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The Asian-American Voters Of Orange County

Jun 2, 2018
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

California's primary is this coming Tuesday. Lots of attention is focused on a handful of congressional seats in Orange County, a traditional Republican stronghold that voted Democratic in the last presidential election for the first time in 82 years. The fastest-growing minority group there is Asian-Americans. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on how this demographic might affect the vote.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The hip and modern Diamond Jamboree Shopping Center in Irvine is a favorite lunch spot for young Asian professionals. At the Paper Lantern Dumpling House, Frank Chen, an engineer from Taiwan, is eager to discuss the upcoming California primary. He says talking politics out in the open is kind of new.

FRANK CHEN: I think, in the past, because of our background, we tend to be more conservative. We kind of just handle problems mostly internally. We don't like to express our disapproval.

SIEGLER: Chen says this is rightly changing, especially among young people. The Asian-American population has more than doubled in Orange County since 1990.

CHEN: Asians are realizing, hey, you can't just be silent. If you have an issue, if you have a problem with something, you should talk about it. You should bring it up so that people will know where you stand.

SIEGLER: And there was this one moment this past spring that made it clear that Asian-Americans were becoming a political force. Busloads of Chinese-Americans arrived at a Board of Supervisors meeting to protest plans to build a temporary homeless shelter in Irvine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) No tent city. No tent city.

SIEGLER: Not tent city, they chanted. The county later scrapped the plan.

SYLVIA KIM: My theory has been that the demographics shifted so rapidly that Orange County was not ready for it.

SIEGLER: Sylvia Kim heads the Orange County chapter of the civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

S. KIM: As the fastest-growing racial group in the U.S., Asian-Americans actually, as a whole, we have not yet reached our political potential.

SIEGLER: Kim thinks this is especially the case in suburban Orange County, now home to the third-largest Asian immigrant population in the U.S. She says, though, these Asians tend to live in more closed-off ethnic enclaves, and they're hard to organize.

S. KIM: I mean, if you think about the Latino community, I always say to service providers, you just need to speak one language. When you're reaching out to the Asian community, you need to speak six languages.

SIEGLER: Kim got a bunch of Asian-American civic leaders together recently to strategize on how to mobilize more voters to the polls before the June 5th primary.

S. KIM: Thank you so much for coming. Good to see you.

SIEGLER: They snacked on banh mi sandwiches and eggrolls, and was one of the first times that some of the group servicing the Cambodian, Korean and Vietnamese communities had shared a stage. Tricia Nguyen was a panelist representing the Vietnamese Community.

TRICIA NGUYEN: At the end of the day, you want to change, you know, especially mid-term elections. Then, you know, we have to get more people to vote and vote in the right way.

SIEGLER: Nguyen isn't sure this will happen as soon as this year, but she says by 2020, Asians could swing an election. This forum was mostly progressives. But traditionally, Republicans have had the edge here when it comes to Asian-American voter registration.

JOHN KIM: OK.

SIEGLER: In the heavily Korean suburb of Garden Grove, the president of the Korean American Federation, John Kim, doesn't see that changing much for now.

J. KIM: Korean immigrants - still, they are conservative. They don't want big change.

SIEGLER: Korean immigrants are conservative, Kim says, a tight-knit community. His office shares space in a shopping center lined with barbecue joints and Asian supermarkets. Most of the clientele is older, and not a lot of English is spoken.

J. KIM: (Speaking Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Korean).

SIEGLER: John Kim says the big issue for Korean-American voters right now is the negotiations over the Korean peninsula. And so Donald Trump...

J. KIM: We support him. We very support him because we believe in what he's saying now.

SIEGLER: Kim just wishes the president wouldn't be so hard on immigration. That appears to be, at least, one widely shared view among Orange County's diverse and still up-and-coming Asian voting bloc. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Santa Ana, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.