Supporters call him the “Asian Obama” and is described as a rising star in the Democratic Party. He already made history as the first Chinese American elected at a state level in Connecticut and is poised to make history again if he wins his bid for U.S. Senate in. Rep.William Tong (D-CT), 38, sat down with the IE recently while he was in town Sept. 28.
He planned to reach out to the API community in Seattle and attend a campaign fundraiser in his honor at the home of Albert Shen, founder of the API Political Action Committee (APIPAC) in Seattle. A winning seat in the U.S. Senate will make him the first Chinese American to succeed outside of Hawaii.
Although Rep. Tong is in a remarkable position right now, he comes from humble roots and highlights it in his campaign, particularly in his “57 Cents” video (www.williamtong.com). The title refers to what lay in his father’s pocket as he immigrated to America from China. He later settled in Connecticut to work as a cook in a Chinese restaurant. Tong’s parents eventually opened their own eatery, staffing the future U.S. Senate candidate, William Tong, to work behind the scenes. It was an experience that stuck with him. He later attended college at Brown University, earned a law degree from the University of Chicago and practices corporate law in Connecticut. He has served in the Connecticut House of Representatives since early 2007. Here, he shares more about his accomplishments, what sets him apart from other leaders, his knowledge of the API community and its concerns, and most importantly, his solutions.
What life experiences brought you to where you are now? For example, how did growing up working in your parent’s Chinese restaurant impact you? What encouraged you to make the leap from law practice to politics?
Rep. Tong: It all goes back to the restaurant. I think for me, watching those folks, being a part of their lives everyday, working in a restaurant like that — you can’t help but be a part of their everyday lives. You learn about their troubles and share in that. And it wasn’t so much “from law to politics,” but that I wanted to serve and help people like those I saw and knew in the restaurant.
People talk so much about “giving back,” but to me it’s more than that — it’s about giving a hand. Nobody does this alone. We all do this as part of a community. Without help and a break or two, we don’t make it.
You’re described as a “rising star” in the Democratic Party – an “Asian Obama”– where do you think this perception came from and do you feel that pressure? What makes you a different kind of leader?
Rep. Tong: I feel some pressure. Our community has worked very hard to get a foothold in this country and it has taken longer than it should have. Race, class, economic justice and opportunity — all those things come into play. APIs have been in this country a long time. But there still has not been a Chinese American U.S. Senator on the mainland. There’s a frustration that there isn’t somebody in the U.S. Senate that can tell our story: our small business story, for example. And Asian Americans are trying to bring family members to join them, but immigration policy doesn’t make that easy to do. To tell our story about mental illness — an unspoken dirty secret in our community. These are people who have endured things. This is why it’s important to make policy changes, large and small. I do feel the weight on expectations, obligation, and responsibility. I’m trying to convince the community that they ought to bear this responsibility with me. This is never going to happen unless one of us takes the lead and I cannot do it alone. I need the whole community across the country to be a part of this historic moment.
What did you experience as the first Asian American elected to state office in Connecticut?
Rep. Tong: There has been a tremendous amount of opportunity. I think people really want to hear what Asian Americans have to say; what they have to add to the political process. We’ve become distinguished in science, academia, many fields. But people in government want more. I think they’re surprised to hear the community is not just full of doctors – there is people working in unsafe conditions, in sweatshops — we have the same challenges as any other group and there’s work to be done – that’s news to people.
I understand that if you win your bid for the U.S. Senate seat, you’re poised to make history as the first Chinese American to be elected to the U.S. Senate outside of Hawaii. Why do you think this has taken so long and why do you have potential to reach it?
Rep. Tong: I think there’s a tremendous level of frustration about Washington [D.C.]. People are just fed up. I think as a country we’re getting to a point where we’re desperate for answers and genuine leadership. People want to know how to get out of this. They aren’t used to seeing people like me — like us. We’re something new, something different. It gives APIs like me a case.
You supported passage of legislation that created a Connecticut Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission. What concerns in the APA community in Connecticut did you feel needed to be addressed? And what has the commission accomplished since its inception?
Rep. Tong: Mental health is a tremendously important issue — so is racial profiling. There’s also an up-tick of racial discrimination and bias crimes related to APIs. We have a growing API community in Connecticut — but nobody understands what’s happening in those communities. People need services. The commission addresses all of those things.
What did you achieve as a House representative that you feel gives you the confidence to pursue higher office?
Rep. Tong: Well, I’ve passed legislation. I think people assume there’s gridlock and people can’t work across party lines and get work done — but I’ve done that. I’ve helped get gun trafficking off our streets working with bipartisan support. I had a chance to write bills, debate them and pass them. It gives me proof that it’s possible to get work done.
In a high profile seat such as in the U.S. Senate, what key things do you plan to accomplish for the benefit of the Asian Pacific American community on a national level?
Rep. Tong: A few things right off the bat — obviously I want to enhance the flow of credit to small businesses — that’s critical. Invest in educational infrastructure — schools, classrooms — it takes money to run a high-quality system. Apart from those big ticket items. I’m working on a formal regret for the Chinese Exclusion Act. I also want to make sure judicial nominees like Goodwin Liu make it. The best way to get Goodwin Liu in a judicial seat is for me to be in a Senate seat to push him through.
What are your thoughts on Asian American political leadership in this country? How do you plan to contribute to it?
Rep. Tong: We have a lot of work to do. We have some exciting leadership in this country. Gary Locke was an inspiration, to see him succeed. I think we need to work on our pipeline for young people who want to serve but who don’t have the connections or support to put together a strong campaign and convince people to support them. One problem that the API community has that others don’t have as badly is I don’t believe APIs believe it. They still have a tough time picturing one of their own on a national stage. I don’t think it’s because we’re somehow quiet and don’t want to rock the boat or are meek. I don’t know what Asian Americans you know, but they’re tough. It is possible for APIs to be a full partner in our government. The only way that will change is if I and others give them proof.
It looks like you’ll face formidable opponents in the democratic primary for the U.S. Senate seat – what motivates and drives you to push forward against challenges?
Rep. Tong: The field is wide open and I think I stack up favorably against my competitors. And there was one night where I was home and my daughters wouldn’t go to sleep and I was just frustrated. I told my wife I quit. My five year-old sprang up and said, “Pappa, you can’t quit!” The comment hit home for me and I left the room. It reminded me of who was relying on me to win this race. It’s not just about the others who paved the way for us, but also for my kids – so that they see me try.
As an early supporter for Pres. Obama’s 2008 bid for office; what are your thoughts regarding Pres. Obama’s candidacy for a second term?
Rep. Tong: I’m very supportive of him. He’s doing a very good job in very difficult circumstances. He’d be the first to say, put it on him. And I don’t think democrats are offering him anything and that’s sad. It’s a sad commentary for where we are.
Why do you think your candidacy has APIs – even in Seattle – excited and rallying for you?
Rep. Tong: I think they’re particularly excited about this one. Because it’s do-able. They can taste it. It’s one thing to be a long shot — like in California or Texas or New York. But in a state like Connecticut, with an API as a major competitor — it’s very do-able.
How would you address the younger Asian American generation that is not politically engaged, although very much digitally connected?
Rep. Tong: I think they need to stop looking in themselves. They’re a part of a greater inter-connected world and have a greater responsibility to fight for things that are important to us. Economic opportunity, economic justice, access to healthcare and civil rights and liberties — there’s still a lot of work. This world is moving on without us unless we have an input in it.
What are you like at home, without the speeches, campaigning and staff members? How do you spend free time?
Rep. Tong: I like to focus on hanging out with my kids and try not to bring campaign work, legislative duties or legal work home. And my wife tries to keep me from too much retail therapy.
Do you read any books? What are you reading right now?
Rep. Tong: “A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of ’08 and the Descent into Depression” by Richard Posner.