Asian Americans edging into the political arena

Hang Tran is doing what newbie city council members do: meeting with the mayor, listening to residents’ concerns. She’s also talking about translating city notices into Vietnamese and other languages.

This week, Tran takes a seat on the Morrow City Council in Clayton County. It’s a big step for the 27-year-old native of Vietnam. Some say it’s a big step for the Asian-American community in metro Atlanta.

Asian-Americans, whose countries of origin cover a huge swath of the globe, are among the fastest-growing populations in Georgia. Their numbers grew by 82 percent from 2000 to 2010, reaching more than 300,000, according to the U.S. Census. In Morrow, 26 percent of residents have Asian ancestry.

For years, Georgians with roots in Korea, India, China, Japan, Vietnam and a host of other countries have been a significant force in businesses, schools and churches, but hardly at all in local politics. But in the last election cycle, five Asian candidates ran for local offices in metro Atlanta.

Two of them won, including Tran.

Five candidates may not sound like many, but previous election cycles typically saw just one or two, said Helen Ho, executive director of the Asian-American Legal Advocacy Center of Georgia.

“I kind of feel the snowball is finally getting bigger,” said Ho, whose organization is working to get Asian-Americans to vote. “There seems to be some momentum.”

Mustering five candidates in one election cycle is significant, said Robert Grafstein, a University of Georgia political science professor. “Given their long history of largely not being involved in politics, this is a big change.”

It also reflects a national trend of engagement for a population gradually expanding its influence into the political realm, Grafstein said. “At some point you don’t want to donate to someone else’s campaign, you want to exercise power more directly.”

Tran, who works as a chemist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the absence of Asian-Americans in local government motivated her to run. “I just thought there wasn’t enough representation,” she said.

This year, the name of Eugene Chin Yu, an Augusta businessman of Korean ancestry, will appear on the statewide ballot among candidates for Georgia’s open U.S. Senate seat.

Still, conversations with a half dozen Asian-Americans reveals a wide spectrum of political engagement — well short of a definitive groundswell. And even community leaders acknowledge the challenges of mobilizing a group that includes many disparate cultures and languages, as well as, among some immigrants, a fear of government instilled by repressive regimes in their countries of origin.

Daewon Hwang said his Korean church congregation in Cumming is a blank slate when it comes to political interest.

The reason? “The language problem,” the pastor said as he shopped in a Korean supermarket in Duluth, where 22 percent of residents are Asian-American.

Down the road in a Chinese supermarket, Yanfeng Li said he sees stirrings of engagement: websites that express political views, even some calls for candidates.

Edward Chu, an interpreter who lives in Lilburn, votes, but does not take an active interest in local politics. He’d like to see someone from the Chinese community elected to local office, but he would not support a candidate simply because of his or her heritage.

“I’d have to agree with them,” he said.

Behind the scenes, there’s a push under way to nudge Asian-Americans toward the voting booth.

Asian-American groups have canvassed door-to-door to register voters, made robo-calls before elections and brought in candidates for forums and dinners. For this year’s elections, they are targeting high-concentration areas such as Norcross, Clarkston, Duluth, Lawrenceville and John’s Creek.

Ho’s group has created a statewide database of Asian-Americans and other immigrants to track who is registered and who has voted. According to the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, the number of Asian-Americans who are active voters grew by about 10,000 from 2008 to 2012 to stand at more than 72,000.

“We cannot just have other community members making important decisions,” said Travis Kim, who served as president for the past two years of the Korean American Association of Greater Atlanta. “We have to be involved.”

The recruitment of Asian-American candidates remains informal, Kim said. His group and other nonprofits are prohibited from endorsing candidates. At times, he’s seen a group of wealthy individuals endorse a candidate and hold a fundraiser. Other candidates run all on their own.

Tran understood she faced challenges in winning office, most notably the reluctance of many Asian-Americans to register to vote. Consequently, when she campaigned door-to-door she carried voter registration applications. She even helped people fill them out.

She attributes her victory, in part, to signing up over 100 voters.

In November, Alex Wan, the first Asian-American to win a seat on the Atlanta City Council, was re-elected. Other candidates included a Taiwanese American who ran for the Duluth City Council, an Indian American who also ran for the Atlanta City Council, and a Bhutanese immigrant who ran for the Clarkston City Council.

Ho said the election also saw a shift in how Asian candidates campaigned, with greater emphasis on their ethnicity than in prior years.

Tran’s campaign website featured endorsements written in Vietnamese. Birendra Dhakal, running in Clarkston, a favored destination for refugees, emphasized that he had come to the U.S. as a refugee from Bhutan.

Asian-American candidates generally eschew the thorny controversy over immigration reform in favor of bread-and-butter issues such as improving education and creating jobs.

Even so, many Asian-Americans believe that if someone from their community gets elected, they’ll work harder for people who share their heritage.

“You have to have someone in office who is helping the Asian people,” said Bryant Liu, 57, of Duluth.

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