“A century ago, most Asian Americans were low-skilled, low-wage laborers crowded into ethnic enclaves and targets of official discrimination. Today they are the most likely of any major racial or ethnic group in America to live in mixed neighborhoods and to marry across racial lines.” —Pew Research, “The Rise of Asian Americans.”

The presence of Asian Americans in Seattle dates back to the 1840s when Chinese arrived during the Gold Rush, followed by Japanese, Koreans and Pacific Islanders who came to work as laborers for mines, canneries, railroads, sawmills, and also as farmers and merchants. But it wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that a new generation of pan-Asians boomed to execute a social, economical, and political renaissance.

During that time many local Asian Americans—especially students—became active in the fight for social justice and civil rights, politics, and the preservation of the International District in Seattle. Notable figures such as Wing Luke, Dolores Sibonga, Bob “Uncle Bob” Santos, Velma Veloria, Frank Irigon, Al Sugiyama and many more have set the foundation for future generations to improve Seattle’s API identity and community.

The most recent prominent Asian American figure in our state has to be former Governor Gary Locke. He was the only Chinese American to become governor and served the state from 1997 to 2005, before being appointed as Secretary of Commerce by President Obama until August 2011. The President then appointed Locke as the United States Ambassador to China.

Nationwide, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina are putting Asian Americans faces to the GOP, while Rep. Judy Chu of California and Board of Supervisors President David Chiu of San Francisco are emerging as “Democratic stars.”

As of 2012, Washington has three Asian Americans out of 98 members in the House of Representatives, and two out of the 49 members of Senate. This might be an improvement for Seattle’s API representation in the state’s legislature, but is it significant progress? After all, Asian Pacific Islander Americans are 10 percent of Washington State’s population, according to the 2010 Census.

Frank Irigon, a former activist in the Asian Student Coalition (ASC) and co-founder of Seattle’s defunct monthly “Asian Family Affair” in the 1970s, believes there have been changes but not as much as [we] want it to be. He said there’s still plenty of room for API representation in political office to grow.

“We have people that are more than qualified to run for office, but many claimed they’re not ready yet,” Irigon said. “There’s always that hesitancy regarding money and time when running for office.”

South Asian Darshan Rauniyar would probably agree. Rauniyar, along with Sen. Steve Hobbs, were the two API candidates who ran for United States House of Representatives in Washington’s 1st Congressional District this past August. But both fell short of the top two to continue in November’s general election.

The businessman and Nepali immigrant said while the moral support was there, his campaign lacked financial support. He particularly had a hard time gaining community support and understanding as to why he’s running for office and why it’s important to the community.
Rauniyar advises those who want to run for office to have a solid fundraising strategy, get support from community leaders or players and be prepared to spend all their time working on the campaign.

Having held office as representative of Washington’s 11th District since 2005 after being recruited by the first Filipina elected to state legislature Velma Veloria, before her retirement, Rep. Bob Hasegawa knows the struggles and what it takes to run office as an Asian American. In his perspective, the biggest barrier for APIs is to get the broad base appeal from the community. Asian Americans who run for office have to be accepted by the community. The political system is tough to break into thus community support plays a huge part.

“When I organize, I think from the outside or bottom-up since we need community to build political power,” Rep. Hasegawa said. “But, there’s also that top-down model. Once the officials are elected, they need to work together with the community to build a working system.”

Irigon also said API leaders, politicians and the community all have a stake in what’s happening. He explained that as one of the activist pioneers in the 1960s and 1970s, they did what they had to do, and now as elders they have to keep going by mentoring those with leadership qualities to correct what’s wrong.

“I don’t just encourage people to run for politics and positions,” Rep. Hasegawa
said. “It’s all about the political position just being a tool to further your philosophical goals.”

Politics in Asia differs greatly than the one in the United States. Some Asian immigrants aren’t familiar with a democratic U.S. government. In their home countries, the practice of political power and government were often used as tools of oppression.

First-time runner Rauniyar supported the idea by saying that elected officials, or those who are running for office, should take leadership in educating the API community, so that more can be politically involved.

“It’s [their] human tendency to not be involved,” Rauniyar said. “But we need to
go above and beyond and have that visionary cap to think that this is for our future generation.”
As one of the nine API members in Washington State’s House of Representatives, Rep. Hasegawa is working towards improving the number of people involved in the political process by constantly building bridges between new and already established API communities.

“While there is much base building going on for Asian Americans, this hasn’t resulted in more APIs being elected into office,” he said. “But that also means, the ones in office are held more accountable in representing the API community.”

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