Democratic outreach to Nevada AAPIs lagging, some say, though group has grown 167% in 10 years

“The Filipino community majority is very well proficient in English. So having a Tagalog card, it seemed to me, is the dog and pony show," one Asian American nonprofit leader said.
Image: Joe Biden
Joe Biden poses for photos with supporters during an Early Vote Event with Joe Biden and AAPI Victory Fund at Harbor Palace Seafood Restaurant at Chinatown Plaza Mall on Feb. 18, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nev.Alex Wong / Getty Images

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By Benjamin Pu

LAS VEGAS — Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., sipped on bubble tea in a boba shop in Chinatown. Former Vice President Joe Biden spoke to voters at the Harbor Palace Seafood Restaurant, a Chinese eatery. The campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is translating its outreach material into as many Asian languages as it can. It must be Nevada.

The Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community in Nevada is finally getting attention from Democratic presidential candidates who want to court the rapidly increasing population. But some in the community are voicing frustration that efforts such as translated materials and campaign season visits aren't enough.

“We want people who've been here and been investing in the community, rather than just doing cycle work,” said Duy Nguyen, executive director of One APIA Nevada, an Asian political organizing group. “We see them between Labor Day and Election Day, and outside of that, they're gone.”

As candidates flood back into Nevada, escaping the frigid cold of Iowa and New Hampshire and leaving behind the overwhelmingly white populations in those states, Nevada AAPI leaders told NBC News that the candidates' efforts to court Asian voters have been lukewarm at best.

“For them to not think of us, when we're growing so fast and our community is growing so fast, it's really — it's up to them,” Vida Lin, president of the Asian Community Development Council, said. “But we know what we need to do. And we know that by us getting involved, by us getting more educated, by us being at the table, then we won't be left behind.”

AAPI leaders say that while no campaign receives a perfect score, the Warren, Sanders and Biden campaigns are doing the most active and aggressive outreach. The campaigns of former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, billionaire Tom Steyer and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., received minor plaudits for their efforts to reach out. Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s campaign was consistently slammed for skipping Nevada entirely. As one activist put it, Bloomberg was at a “D- and failing bad.”

Warren’s team opened a field office in Las Vegas’ Chinatown, and many of the campaigns recently participated in Lunar New Year events across the United States. At an event Tuesday in Las Vegas, Biden explained how his DACA proposal will help Asian Americans. The Sanders campaign sent staffers to march in the Las Vegas Chinese New Year parade. On a national level, Warren launched a plan that would help low-income Asian Americans through data disaggregation.

AAPI Nevadan population grew by 167 percent since 2000, now making up roughly 10 percent of the state’s population of 3 million, and is an important emerging voting bloc that could prove to be pivotal in the caucuses and beyond.

Almost 77 percent of AAPI voters backed a Democratic House candidate in the 2018 midterms, a significant increase from 2014 when just 49 percent did so. This could prove to be particularly pivotal in a swing state like Nevada where elections can come down to just a few percentage points. Then-Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton won the state in the 2016 general election by 2.4 percentage points, or 27,000 votes.

In an effort to make the Nevada caucuses more accessible, the state Democratic party also made ballots, presidential caucus cards and other materials available in Tagalog, a Filipino dialect. Filipino Americans make up a majority of the AAPI population in Nevada.

Some members of the community say they appreciate that it can show deference and respect, but they don’t feel it’s a true commitment.

“The Filipino community majority is very well proficient in English,” Nguyen said. “So having a Tagalog card, it seemed to me, is the dog and pony show.”

Local AAPI leaders warn that it will take more than just printing a new language on caucus materials to get community voters to turn out consistently for Democrats.

“You don’t necessarily have to do an event in a specific restaurant or have specific campaign materials or have specific apparel,” said Daniel Santos, a 25-year-old from Las Vegas who is the chairman of the AAPI Democratic Caucus. “But showcasing what issues that are affecting us and that you have policy and proposals that address that, and that you have representation on your staff — people who know the issues facing us — that is what really matters.”

On the campaign side, community members also say the current staffing makeup of the campaigns with AAPI members isn’t enough to make up for the lack of outreach. Nguyen said that no campaigns would receive an “A” grade for their AAPI outreach efforts. He also wants to see serious and sustained commitment from politicians in the community.

“I think that a lot of the campaigns think that just because they hire an AAPI person to work for them, that means they got the Asian angle,” Nguyen said. “I think that's kind of a check-the-box move.”

When asked about the criticism that some candidates seem to parachute staffers in and then leave after the caucuses, Mary Lou Akai-Ferguson, the AAPI outreach director for the Warren campaign, said that it was important to bring people onto the campaign that were from the community.

“We've shown up, not just to get out the vote for Elizabeth, but to sit down with the community, listen about the issues that they care about, and use their input to inform the policy proposals we put out to uplift AAPI families in Nevada and across the country,” Akai-Ferguson said.

The Warren campaign was cited most frequently as having one of the strongest AAPI outreach efforts in Nevada. Klobuchar’s campaign was repeatedly hit by activists as being lackluster in her efforts.

In a statement, the Klobuchar campaign did not answer questions about the numbers of staff dedicated to AAPI outreach or about any events that the senator conducted that were catered to the community. A review of Klobuchar’s events in Nevada revealed that there were no events that specifically reached out to the AAPI community.

"Our campaign has prioritized outreach to the Asian American & Pacific Islander community in Nevada and across the country,” a campaign spokesperson said. “In the Silver State, we have worked with the AAPI Democratic Caucus and other local leaders, canvassed in the community, and engaged voters in Mandarin and Tagalog.”

Klobuchar, Buttigieg, Sanders, Biden and Warren each held over 100 Iowa events throughout the 2020 cycle, per an NBC News analysis. In Nevada, the same candidates didn’t even hit half that number, and almost all of that time was split courting constituencies other than the AAPI community.

“I've gone to dozens and many events where I sit there and they will talk about the different ethnic groups,” Lin said. “They always forget about the Asian community ... Why are we always left off the table?”

Lauren Egan contributed.