LOS ANGELES » Brutal, burning images inspired Sukhee Kang to jump into politics.
In 1992, as he watched televised footage of immigrant shops and dreams crumble to the ground during the Los Angeles riots, he knew he “had to do something – to make connections – to people, with people, across different groups.”
The father of two and owner of three shoe stores started simply. He raised money for scholarships. He signed up with the Korean American Coalition, pushing those like him to get involved in civic life and civil rights. He mobilized volunteers, helping torched Korean-American businesses rebuild.
Now Kang holds court as the mayor of Irvine, just named by Money magazine as one of the 10 best places to live in the U.S. Four years into his term, and after four years as councilman, he has a higher goal: national office.
This election season, Kang is among 17 Asians running for Congress in the U.S. – a historic number at a time when these candidates are among the fastest-growing ethnic group in America. Who they are and why they risk money and name speaks to a growing political confidence and a belief that their personal stories of assimilation resonate with voters.
“The political maturity of the community over many years has led us to this,” said Gloria Chan, president of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies. “This is the tipping point.”
Chan said she can feel the excitement in Asian communities, where she identifies a “deeper understanding of what it means to run and how we can support each other.”
Of the 17 races, six are in California, where the U.S. Census shows Asians now make up nearly 14 percent of the population. Nationwide, Asians surpassed Latinos as the largest wave of new immigrants, pushing their total to a record 18.2 million, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center.
In states, in counties, in cities at the grass-roots level, men, women and young people are seeing that “this can be done. That winning as an Asian is possible, especially if you can build a base of support through local office,” said Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., the first Chinese-American woman elected to Congress.
Asian candidates have a string of success stories in Congress to build on: Joseph Cao, the first Vietnamese-American elected, represented Louisiana from 2009 to 2011, and Hansen Clarke of Michigan is the first elected Congress member of Bangladeshi and African-American heritage.
In November, Charles Djou will be the first candidate of Thai and Chinese descent, running as a Republican in Hawaii. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat, is the first Thai and Chinese-American, mounting a challenge as a Democrat in Illinois. Chu describes Duckworth’s story as “so compelling” that voters will find her easy to remember.
Duckworth, a captain in the National Guard who piloted Black Hawk helicopters, became one of the first women to fly combat missions in Iraq. On Nov. 12, 2004, a rocket-propelled grenade hit her aircraft. She lost both legs and part of the use of her right arm in the explosion and was awarded the Purple Heart.
Personal stories, indeed, separate one competitor from another.
“We’ve moved away from teaching the nuts and bolts of politics. Our focus is shifting perception of oneself as a leader. We want to boost people’s confidence in telling the personal story and how to connect that story with issues your constituents may face,” Chan said.
She and co-workers regularly stage a national leadership academy in May, during Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. This year’s class turned into its largest, attracting more than 100 participants. The group also created regional academies designed for elected and appointed officials, including one in Kang’s home base of Irvine.
“I look very enviously at all these internship programs for young people because when I was growing up, it wasn’t available,” added Chu, who chairs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. “It took a long time for me to get to this point, and that’s through a lot of trial and error.”
Her political resume dates to 1988, when she stumped for a seat on the Monterey Park City Council, her campaign ignited by a campaign pushing for English-only signs in the city and English-only books in the libraries. “We were so shocked we got thousands to sign our petition to defeat it. . And we took it to the next step to have a voice.”
Toby Chaudhuri, a political consultant, says success requires a strong base, similar to Kang’s foothold in Irvine.
“Here is a chance to define a young new century,” he said. “These Asian candidates can take charge of the conversation about what is America.”
Such candidates said they felt energized by President Barack Obama’s barrier-breaking victory.
“The real rise, the gain in political sophistication, in strength, these didn’t exist before,” Chaudhuri, of Tobiko Strategies, said. Asian candidates “not only need to engage voters in their district, they need to avoid letting opponents use their race or ethnicity to their advantage.”
Ami Bera, the child of Indian immigrants and the former chief medical officer for Sacramento County, calls the record number of candidates “a natural progression.” In public – in his rematch with Republican Dan Lungren, ranked the most competitive seat in California by the National Journal – Bera says he “always starts with my personal story and my values.”
He says his platform of “building for the middle class” will perform favorably against the failures of the current Congress, which “rewards millionaires.” “I think we’ll see a historic number of Asian Americans elected this year.”
As for Kang, whose opponent is Republican John Campbell, part of the test is challenging someone with such commanding name recognition.
Kang, who moved to the U.S. from Korea as a newlywed, said, “This country gives us a chance to raise good families, to learn core values and to perform.” With his background as a manager for Circuit City for 15 years, before switching to selling shoes, he often sees voters as customers.
“My job is to satisfy customers.”