WASHINGTON — When Aftab Pureval first thought about running for office in a mostly white Ohio county, other Democrats advised him to change his name to something like “Adam" or "Al."
Less than a decade later, Pureval is Cincinnati’s first Asian American mayor and says some of those same Democrats are now coming to him for advice about winning Asian voters.
“It’s all very new,” Pureval said. “We are mighty and are now big enough to swing elections.”
That's why Pureval and other Asian American Democrats are launching Justice Unites Us, details of which were first shared with NBC News.
Going public during Asian American Heritage Month, the Democratic super PAC has already quietly spent $850,000 this year and plans to spend much more (though it wouldn’t say exactly how much more) in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Nevada — presidential battlegrounds that each have key 2022 Senate races.
In addition to engaging in traditional voter mobilization efforts like door-to-door canvassing, the super PAC plans to focus its organizing on small businesses such as restaurants and grocery stores, which often become hubs of local immigrant and ethnic networks.
“They’re really the nucleus of AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) communities across the community. They support temples of worship. They support community and cultural events. And they haven’t really been reached by either party,” said Pureval.
Decades of work has gone into courting and turning out Hispanic and Black voters, but the incredibly diverse Asian American and Pacific Islander community has only recently begun to see itself as a political force.
It includes people who speak dozens of languages and trace their roots to more than 20 countries in East and Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and the Pacific Islands.
That makes the work of reaching those voters particularly challenging — and expensive — and both parties have had difficulty justifying the potential return on investment in the past.
“AAPI political participation has traditionally lagged behind other racial and ethnic groups because major political parties have failed to invest in mobilizing this critical swath of voters,” said Minh Nguyen, a Democratic strategist who will serve as executive director of the new super PAC. “But in 2020 that changed for the better.”
The calculus began to change after Census data showed that AAPI turnout jumped 10 percentage points in 2020, compared with 6 points for White and Hispanic voters, and 3 points for Black voters.
And turnout among AAPI voters outpaced that of any other ethnic groups in every single battleground state.
“We’ve already proven that our community can have an outsized impact,” said Lindy Li, a Justice Unites Us co-chair and Democratic National Committee member. “Democrats must make these types of targeted investments that could be the game-changer in races that will ultimately be won in the margins.”
The new super PAC arrives as Republicans step up their own efforts.
AAPI voters broke about two-to-one for President Joe Biden — but Democrats’ margin shrank about 5 percentage points from 2016, according to exit polls.
In 2020, Korean-born Republicans Young Kim and Michelle Steel each flipped California congressional seats previously held by Democrats, becoming the first Asian American Republicans in Congress in years.
They've used that success to argue that Democratic policies are jeopardizing the very American Dream that brought their families to the United States.
“Over the last year of Democratic leadership, rising prices, tax increases, deteriorating public safety and reduced educational opportunities have put that dream at risk,” Steel and Kim wrote in an op-ed for The Hill.
With Asian Americans still underrepresented in politics, Shripal Shah, a veteran Democratic operative who is a senior adviser to Justice Unites Us, said a critical mass of AAPI politicos with enough seniority to take on a project like this — and to raise the necessary funds — has only recently emerged.
“There weren’t a lot of people who look like us running campaigns or running for office, and that impacted campaign tactics and strategy," he said. "This would’ve been unimaginable just a few cycles ago, but by bringing together this collection of experienced AAPI operatives and leaders, we’re further proving just how much representation matters.”
Jennifer Chau will serve as senior adviser in Arizona while the super PAC’s advisory council includes prominent APPI operatives Raghu Devaguptapu, Tim Lim, Irene Bueno, Vida Benavides, Luisa Blue, Kevin Acebo and Mark Skidmore.