Why moon cakes matter

October 19, 2006

Asian-American vote is growing in importance

By Timm Herdt
October 18, 2006

pictureAcouple weeks ago, there was a splash in the California political press after Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger offered his views on the relative cultural assimilation rates of Asians and Latinos. Although his remarks were in fact ill-informed, much was made about very little.What was more interesting was not what Schwarzenegger had to say, but where he said it: at a Moon Festival in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, in a visit designed to highlight legislation he had signed that will allow moon cakes, a traditional sweet cake served at such festivals, to conform with state food-safety regulations.


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The news about the moon cakes was the part that was well-reported in, among other Asian media, the People’s Daily Online.

The fact that Schwarzenegger attended a Moon Festival to sing the praises of moon cakes speaks loudly about a little-noted political reality in California: The Asian-American vote is important and becoming more so with each election cycle.

A study conducted during the 2004 election by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles found that the Asian vote is on the upswing, growing in four years from 8 percent to 9 percent of the total electorate in Los Angeles County and from 9 percent to 13 percent in Orange County.

In Los Angeles County, the actual number of Asian-American voters grew by 29 percent between the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. The study also found that there is room for more growth.

“There’s still work to be done to mobilize Asian Americans,” said researcher Daniel Ichinose.

Not surprisingly, the influence of this growing ethnic group is showing up not just in the voter rolls but also in the candidates seeking office. Two years ago, Republican Van Tran in Orange County become the first Vietnamese-American elected to the Legislature. This year, Democrats have three Asian Americans on their statewide slate: John Chiang for controller, and Judy Chu and Betty Yee for Board of Equalization.

Chiang and Yee are the children of immigrants, and make no mistake: Asian-American voters in California are immigrant voters. According to the study, more than 70 percent of the 272,000 Asian Americans who cast ballots in L.A. County in 2004 were foreign-born. About 40 percent had limited English proficiency.

Clearly, these are emerging voters who California politicians need to court.

Much has been written about the Latino vote and its influence on California elections. But here’s something to consider: Nov. 7, Latinos will account for about 15 percent of the statewide electorate. Asian Americans will be not far behind, at about 10 percent.

Why might the governor make a campaign-season appearance in Chinatown? The study showed that Chinese-American voters in Los Angeles County are as up-for-grabs as any pool of voters could be: 29 percent Democrats, 29 percent Republicans. A remarkable 40 percent decline to state a party affiliation.

How the Asian-American vote in California plays out this fall will be interesting to watch.

For one thing, the immigration issue is as delicate with these voters as it is for other immigrant groups. While there may be sympathy for slowing the tide of illegal immigration among a community of legal immigrants eager to see legal quotas expanded, all immigrants are suspicious of political rhetoric that sounds even vaguely unwelcoming.

“Latinos and Asians share some common concerns,” said Linda Trinh Vo, a University of California, Irvine, professor and author of the book, “Mobilizing the Asian American Community.”

Indeed, the exit survey of 4,300 Asian-American voters suggests that this group of immigrant voters broke largely as Latino voters did in 2004 — which is to say, Democratic. The exit poll showed that independent Asian-American voters in Southern California sided heavily with Democrat John Kerry and also substantially supported Proposition 72, which would have mandated large- and mid-sized employers to provide health insurance to workers.

Proposition 72 was opposed by the Republican Party and GOP elected officials statewide, but even among Asian Americans registered as Republicans, support for Proposition 72 was strong. From this, the study concludes: “Asian-American voters were likely to cross party lines to support an issue of importance to their communities.”

Obviously, such issues include many of far greater substance than the regulation of moon cakes. They include the opportunity issues of importance to all immigrants: education, healthcare, job opportunities, support for small business, access to college.

This is a large and growing voter group that’s up for grabs. The study’s conclusion offers this advice to California politicians and political parties: “Asian-American voters are less likely than other voters to be affiliated with a political party and rely heavily on issues to make decisions about which candidates ? to support.”

— Timm Herdt is chief of The Star’s state bureau. His e-mail address is therdt@VenturaCountyStar.com.

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