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'Time for Indian-American community to flex political muscle'

October 22, 2008 23:29 IST

Congressman Mike Honda of California, vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and the chairman of the Congressional Asian and Pacific American Caucus, believes the ability of the Indian-American community to mobilize is an increasingly potent indication of its clout, and that it can translate into an effective weapon in the coming presidential elections.

Honda, one of Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama's closest Asian-American confidantes, during a teleconference regarding the campaign's strategy to reach Asian American voters, told India Abroad in response to a question that the 'macaca' incident from the 2006 election cycle had amply demonstrated the community's clout.

"You know, the past [then incumbent Republican] Senator George Allen was running for re-election [in Virginia] and he was not very sensitive and he made a critical mistake in terms of our community," he said, referring to when Allen had called an Indian American volunteer in his rival Jim Webb's campaign, S Sidarth the seemingly derogatory term 'macaca.'

"When the Indian-American community felt that this man was insensitive and not respectful and does not deserve to represent the people of Virginia, the community got organized and defeated him and created a coalition of not only Indian Americans but other Asian American communities who got together in the state of Virginia and got Jim Webb into that office. That's the power and the influence and leverage that the Indo-American community in coalition with other communities have in Virginia," he argued.

Honda, an ardent supporter of Ashwin Madia, the Democratic nominee from Minnesota's 3rd District, said this was "a critical seat" that the Democrats hope to take and said, "He would need some attention and assistance from our community."

The lawmaker who has been in the forefront of raising money for Madia's campaign said "He would be an Indian American that would be coming to Congress from Minnesota, and he would be a great representative."

During the teleconference, Honda said his message was simple: when Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders vote, Democrats win 'and our country progresses and that's very evident in Virginia.'

It was the Asian-American mobilization in Virginia, the lawmaker said, that triggered the Obama campaign's belief that in November, the Democrats could color the state, with its history of support for the Republican Party, blue.

'We are the only ethnic community to have an increase in Democrats in every presidential election since 1992. And, nationally about two-thirds of all Asian Americans who are registered to vote are Democrats,' said Honda.

'Our younger generation is also trending Democratic. 47 percent of Asian students recently polled by Harvard identify as Democratic and 15 percent are Republicans and 39 percent are Independent, making them more Democratic than any ethnic group except African Americans in that survey.'

Laying out the thinking behind the Obama campaign strategy, Honda said, 'If AAPI voter registration increases by 30 percent in a general election, just imagine how Barack Obama and Joe Biden could expand their electoral map. We can potentially win Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the Southern corridor vote of Virginia, North Carolina as well as Colorado and Nevada.

'We have one of the highest turnout rates for registered voters, but we cannot say the same for our registration rates,' he said, pointing out that the campaign is now focussed on increasing voter registration in Virginia by the October 6 deadline.

It is critical, Honda said, for the community to realize that it's seemingly insignificant numbers are in fact crucial, that it can swing important elections in battleground states.

'It is critical that our communities know that they can participate, that they are important. The issue now is making sure that members who are eligible to vote register, so that we can claim the victory that Democrats can have in Virginia.'

Chris Lu, senior advisor to Obama for America, who also participated in the teleconference, pointed out that he, as an Asian American, had been Obama's chief of staff in the US Senate after spending three-and-a-half years as his legislative director.

'I think that gives you a sense of Barack Obama's commitment to hiring Asian Americans.'

Talking up Obama's commitment to 'issues that are important to the Asian American community, whether it's education, healthcare, civil rights, immigration, job creation, tax relief', Lu said that as 'a child of immigrants from China, I know the issue on the minds of my parents was how to send their kids to college – and that's why I think it's an important signal that the first piece of legislation that Barack Obama introduced when he came to Washington was to increase the amount of Pell grants to help more kids attend college, and as a member of the US Senate, he worked closely with Senator [Edward M] Kennedy to get that increase signed into law.'

An important part of Obama's platform is his belief that it is important to help prepare American students to compete in a global economy, and his plan to provide $4,000 tax credit to help young people afford college is part of that drive.

Lu said Obama was also committed to enhancing job creation opportunities for more than 1.1 million small businesses that are owned by Asian Americans, 'and an important part of business creation is providing relief from the high cost of healthcare.

'Senator Obama believes that every American has the right to affordable healthcare, and nowhere is that most evident than in the Asian American community where currently there are 2.2 million Asian Americans who are uninsured — and an astounding nearly 12 percent of Asian American children have no health coverage.'

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC