Cincinnati's Growing Asian American Community Wants Politicians' Attention

Jan 17, 2020

Economic and social issues like trade, abortion and gun control are a few issues that raise the stakes for local and national elections in 2020. Politicians want to win over various groups of voters but could be looking past an important bloc.

Pew Research shows the Asian American population is the fastest growing racial group in the U.S., suggesting it will surpass the Latinx community and become the nation's largest immigrant group by 2055.

In 2018, Felicity Tao, a board member and communications director of the Greater Cincinnati Chinese School, says she organized a town hall meeting for her community to meet Democrats and Republicans running for Congress and the Ohio House. She says all Democratic candidates came and only one Republican candidate showed up because of community complaints.

WVXU reached out to the Hamilton County Republican Party chairman who said he didn't have much to add about how the party attracts Asian American voters.   

Tao's Chinese American family lives in Greater Cincinnati. They say it often feels like the media and politicians include their community in the conversation as a footnote.

A Group 'Up For Grabs'

Tao and her husband, Mingyi Weng, moved to the U.S. for college in 1999. Tao and Weng are naturalized citizens and identify as Independents that lean left, which is on par nationally with 65% of registered Asian American voters. Only 27% identify or lean Republican. The number of Asian voters who identify as Independents has risen steadily since 1998, which is a general trend for all voters. 

University of Maryland Asian American Studies Professor Janelle Wong says a large group of Asian Americans that migrated during the 1980s and '90s are gaining more political power during this election season.

Right now, there isn't a clear Democratic frontrunner in the presidential primary. Wong says the polarized political environment makes Asian Americans a rare group both parties can attract. "Even though it has been moving fairly steadily toward the Democrats, there is still a significant number of Asian Americans who might be voting for the first time. Their party identification hasn't been solidified," she says.

The census says Asian Americans make up around 6% of the U.S. population. One third are in the Democratic stronghold state of California, which Wong says is one reason politicians may not spend as much time speaking directly to them. "Some see that group as up for grabs. That has its pros and its cons," she says.  "On the one hand, elected officials and candidates might target Asian Americans because they see them as up for grabs; on the other hand, they sometimes don't want to take a chance on an undecided voter."

Their Challenges

Cities on the West and East coasts used to be the main gateways for new immigrants. In Ohio, the population is a little over 2% and is one of the state's fastest growing groups.

Asians in the U.S. have roots in more than 20 countries, which can make it difficult for politicians to appeal to the diverse community issues and experiences. "Sometimes candidates misread what's going to work with Asian Americans," Wong says. "There are these two popular stereotypes: One is that Asian Americans are hyper-focused on education. So sometimes politicians will focus on education.

"There is also the fact, but also stereotype, that Asian Americans are mostly foreign-born," she continues. "So, there is this stereotype called the perpetual foreigner stereotype. Often times politicians will focus on education and then they'll also focus on immigration."

Tao says politicians should start by understanding the community's challenges. "For example, affirmative action. Lots of Chinese Americans are very interested in that issue and there is a divided view among the population," she says. "You don't have to say you support or you don't support that issue but at least understand that issue; why people are interested in that and why people are divided."

Tao's family is interested in a range of topics. Her 18-year-old son Teddy cares about the economy, which makes sense since he studies business, economics and public policy at the University of Pennsylvania. "Our country's GDP has continuously grown for the past five decades," he says. "We are supposedly the most productive we have ever been as a country and yet the wealth inequality and the cost of living has increased so much and people's income have stagnated. So it's not possible for people to live off that minimum wage salary."

Tao's 13-year-old son Howard, a Sycamore student, cares about public education. "Because students are the future," he says. "If you have a weak work force then what will you do?"

Meanwhile, for Tao, "I think gun control represents the dark side of the politics in this country in so many different ways." 

"Reverse the Citizens United Act to clear the dark money out of the system," Tao's husband, Weng, says.

Tao says in Chinese American communities, intergenerational conversations about politics aren't the norm but it's something her family constantly discusses. She says having conversations with people that disagree with you can be productive and is how she's raising her sons. "I challenge Teddy a lot when he goes too extreme on the left," she says. "I will challenge him with a right view because I do think sometimes both sides have a valid point and they should talk to each other at least and understand the context and why they have certain views, and have a more constructive conversation."

Teddy credits his mom's balanced perspective on pressing issues to her past experience working in journalism.

"I could see myself voting for a Republican, but I just think at this point - especially the Republicans right now, like when they talk about racial issues - they're just a little, I would say, not graceful," Teddy says.

But Republicans shouldn't count out his vote. He says he isn't closed-minded about the party. Tao agrees, but she also worries that the Democratic party takes identity politics too far.

"In the meantime, I think both parties kind of ignore the Asian American bloc," Tao says. "I think we definitely need more visibility and Democrats cannot take it for granted that Asian Americans will vote for them."

'My Dream Candidate Isn't On Stage Right Now'

The Hamilton County Democratic Party says it hasn't finalized its 2020 strategic plan, but voter registration is a priority.

This election cycle, the Democratic presidential field was the largest with 27 candidates, and the most diverse in at least 40 years, but now it's down to 12 candidates with only two people of color.

Tao says she was excited about the diverse candidate slate. "But, one thing I want to bring up is, again, I think people dismiss Asian American candidates like Andrew Yang. Like, he doesn't represent diversity at all because people were lamenting after everyone of color was gone and he was the only one in the last debate." 

Tao is talking about the debate in late December where Yang was the only person of color on stage. In this week's debate ahead of the Iowa caucuses there were only white candidates on stage.

Yang has been criticized for reinforcing Asian American stereotypes, like when he said because he's Asian, 'he knows a lot of doctors.' " Tao and her son say they aren't on board with Yang's comments but appreciate him for trying to take control of stereotypes.

Who they like and who they will vote for are two different things.

"It would be Joe Biden that I'm most likely going to vote for," Teddy says. "I would say 95% chance, unless I see Pete Buttigieg having a chance of winning the primary." Teddy says Biden isn't an exciting candidate and he doesn't handle himself well on the debate stage.

But Teddy and his parents want to support someone that stands a chance against President Trump. "I'm definitely settling for Joe Biden," he says. "There are at least three other candidates I would rather pick."

"My dream candidate is not on the stage right now," Tao says.

And for her husband, "I think our wisdom has been challenged in the 2016 election," Weng says. "So, anything can happen. That's why I still want to keep my eyes and ears open."

Until November, the family says they're keeping an open mind.

An earlier version of this article misidentified the year Tao held the community meeting and the number of Republican candidates that showed up. The event was held in 2018 and Tao says one Republican candidate that was invited came to the community meeting.