Code Switch
1:03 am
Mon April 21, 2014

In Asian-Majority District, House Race Divides Calif. Voters

Originally published on Wed May 28, 2014 9:52 am

In the heated race for a congressional seat in northern California, Mai Xuan Nguyen fought for her candidate with another cold call.

"Yes, that's K, H, A, N, N, A," she patiently explained in Vietnamese to a potential voter, spelling out her choice for Congress, Democrat Ro Khanna, as she marked her call list one recent evening at a coffeehouse in San Jose, Calif.

It was all part of Nguyen's role in an only-in-America scene: a Vietnamese-language phone bank for an Indian-American lawyer, who's challenging a Japanese-American congressman.

In fact, there are two second-generation Indian-American candidates — Khanna and Republican Vanila Singh — running to unseat longtime incumbent Congressman Mike Honda, a third-generation Japanese-American, in California's 17th District, which sits in the heart of the Silicon Valley. It's one of only two districts in the country where Asian-Americans make up the majority. The other's in Hawaii.

As California's June primary draws near, the race is forcing some Asian-American voters to make a tough choice.

Ethnic Lines

One of Capitol Hill's most prominent Asian-Americans, Honda, a 72-year-old, seven-term incumbent, maintains the support of the Democratic establishment. But recent redistricting and California's new open primary system fuel the hopes for Honda's challengers.

Age is more than just a number in the start-up culture of the Silicon Valley, and tech leaders have lined up behind Khanna, a 37-year-old former Obama administration official. The Republican challengers — Singh, a 43-year-old anesthesiologist at Stanford University, and 47-year-old tech recruiter Joel Vanlandingham — are also considerably younger.

But for many Asian-American voters here, the choice will mainly fall along ethnic lines.

Given the choice of multiple candidates of Asian descent, Asian-American voters tend to support those who belong to their ethnic subgroup, according to Ronald Wong, a campaign consultant who heads Imprenta Communications Group.

"The construct of 'Asian-Americans' under an umbrella is going to be put to the test," Wong said in a phone interview. He has contributed financially to Honda's campaign.

Regardless of the outcome, this race provides a unique glimpse into a political future in which Asian-Americans, the country's fastest-growing racial group, play more prominent roles on the voting ballot and at the polls.

"This is a leading indicator of what might happen down the road in other parts of the country," said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political science professor at the University of California, Riverside.

From 'Snake Charmers' To Politicians

Home to more Asian-Americans than any other district in the country, California's 17th congressional district also happens to have the largest Indian-American population.

This year's Miss South Asia beauty pageant was held recently in the district at the Indian Community Center in Milpitas, Calif., where some of the local residents mingling by the bar and buffet included close watchers of the congressional race.

"Go, Ro Khanna!" exclaimed Sangeeta Narayan, a San Jose resident who recruits executives for tech companies in Silicon Valley. "He brings fresh energy into the tech valley that we are engaged with."

She added that many in the local Indian-American community are rallying behind Khanna. "Seeing somebody from your own community, I think, is pretty exciting," she said. "It makes a difference."

Nitin Anand, a creative director for a wine distribution company, also supports Khanna. He said he usually skips midterm elections, but Khanna's campaign caught his attention.

"Since we kind of share the same background, we might get a little bit better representation in government," he said.

As a child, Anand moved to the Bay Area with his family in the 1980s, when it was difficult for him to imagine Indian-American candidates running for a seat on Capitol Hill.

"Most everybody thought we were like snake charmers and cow worshipers," he explained. "As I grew older, they started thinking we're cab drivers and 7-Eleven owners. And as I grew older still, got into college, we were software developers. And now we're like doctors, lawyers and politicians."

'A Healthy Debate'

Anand lives in Fremont, Calif., where the Indian-American population has grown almost 87 percent since 2000. Here you can order curry pizza topped with chicken tikka or palak paneer.

Fellow Fremont resident Ajay Bhutoria, an IT consultant and local community leader, plans to vote for Honda because of his long tenure in government.

"This experience, which has come from years of fighting in the Congress, is very important," said Bhutoria in an interview at his home. He added that for him, a candidate's job qualifications are more important than his ethnic background.

"An elected official of any office is an American," he said. "We need to differentiate on the music, on the food, on the dances, so that we can have diversity. But our nationality is one — American."

Bhutoria's support for Honda has not been a popular position within the local Indian-American community.

"I have friends who won't talk to me. I had people who had bullied me just because I'm supporting Congressman Mike Honda," he said. "I could understand their side of emotion, but at the same time, democracy is all about your personal choices."

Bhutoria said he hopes those choices will not permanently divide the community.

"The election will come and go. But at the end of the day, this community works, lives, plays and celebrates together, and that should continue," he said.

"I think it's a very healthy debate," said local realtor Deepka Lalwani after a recent community forum on increasing political participation in Milpitas. "Why should all Indians think alike anyway?"

Lalwani, who is the president of the Milpitas Democratic Club, has worked for years to encourage more Asian-American residents to vote and run for local offices. She said she's voting for Honda but added, "The greatest result of this [race] would be not who won or who lost, but people got involved."

That would be no small feat in the only Asian-majority congressional district on the U.S. mainland. According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, Asian-Americans are among the least likely to vote in midterm elections. Since 1998, only about three out of ten eligible voters have headed to the polls.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Asian-Americans are now the fastest growing racial group in the U.S. That means they are also the fastest growing group of voters. So this next story is in a sense of glimpse of the future in which Asian-American political power may grow.

Right now only two congressional districts are majority Asian-American. One is in Silicon Valley here in California. That's where two Indian-American candidates are running to unseat a longtime incumbent, Japanese-American Congressman Mike Honda.

NPR's Hansi Lo Wang of NPR's Code Switch team.

MAI XUAN NGUYEN: Hello.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: In the heated race for a congressional seat in northern California, Mai Xuan Nguyen fights for her candidate with another cold call.

NGUYEN: (Foreign language spoken)

WANG: It's all part of her shift at a Vietnamese-language phone bank for Ro Khanna, an Indian-American lawyer who's challenging a Japanese-American congressman. Yeah, only in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

ROHI KHANNA: Like so many Californians, I'm the son of immigrants who came to America...

WANG: Ro Khanna is one of two Indian-American candidates in the race and the only Democrat trying to oust one of Capitol Hill's most prominent Asian-Americans.

(APPLAUSE)

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE HONDA: My name is Mike Honda. I am a proud Sansei Democrat and a Silicone Valley congressman.

WANG: And a 72-year-old, seven term congressman. He's speaking there at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Honda's age is an issue in his campaign against Democratic challenger Khanna, a 37-year-old former Obama administration official. But for many voters here, the choice will mainly fall along ethnic lines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ICE CLINKING IN GLASS)

WANG: Before this year's Miss South Asia beauty pageant in Milpitas, some local residents mingled by the bar and buffet, including Sangeeta Narayan, a San Jose resident who's watching the race closely.

SANGEETA NARAYAN: Go Ro Khanna.

WANG: You sound like a very big Ro Khanna supporter.

NARAYAN: Yeah, we do support Ro Khanna, actually. He brings fresh energy into the tech valley that we are engaged with.

WANG: Noryan recruits executives for tech companies in Silicon Valley. She says many in the local Indian-American community are rallying behind Khanna.

NARAYAN: Seeing somebody from your own community, I think it's pretty exciting.

WANG: It makes a difference.

NARAYAN: It makes a difference if they can relate better to it.

NITIN ANAND: Since we kind of share the same background, we might get a little bit better representation in government.

WANG: Nitin Anand, who lives in Fremont, says he's not going to miss a race with Indian-American candidates, a scenario that was hard to imagine when he was growing up in the Bay Area in the 1980s.

ANAND: Most everybody thought we were like snake charmers and cow worshippers, right. And as I grew older, they started thinking we're cab drivers and 7-11 owners. And as I grew older still, got into college, we were software developers, and now we're, like, doctors and lawyers.

WANG: And aspiring politicians in the congressional district that also happens to have more Indian-Americans than any other in the nation.

AJAY BHUTORIA: So let me take you around the Fremont city.

WANG: For almost a decade, IT consultant Ajay Bhutoria has lived in Fremont. Here you can order curry pizza, topped with chicken tikka or palak paneer. But Bhutoria isn't necessarily going to vote for a politician of Indian descent. He says he's voting for Congressman Mike Honda for his long tenure in government.

BHUTORIA: This experience, which has come from years of fighting in the Congress, is very important.

WANG: Pretoria says his support for Honda hasn't been a popular position within the local Indian-American community.

BHUTORIA: I have friends who won't talk to me. I had people who had bullied me just because I'm supporting Congressman Mike Honda. I could understand their side of emotion, but at the same time, democracy is all about your personal choices, whom you support.

DEEPKA LALWANI: I think it's a very healthy debate. Why should all Indians think alike anyway?

WANG: That's realtor Deepka Lalwani, who is president of the Milpitas Democratic Club. She's voting for Honda, but she says...

LALWANI: The greatest result of this would be not who won or who lost but people got involved.

WANG: Which would be no small feat in an Asian-majority district. According to the Pew Research Center, Asian-Americans are among the least likely to vote in midterm elections. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.