This a continuation of my interview with State Representative BJ Pak. In our first installment, Rep. Pak talked about his plans for the current session of the General Assembly.
This week we will discuss the impact of Asian-Americans on the Gwinnett County political scene, and what we can expect in the coming years.
BJ Pak is the Republican who represents Lilburn and the unincorporated area of Gwinnett County known as Mountain Park, Georgia House of Representatives District 108. He is in his second term.
John Dunn: In the 2010 Census, Asian-Americans constituted 5.0% of the U.S. Population, 3.4% of Georgians, yet 19.9% of Gwinnett County residents. What would you say the draw is to Gwinnett County?
BJ Pak: The cheap real estate, good schools, and the quality of life draw them here. Moreover, diversity begets diversity --e.g., if there is a critical mass of Asian-Americans in a certain area, there is more interest from members of that particular group to move somewhere near. It is kind of like family and friends moving near each other.
JD: What are the Asian-American growth patterns here?
BJP: They have plateaued in Gwinnett. I see growth of the Asian-American population in North Fulton and Forsyth County as the next boom areas. As anecdotal evidence, I can tell you many of my friends have moved from Gwinnett to Johns Creek and Cumming during the past 10 years. They like the housing prices and good schools the new areas offer.
JD: In last year’s presidential election, Barack Obama received 73% of the Asian-American vote. You stated that Asian-Americans do not vote in a bloc, but how would you square that with these results?
BJP: Several items of note. First, I think once the data is broken out, you will see that the majority of the Asian-American voters were from the deeply blue states, such as California and New York. The actual number of turnout was higher because the Asian-American population increased, and Obama did a better job of turning his voters out. Historically, Asian-Americans trended toward the Democratic Party since Korematsu. By the way, if you are a Republican and do not know what Korematsu was, that would explain a lot as to why Romney lost the Asian-American vote.
Second, as noted previously, the Obama Campaign had a much better ground game in turning out the vote – including having many young Asian-American
volunteers. The young activities are the ones who get the older generation to
vote. Romney lost the younger demographic vote, so to see such a high percentage of Asian-Americans who voted for Obama makes sense.
Third, Obama is an ethnic minority, and Romney isn’t. Rightly or wrongly, some Asian-Americans believe whites may not understand an ethnic minorities’ plight as much as an ethnic minority might.
Lastly, Romney’s rhetoric on illegal immigration – e.g., self-deportation -- during the primary was used incessantly by the Democrats to paint him as anti-immigrant. And it worked. Many Asian-American voters are themselves immigrants, and like it or not, many probably have friends, relatives, or someone they go to church with who may be in the country illegally. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the poor messaging and impractical positions taken by the Republican candidates cost the GOP many minority votes.
JD: Korematsu v. the United States is a case dealing with the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two. As the internment orders were a product of the [Democrat] Franklin Roosevelt Administration, and defended before the U.S. Supreme Court by the Roosevelt Administration, how would that bode ill for Republicans?
BJP: To understand the background of Korematsu and its progeny is to understand what Asian Americans have faced, and are facing. This decision
was the Asian-American equivalent to Brown vs. Board of education. Do you think
a political party can successfully do outreach to African Americans without
knowing about the significance of the Brown decision?
In the case Korematsu, Americans of Japanese ancestry were interned solely based on looks and national origin, all in the name of national security. It is a scary reminder that the government can, and perhaps will, given the right circumstances, ignore one's constitutional rights and individual liberties and the Supreme Court may even bless it. Moreover, understanding this decision is to also understand that non-Asians have a subconscious tendency to not view Asian Americans as an American, but as an immigrant or a foreigner.
JD: How would you break down the Asian-Americans/Asian immigrants to our area by country/region in Asia?
BJP: In Georgia, the largest group is Indian-Americans, followed by Korean-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, and Chinese (including Taiwanese) Americans.
JD: How does the rise in Asian-Americans bode for the Republican Party in Gwinnett County, then party itself and, separately, the electorate?
BJP: If the trend continues -- the younger generations trending toward the Democrats -- it does not look good for the GOP. Asian-Americans are the fastest growing ethnic group (as a percentage). They are also the group with the highest levels of education and income level when compared to other ethnic groups. If the GOP is supposedly the party of the “rich” and if we can’t win this demographic, we have a very long way to go to attract more Latino-American and African-American voters. Right now, the Asian-Americans are not very active voters and that is why the GOP has been able to withstand the political tide. I see that changing in the next three presidential cycles.
JD: In what ways can Republicans appeal to Asian-American voters?
BJP: I could write a very long and detailed response, but that may be for another time. In short, for a party that prides itself in supporting entrepreneurs, free markets, and business, we are pretty bad in using business principles to solve our shrinking voting base problem. If we view voters as customers and the party as selling particular set of ideals, the goal of the party should be to get more consumers and for those consumers to buy what we are selling. We lost the election because not enough people were in the market to buy our product, and for those who were in the market to buy, they did not like what we were selling. If faced with this problem, a business would try to re-brand and diversify the customer base.
There are more people identifying themselves as independent, as opposed to identifying themselves as Democrat or Republican. This tells me that the political party brand is not that good. I think we have to re-brand by focusing mainly on core conservative issues that all of us can unite behind (including the issues important to Asian-Americans) – such as freedom and individual liberty, small government and taxes, and self-reliance.
Second, we have to diversify the leadership and membership of our party. I am referring to “diversity” in the broader sense. We have to be more respectful and tolerant of differing backgrounds, views, and ideas and approaches to solving our nation’s problems. As long as GOP is viewed as a party of “old white folks” preaching the same solutions to issues, we will be at a disadvantage in recruiting.
Then we need to double our efforts to recruit like-minded individuals who are in the Asian-American communities. Most importantly, we have to show up to events in the communities.