Favorite Son

Can Asian-American voters -- long ignored by both parties -- boost Republican Matt Fong's sagging California Senate campaign?


William Wong
October 28, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

--> Just 10 days ago, California seemed on the verge of electing its first Chinese-American senator, Republican State Treasurer Matt Fong. But as one of the most-watched races in the country enters its final week, the momentum has swung back to incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer, at least for now.

After several polls gave Fong a slight lead over the incumbent, the most recent surveys indicate Boxer leads Fong by five points, in part because of hard-hitting TV ads charging that Fong would weaken abortion rights and block tough HMO reform -- ads that have gone largely unanswered by Fong. The Republican challenger has also been hurt by the revelation that he contributed $50,000 in leftover funds from his 1994 state treasurer campaign to Rev. Louis Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition, a Christian-right lobbying group, which could threaten Fong's moderate image with voters. And the congressional impeachment mess, which was expected to help Republicans, might actually be hurting them with voters.

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The campaign is expected to be tight through its closing days, though, as Fong begins to combat Boxer's media barrage with one of his own. The likely photo finish has put a spotlight on one group of voters who have the power to make or break Matt Fong: California's Asian-Americans. Although they're 12 percent of the state's population, they are only six percent of the California electorate, and they've been neglected politically because they tend not to go to the polls. In San Francisco, for instance, where Asian-Americans are 34 percent of the population, they are only 16 percent of the city's registered voters.

But Fong's candidacy has energized California Asian-Americans, particularly Chinese-Americans. Their sentiments have gone undetected in the major statewide polls. Unbelievably, the last Los Angeles Times poll measured white, Latino and African-American voters' preference, but not Asians', calling them "statistically insignificant" and citing language difficulties in accurately polling Asian voters. They're significant enough, however, to be getting attention from both candidates in the race. And Fong could get help from an unlikely source -- Asian-American Democrats, who are torn between their support for many of Boxer's political stands and their desire to see their community taken more seriously by both political parties.

Many Asian-American Democrats still resent their party for abandoning Asian-American fund-raisers accused of soliciting illegal foreign contributions in the 1996 presidential campaign. The party then intensified the insult by investigating the citizenship status of Asian-surnamed donors, the vast majority of whom were U.S. citizens. The Boxer campaign's financial-solicitation materials, several Asian-American Democrats noted bitterly, spell out she is accepting donations only from American citizens, leaving out legal permanent residents, who are eligible to contribute.

One longtime party activist, who asked not to be identified, said the fund-raising scandal showed "how vulnerable we were. Our entire community felt chastised by the party ... Some traditional Chinese-American Democrats are now saying, 'It's time for one of us Chinese-Americans to get a high national political office, and if we have to sacrifice ideology and issues, so be it.'"

That's the position of San Francisco attorney Bruce Quan Jr., a longtime Democrat who is supporting Fong. "Matt Fong is from my community," Quan says. "Barbara Boxer has not been there for us. Boxer can't point to any leadership on issues like immigration or anti-Asian violence. She hasn't nominated Chinese-Americans for federal offices." Quan sees today's Democratic Party as "the party of black and white, not of brown and yellow."

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Rose Tsai is another Chinese-American Democrat supporting Fong. Tsai, who says she is a "lifelong Democrat," is a candidate for San Francisco supervisor this November. "Matt Fong holds many of the values of the Chinese-American community -- fiscally conservative, concerned with education. His candidacy is historic, an inspiration to the younger generation. We see Matt Fong as one of our own. When we call him, he returns our calls. What has Barbara Boxer done for us? We are sick and tired of being ignored. We will be loyal to the [Democratic] Party when it is loyal to us."

Quan and Tsai may have a lot of company, according to June-primary exit polls. An exit poll conducted by political consultant Tom Hsieh Jr. in liberal San Francisco found that 74 percent of Chinese-American voters supported Republican Fong in the state's open primary, while 81 percent of them chose a Democrat in the race for governor. In Los Angeles, an exit poll conducted by Vision 21, a nonpartisan Chinese-American political group, found that 83.7 percent of Chinese-Americans voted for Fong -- including two-thirds of Chinese-American Democrats.

"Matt Fong will probably get some crossover votes from Asian-American Democrats," concedes Rose Kapolczynski, Boxer's campaign manager. "But Barbara will get some support from Republican women" who disagree with Fong's support for more restrictions on abortion. She said the campaign has formed an "Asian-Americans for Boxer" group. "We're working hard to reach Asian-Americans," Kapolczynski says, touting Boxer's record of Asian-American federal judicial nominations and support of other issues of interest to Asian-Americans such as Japanese-American reparations, Filipino-American veterans' benefits and family reunification provisions of immigration laws.

Alicia Wang, vice chair of the California Democratic Party, says, "Matt Fong is the first major Chinese-American candidate for the U.S. Senate from California, so it is perfectly understandable that people in the Chinese-American community will feel pride in his candidacy. But that doesn't mean we should not apply the same standards we apply to other candidates. What is his track record on issues that matter to me, like affirmative action, immigration, education? Barbara Boxer has been there for us on those issues." Wang notes that Fong supported Propositions 209 and 227, the California initiatives that abolished affirmative action and bilingual education programs, respectively.

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Asian-Americans make up almost 4 percent of the nation's population -- up sharply from less than 1 percent 30 years ago -- and about 40 percent of the nation's 10 million residents of Asian descent live in California. Their voter turnout is the lowest of any major racial group in the nation.

California's Asian-American voters are a hard group to characterize politically. Like Fong, they supported Prop. 227, which abolished bilingual education, and which most Democrats opposed. But they opposed Republican-backed Prop. 209, which did away with affirmative action. According to the Field Poll, the state's leading public-opinion survey firm, California Asian-Americans are 45 percent Democratic, 35 percent Republican and 20 percent independent or "other."

According to the Chinese American Voter Education Committee, San Francisco's Asian-American voters are 43 percent Democratic, 20 percent Republican and 37 percent independent, other or "decline to state." In Monterey Park, just east of Los Angeles, known as "the first suburban Chinatown," Chinese-American voters are virtually evenly split among Democrats, Republicans and independents, according to Don Nakanishi, director of the University of California-Los Angeles Asian American Studies Center.

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Some analysts expect the Asian-American vote to get more conservative. As the number of Koreans and Vietnamese rises -- two groups that tend to vote Republican -- the proportion of traditionally Democratic Japanese and Filipino Americans is going down. The Fong-Boxer race is expected to break down the same way, with Koreans and Vietnamese-Americans going for Fong, Japanese- and Filipino-Americans going for Boxer, and Chinese-Americans -- the largest single Asian ethnic group -- supporting Fong.

On balance, California's Asian-American voters tend to line up right in between whites and Latinos politically, and are usually much closer to white Californians than to black Californians, according to Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll.

Until recently the affable Fong has made it easy for moderates of every ethnicity to support him. The son of California's longtime Democratic secretary of state, March Fong Eu, he comes across as a bland but likable middle-of-the-roader, not the right-wing conservative that Boxer has said he is. During the campaign, in debates and on the stump, Fong has presented himself as a moderate on issues such as the environment and abortion rights. He has cultivated ties to the business community and avoided the right-wing appeals on abortion, crime and gay rights that have seemed to hurt conservative Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren, who is trailing Gray Davis in recent polls.

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He benefits from the contrast with Boxer, who stands solidly on the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and alienates many moderates with a strident image. "Matt Fong is a moderate, not a flaming right-winger," stresses Democrat Quan. "We have no extreme philosophical differences."

That's why Fong's $50,000 contribution to the right-wing Traditional Values Coalition could damage him with Asian-American Democrats and others considering a crossover vote. It might not sway Asian-Americans who are emotionally invested in his candidacy for ethnic-pride reasons -- just as Republican women crossed over to Boxer in 1992 despite ideological reservations. It will likely hurt him most with moderate female supporters who believe in abortion rights.

And Fong may also suffer from an unexpected impeachment backlash. In a September Los Angeles Times poll, 14 percent of registered voters said the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal made them more likely to vote, and two-thirds of those voters were going for Fong. But in the Times poll released last week, 26 percent of voters said they were driven by the scandal, and half of them went for Boxer, 44 percent for Fong.

Whatever the result, Fong's candidacy is inspiring activism among Asian-Americans, and especially Chinese-Americans. "Both parties give our community a lot of lip service," observed political consultant Hsieh. "In reality, neither party has done a very good job of courting our vote ... Our voting community has a way to go for full maturity. We are beginning to show the first signs of adolescence. We are starting to come out to vote."

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William Wong

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Barbara Boxer, D-calif.

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