Historic election wins for Asian Americans

Mazie Hirono thanks supporters after winning the U.S. Senate, representing Hawaii.

By Bert Eljera

LAS VEGAS – In an election marked by several milestones, Asian Pacific Americans may have pulled off the most historic wins.

Hawaii sent its first female U.S. senator and New York elected the first Asian American member of the U.S. House of Representative.

Representative Mazie Hirono, a Democrat, became the first Asian-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate, beating Republican Linda Lingle, a former governor of Hawaii.

“Clearly the Senate needs more diversity,” Hirono said in a statement. “We don’t even have parity regarding women. We have a ways to go.”

She received support from EMILY’s List, a group that works to help pro-choice Democratic women get elected.

The group has grown from 400,000 just two years ago to nearly two million, according to spokeswoman Jess McIntosh.

“It’s two things,” McIntosh  told the San Jose Mercury News. “The Republican war on women woke a lot of women up who did not necessarily have politics on the front burner.

“I think anyone under 45 thought we were completely done debating birth control, and you can see what these awful comments on rape victims are doing to women. It doesn’t matter how they usually vote, they’re outraged. That has sparked a lot of interest in electoral politics that was not previously there,” McIntosh said.

In New York, Grace Meng became the first Asian-American woman from to be elected to the U.S. Congress.

A Democrat, Meng, 33,  is a Taiwanese American lawyer and a member of the New York State Assembly, representing the 22nd assembly district in Flushing, Queens, New York

She defeated Republican New York City Councilman Dan Halloran in a bruising contest, in which race and ethnicity loomed large.

“It’s very flattering,” said Meng, in an interview with the New York Daily News. “What’s impacted me personally is I’ve had a lot of younger girls – Asian and non-Asian – feel encouraged by this election. That is very touching for me.”

She said it became personal and centered on race at times during the campaign, but became cordial towards the end.

Hirono and Meng rode on a wave of Democratic preference by the Asian Pacific American community, which the 2010 census showed as the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States.

They voted in overwhelming numbers for President Obama, in part propelling him to victory over Republican rival Mitt Romney.

Exit polls indicated that at least 70 percent of Asian-American voters chose Obama, and a sign that they are increasingly leaning Democratic.

Two decades ago, Asian-Americans reported voting Republican by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, said UC Berkeley political scientist Taeku Lee.

“Issues drive Asian-American voting behavior,” said demographer Daniel Ichinose of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California. ” Asian-Americans care about health care reform. They care about comprehensive immigration reform. These are issues that the Democrats have done a better job of addressing.”

Asian Americans running for public office reflect this sentiment.

Hirono, a Buddhist and an immigrant, was endorsed by Democrat Daniel Inouye, who has been a member of Congress since 1959

“Since the moment she declared her candidacy, I have said that Mazie is the person Hawaii needs in the Senate,” Inouye said. “She is the bipartisan partner I need.”

In California, Asian Pacific Americans have become a strong voting block, and many have successfully ran for public office.

But nationwide, they are a smaller, largely overlooked share of the national electorate — just 3 percent — but that is quickly changing as the country’s demographics begin to look more like California’s.

One challenge for both parties has been Asian diversity in language, religion and socio-economics, with some ethnic groups more likely to favor one party over another.

According to the Mercury News, Lee’s survey found Vietnamese voter sentiment shifted toward Obama, though most still identify with the Republican Party. Filipinos shifted more toward Romney.

But two of the largest groups of Asian-American voters — Chinese Americans and Indian Americans — are now unmistakably Democratic.

In a sign of their growing political presence, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders this week won historic levels of political representation.

The California Legislature appeared to see its first Filipino lawmaker, Rob Bonta, an Alameda city councilman who was winning a close race against Democrat Abel Guillen, according to the latest voting results.

Riverside County’s Mark Takano will be the first gay Asian-American to serve in the House. Joining him will be the first Thai American, from Illinois.

In the Sacramento suburbs, Indian-American physician Ami Bera, a Democrat, was winning by 184 votes Friday against incumbent U.S. Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River.

If elected, Bera would be the third Indian-American in Congress, and the first from California since Imperial County’s Dalip Singh Saund in 1957.

Follow Bert Eljera on Twitter @vegaspinoy60 and on Facebook at facebook.com/BertEljera

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