Our community is cautious - one of the reasons that is provided as a reason for us not voting, not being politically active is that we are cautious and that we like to be with the winner. Well, for a long time and especially during the crucial stretch this summer when endorsements were racking up, it sure looked like Clinton was going to win. And for many, Obama is an untested political entity without a national profile.

Our community knows Clinton, likes Clinton. Well, at least Bill. But Hillary is known. And she has developed and raised some of the APA political talent that is now considered part of an older generation of leaders. People like Chung Seto, who was mentioned in the stupid Chinatown donor stories. And the Bill Clinton administration had a record number of APA appointees. This can't be denied. As I've said before, the leaders of our national organizations last had real power (even if it was only a tiny crumb) during the Clinton administration, so they are naturally inclined to go back there. And turn out their machines/nonprofits/organizations to get there.

This isn't to say that all the national APA leaders or even former Clinton appointees are behind Hillary. For example, Norm Mineta, who is the highest ranking Asian American appointee ever (Secretary of Transportation - no, I don't count Elaine Chao, she's dead to me) is endorsing Obama. But whatever institutions we have, were built and begun during the Clinton administration, except for OCA and JACL.

Our parents' generation is used to and familiar with Clinton. They're used to reading her name in the Filipino, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, what have you newspapers.

Moreover, as Zuky points out, she hired a large number of APIA staff at high levels. I've written about APIAs in the campaigns before. She also has a specific staff person for APIA press - the guy who did the same job for John Kerry. Smart investment, and one that has already paid off. (No, I don't mean that in a sarcastic fashion. Because you get someone who has name recognition and relationships with APA ethnic media, English language and otherwise.) And she has their counterparts in the Latino community - the folks who are well respected and have deep connections, the ones who worked the Kerry campaign last name. She has the NAME staffers.

So far as I know, Obama does not have a dedicated APA press staffer, which means that he is only hitting the English language press. Which means he's definitely losing the older APA vote, since many of them refer to the ethnic papers first, before the paper of record.

Let me go back to what it means to have APIA staff. It buys you authenticity and credibility. If you go to an Asian American fundraiser and your staffer (APA or not) isn't versed in the nuances of different communities, boy you are going to touch off a shitstorm. More importantly, if you don't have Asian Americans on staff who know the different communities, you might easily mistake a Lopez in one precinct for Latino who is actually Filipino, and phonebank in Spanish versus Tagalog. Or a Lee for a white or black person. Or even a Chinese Lee for a Hmong Lee, and send out the wrong language mailer (if indeed you are sending out such targeted in language mailers.)

This would REALLY piss people off. Of course, I'm not saying that the Obama campaign necessarily made any of these mistakes. But it is incredibly faulty to assume that the APIA vote is monolithic, and you almost have to have Korean Americans, Chinese Americans, Indian Americans, Filipino Americans, Vietnamese Americans, etc working for your campaign who know and understand these things.

Because it's too late to realize after the votes are counted that you didn't reach a whole community because you didn't have any organizers who could speak their language. And it's fantastic to have a bunch of young volunteers from different communities creating new ways of reaching out to our communities, but there is something to be said for hiring the staff who already know how to outreach, and not depending on the fluctuating volunteer pool.

There's more reasons than this why Clinton out-organized Obama on the APA vote (did I mention that we like to play it safe?) And that especially if you immigrated or got your citizenship in the last 15 years, especially if it was under the Clinton era, that's the name you read and know and feel like you owe?

We're cautious because we're at the precipice of breaking out - we feel like we should play it safe until our community is more fully established, until we don't draw negative attention. Many of our elders in the generations preceding have tried to use that tactic before, and failed.

Because the one way to fight back against scrapegoating is to call it what it is, and to loudly shame the instigator. And I will say that many of my progressive South Asian American friends were NOT happy with Obama's "Clinton (D-Punjabi)" press release. I wasn't happy with it. Who knows, maybe if Obama had an APA press staffer, they might have flagged that as a huge mistake. Too late, damage done.

Clinton on the other hand stuck by the APIA community when Chinatown donorgate was erupting, which means that she's learned from before. And then it became a non-issue. If she had scrapegoated us, it would have become MORE of an issue because the press would have been collecting scalps.

And if you are training and investing in talent, you need to do the same for the APIA youth and the APIA community - think of it as growing organizers. It's not enough to have a half sister, you've got to do the work on the ground. In the communities. And no, the organizers do not always have to look like the people that they organize, but there's a difference between a 1.5 minute voter contact and a sustained organizing drive. Initial appearances matter, and initial barriers matter. And you cannot buy the depth of the connections that some of Clinton's staff people have, like Karen Hicks in New Hampshire. You can train staff to learn how to distinguish amongst different voting pockets in APA precincts, but it won't always be at the top of their mind.

But I'll also tell you something else. Not all the elders support Clinton, not all of them trust her. Plenty of normally apolitical or even Republican people across the generations have told me that they feel compelled to support Obama because he represents change. Because they don't trust Hillary. Because they think she will lead the country down an even more divided path. And a few of these people have even voted for their first Democratic candidate. Pretty heady stuff.

And lastly, Hillary - you are NOT the insurgent candidate. You will never be, and you can't be. If you are doing poorly, it's because you're losing or worse - drawing even. Don't try to out gumby Romster, it's just not dignified. (Also, bye bye Romney.)

Hmm, final final word - color me unimpressed with the Yes We Can video. I think it speaks to a demographic that Obama already has locked up - the youth vote. I'm not so far away from it, but I can't see the appeal. And our parents definitely can't see the appeal in it. Trust me. Scarlett Johanssen might as well be Sports Illustrated pinup #2037. Right now Obama needs to do something to win the 40-50, if not the 50-60 year old groups.



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