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On Super Tuesday, Asian American and Pacific Islanders hold potentially untapped clout

AAPIs make up nearly 20 percent of California’s electorate, and they could be poised to play an outsized role on Super Tuesday.
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LOS ANGELES — Eshter Jung dragged her fingertip across a big, multi-colored map of Los Angeles. As she moved across the grid, tracing across yellow boulevards and pale blue blocks, it was as if she was traveling the world, or at least a huge swath of it: Filipinotown to Little Tokyo, Chinatown to Little Bangladesh.

Finally, her finger settled on the intersection of 6th Street and South Harvard Boulevard, the heart of Koreatown, where she stood in the offices of the Korean American Coalition.

“The Asian American population is one of the fastest growing populations in the state,” Jung, a program director at the Korean American Coalition (KAC), told NBC News. “We also have the lowest voter turnout. But also we’re the population that is least interactive with politicians.”

Asian American and Pacific Islanders make up nearly 20 percent of California’s electorate. And they could be poised to play an outsized role on Super Tuesday, when California and 13 other states will hold Democratic primary elections. Of the 1,344 total delegates up for grabs on Tuesday, California is the most delegate rich. Its 415 pledged delegates will make up more than 30 percent of the total haul.

Jung and others who work directly with AAPI communities say that while there has historically been low political engagement among those groups, and national candidates rarely come courting, there’s great untapped political potential within them.

“Come to the community, host a town hall. Even one town hall will give them a sense of where the citizens are and what they want to see changed in their own community,” said Vince Lee, also with the KAC, whose mission is to promote the civic and civil rights of the Korean American community in L.A.

But there are other barriers, as well. Widespread hunger, homelessness and poverty within Asian communities is often under-covered and goes largely unaddressed, according to Lee and Jung.

“When we think about homelessness, we think about a certain demographic but that’s not true. It pertains to Korean American constituents, especially the elderly, and so we feel like affordable housing is a real big issue,” Jung said.

Manju Kulkarni leads a coalition of community organizations that advocated for AAPIs. She says that politicians don’t always understand the diversity, struggles or nuances within the broader AAPI communities.

“We continue to be impacted negatively by the model minority myth and it's just not true. Absolutely there are parts of our community who are doing really well financially and there are other parts that aren’t — you know, just like America,” Kulkarni said.

“This view of us doing well means that leaders in the community don’t often then see our issues or take them seriously cause they think, 'Oh, you’re all doing really well.' And when that’s not true, that means our issues aren’t getting addressed.”

AAPIs have historically turned out to vote at low rates, though that seems to be changing. In the 2018 midterms, there was a 14-point jump in Asian American turnout nationally, great news for people like U.S. Rep. Judy Chu. As the first Chinese American woman elected to Congress, she represents a district that’s made up of nearly 40 percent Asian Americans.

“It’s definitely been getting better. I think the presidential campaigns are seeing what we’re seeing, which is that AAPI voters are the swing voters in swing states,” Chu said, walking along a busy commercial strip in her district. “If you can really appeal to the AAPI voter they do respond.”

It just takes effort and political resources, she said.

“People need to know that AAPI are a diverse community. We have 20 distinct ethnicities that speak over 100 different languages and people need to know that 70 percent are immigrant and about a third are limited English proficient, so if you can communicate with them in their own language that’s really good,” Chu said.

Over at KAZN AM 1300, a Chinese language radio station that broadcasts nationally from their Los Angeles studio, host Cat Chao said many Asian voters want to be more politically involved, but many of them simply don’t understand the U.S. political system. Many are recent immigrants who come from countries that don’t vote or hold elections.

“A lot of new immigrants, they are just trying to understand the system. I think it takes time,” said Chao, whose show educates new immigrants on voting and American democracy.

But she’s seen a shift.

“Twenty years ago, no matter what I said, I don’t think people would listen to me. But now it's different,” Chao said. “As a journalist, that is part of my job: To introduce or explain the system to new voters. It’s a long process. People realize you need to vote and use the vote as a voice.”