Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., who recently became the first Asian American to be elected vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, took a moment to reflect with NBC News on how he got there. Lieu, a Taiwanese immigrant, said much of his early years in the U.S were spent with his family at the flea market in Cleveland, selling gifts and fending off shoplifters to make ends meet.
“To go from that, to now being in House leadership in the Democratic caucus,” Lieu said, shows “the durability of the American dream.”
His arc is also somewhat of a metaphor for a larger phenomenon happening in the Asian American community. In the past few years this group has experienced a surge of political activity, influence and visibility — they are increasingly understood as a part of the American society, he said. And this evolution, Lieu noted, coincided with his own trajectory.
“It’s actually more of a recognition by my colleagues of the growing importance of the Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities,” he said.
In addition to the Asian American community’s growing political power, Lieu's rise is seen as attributable to the strength of coalitions, his active participation in the caucus and various experience he’s racked up along the way.
Lieu, who also won re-election of his seat earlier last month, will be succeeding fellow California Rep. Pete Aguilar, the new caucus chair, at the start of the new Congress on Jan. 3. Lieu defeated three other contenders: Reps. Joyce Beatty of Ohio, Debbie Dingell of Michigan, and Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania in a vote among his colleagues in the House.
The congressman said he credits his election partly to an “understanding” from the caucus that having Asian American representation in leadership was a necessity, given the community’s burgeoning political power.
In two decades the Asian American electorate surged 139%, according to Pew Research. And during the midterms, the Asian American vote made up the margin of victory in a number of races including in Nevada, where Asian Americans make up 10% of the electorate and helped swing the 3rd Congressional District blue, and Georgia, where the racial group could tip the scale in a tight runoff Tuesday.
The congressman added that beyond Asian Americans, his win also showcases the power of a broad collective. In addition to the strong support from the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, Lieu said the endorsement from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, that included a speech from chair Rep. Raul Ruiz of California, was also an important aspect of the campaign.
“If you look at what the House Democratic Caucus did, it was, I feel, remarkable. Over 200 people in independent elections and races basically elected a leadership team that represents the beautiful diversity of America,” he said. “It shows that all our various groups and caucuses are working together to basically put people before politics and help American families.”
Madalene Mielke, president and CEO of Asian Pacific Institute for Congressional Studies, told NBC News that Lieu in Democratic leadership could have a significant impact on the Asian American community.
“This really does put sort of a pin in that Asian Americans now have someone in the room who can help to set legislative priorities and be able to really think about it from the lens of an Asian American,” Mielke said. “I think this is a part of the evolution of how the leadership in the Democratic caucus has really embraced the reflective diversity of its members.”
Of course, Mielke said, simply electing an Asian American doesn’t always translate to a representation of the community’s interests. Genuine inclusion involves a concerted effort to ensure that Asian Americans feel seen across all legislative priorities from health care to education, she said. And already, Lieu has been vocal about language access, an issue of critical importance to Asian Americans, who have a disproportionate number of people with limited English proficiency or whose English is a second language, Mielke said.
Lieu also reflected on paving the way for others.
“I remember growing up and when I found out that S.B. Wu was lieutenant governor of Delaware, I thought, ‘Huh, this Asian American is in a pretty high position in Delaware.’ And then I discovered later Gary Locke was governor of Washington state,” Lieu recalled. “It occurred to me that well, if they could do that, then anyone can be anything in America. And I think that’s true. Personally, when I see diverse representation it does give me hope.”
While Lieu’s win is meaningful and historic, it’s not necessarily surprising, Mielke said. She pointed out that Lieu previously served as vice chair of the Policy and Communications Committee and has made a name for himself as a vocal member of the caucus. Last year, Lieu co-sponsored the article of impeachment on Trump and was subsequently chosen by Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a manager in Trump's second impeachment trial. In June, Lieu went viral for reciting what “Jesus said about homosexuality,” before standing in silence on the House floor for 20 seconds.
Lieu has been well-positioned to ascend in leadership, she said.
“He has a pretty strategic plan when it comes to how he communicates messaging to people — to his constituents and to people across all communities,” Mielke said. “He has just shown that he’s a leader that happens to be Asian American.”
And while Asian Americans have long been stereotyped across industries as good workers rather than strong leaders, something that’s hindered the group in sectors from business to law, Mielke said Lieu has managed to buck the trope in the eyes of his colleagues.
“Congressman Lieu has always just been a very sort of forthright person. He’s just kind of no-nonsense. And I think his tweets really highlight who he is as an authentic individual,” Mielke said, referring to his sharp Twitter presence that has well over 1 million followers. “I think that’s a part of the narrative that people have about who he is and meeting the moment.”