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Obama reaches out to Asian-American voters

  • Associated Press
    President Barack Obama speaks to the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies on Tuesday

President Barack Obama, born in Hawaii, raised in Indonesia and dubbed by some “the first Asian-American president,” looks to be embracing that label.

Consider the exclusive, $40,000-a-head San Francisco Bay Area fundraiser and business roundtable for Asian-American and Pacific Islander supporters held this month.

It was not only a chance for Team Obama to pick up a lot of cash, but it also provided an exclusive group of fewer than two-dozen Silicon Valley power players the opportunity to bend the president’s ear on key issues such as immigration, trade policy and education.

The Obama campaign’s ethnic-centered fundraiser in California puts a sharp focus on a key demographic expected to vote in record numbers in November.

Both Republican and Democratic campaigns are “trying to find a community of interest that might be moved — and one of the unturned stones has been the Asian community,” says Vincent Pan, executive director of the San Francisco group Chinese for Affirmative Action.

The diverse swath, also known as Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, includes large communities of Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese; as well as South Asians such as Indians and Pakistanis; and Pacific Islanders such as Polynesians, Samoans and Tongans.

Pan said Obama feels comfortable with outreach to those groups because the president has lived in Asia and the Pacific Islands. “He has a natural relationship with those communities. He understands the model: that we have a lot of strengths and we have a lot of needs, too.”

The political focus on the group — at 17.6 million about 5.6 percent of the country’s population — comes with recognition that it might be up for grabs this year, according to a May poll by the National Asian-American Coalition.

Faith Bautista, the organization’s president and CEO, said the poll showed that “Asian-Americans throughout the nation are probably close to equally divided as to who would make a better president between (Mitt) Romney and Obama.”

So “in key swing states such as Nevada and Virginia, the absence of effective campaigning directed at Asian-Americans could be fatal to the campaigns of the presidential candidates,” she said.

The ranks of Asian-Americans boomed 46 percent in the last decade, “faster than any other racial group nationwide, including Latinos,” according to the Asian-American Justice Center, which recently commissioned a poll of the electorate.

Their national survey of 1,100 Asian-Americans by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake in February found that a whopping 73 percent favored Obama, compared with just 29 percent for Romney.

And Democrats in recent months have ramped up outreach efforts considerably — led by Obama himself, whose White House initiative uses webcasts and high-profile Asian-American leaders to reach the group.

Miriam Yeung, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, said there’s growing recognition that Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders represent “a community of contrasts” with vastly different interests and socioeconomic backgrounds.

While the Asian “model minority” stereotype — affluent, educated and upwardly mobile — persists, Yeung said AAPI communities also include some of the poorest and most exploited immigrant workers in the country.

“To be cynical, we tend to get more attention when they’re seeking our political donations,” she said. “Many of us are saying, ’You’ll also be held accountable to our community between elections.’“

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