From the Grass Roots Up

A new Houston voting bloc reaches toward empowerment

During the hard-fought Houston mayoral contest last year, Craig Varoga, campaign manager for incumbent Lee P. Brown, took several pages from a New York Times analysis of the 2000 census and pinned them to his office wall. They displayed maps and figures that contained a pointed political reminder for the staff: Houston was one of the few places in the country where black, Hispanic, Anglo and Asian populations each totaled more than 5 percent.

The mayor's strategists knew the race against GOP conservative Orlando Sanchez and moderate Democrat Chris Bell would be tight, and every vote would be crucial. The Cuban-born Sanchez's groundbreaking campaign would inevitably tap into the Hispanic vote, and the Brown brain trust was looking for every possible counterbalance in an anticipated runoff.

Varoga had helped lay the same groundwork for mayoral candidate Bob Lanier back in 1991, but Lanier's runoff opponent was African-American Sylvester Turner. So the target then had been the Latino community, which was just getting organized. In 2001, it was the Asian-American vote that was up for grabs. Varoga went after it by hiring the first paid coordinator in Houston mayoral campaign history to deal strictly with that multinational immigrant community.

Councilman Quan and chief of staff Calvert: Will he run for mayor next year?
Deron Neblett
Councilman Quan and chief of staff Calvert: Will he run for mayor next year?

Consultant Mustafa Tameez immediately got to work developing volunteer groups as well as databases enabling Brown's campaign to craft literature and automated phone calls in a half-dozen languages. These were directed at households of Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and other Asian nationalities. Varoga believes the effort helped seal a narrow Brown victory.

"The Asian population inside the city is probably on the order of 4 to 5 percent, and in votes it's probably 2 percent," figures the political consultant. "The mayor probably won that vote by 70 to 75 percent. So if the mayor won by 2 percent, about half that margin by a reasonable arithmetic can be assigned to the Asian vote."

It was one of many recent signs that local Asian-Americans are beginning to assert themselves as a political force. In the spring elections in Fort Bend County, home to a large Chinese-American population, candidates from the Chinese community won for the first time. Naomi Lam, a retired CPA whose family came from mainland China by way of Taiwan, won in a three-way contest for a trusteeship on the Fort Bend Independent School District board. Engineer Daniel Wong ousted an incumbent to win a Sugar Land City Council seat.

Former Houston district councilwoman Martha Wong gained a Republican primary nomination over several Anglo male opponents for Texas House District 134. She will face incumbent Democrat Debra Danburg in a fight for a reconfigured district that tilts toward the GOP. At Houston City Hall, at-large Councilman Gordon Quan serves as mayor pro tem and is mulling over a future mayoral bid.

Suddenly, Houstonians of Asian lineage seem to be everywhere on the political scene.

Martha Wong recalls that when she was elected to City Council in 1993, there were few Asians in appointed city positions. "Now we have Asians on every major board in the city, where we had one or two before. So they are beginning to realize the power that we can [exert] by having people representing us and making sure we have representation at other places."

Quan attributes the quickening of the Asian political pulse in Houston to two developments. One is the coming of age of native-born Asian-Americans who excelled academically and are increasingly well represented in area professional groups. At the same time, international developments brought a wave of new immigrants here who have money and a tradition of working through politics to safeguard and bolster their business successes.

"Overseas, if you are not politically connected, you don't get very far," notes Quan. As for the homegrown crowd, until recently, he says, they shied away from politics because they were skeptical of its value.

With accomplished American-born professionals getting more involved, and newer arrivals ready to contribute to candidates of Asian background, Quan says, the movement has both the candidates and the financing to take off. So far, partisan bickering has been minimal.

"We don't care so much what party they are from, so long as they are decent persons," says Quan. "Let's get them elected, and then we can go from there."

Former judge Hannah Chow, a Democrat, was the first Asian-American elected countywide to a county criminal court bench. She was ousted during the Republican sweep of the area judiciary. But her election provided an impetus and role model for the current crop of candidates and officeholders.

Political consultant Nancy Sims helped organize the Asian-American community throughout the '90s and served as a strategist for both Martha Wong and Quan. She says the current gains have been built on each successive campaign.

"Martha Wong really blazed the trail when she ran for City Council," explains Sims. "By the time Gordon ran, there was a pretty solid group who had formed to become involved in the political process. Gordon moved that base organization to a whole new level. His citywide campaign really allowed folks to become excited about it."

Houston's Asian community does not have the numerical strength of the Hispanic and African-American voting blocs, notes Sims, so it must build coalitions, within both the Asian nationalities and the wider electorate.

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