From the Grass Roots Up
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.
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.
"Through coalescing together, they have been able to financially support their candidates, and because they're geographically dispersed, you get an incredible grassroots organization going in neighborhoods across the city," explains Sims. "So they form both a strong volunteer base and a strong financial base."
Sugar Land's new councilman Daniel Wong believes Asian-Americans must first connect with the broader community and build the coalitions necessary for future political success. He cites his own involvement on numerous city boards and the YMCA, which served as a training ground for his run for office. Now that he's on council, Wong says, his mission is to urge others to get the same experience.
"As an Asian-American, I think I am definitely in a position to encourage people to serve on city boards and commissions, and I am also in a position to appoint them. That opens the door to directing more Asian-Americans to get involved in different levels of the government."
Fort Bend ISD trustee Lam says her and Daniel Wong's political success is based on only a few years of organizing, primarily among Fort Bend residents of Chinese extraction. Their group, The Chinese American Voters League, is also helping Martha Wong in her state rep contest, after Wong spent time advising both Lam and Daniel Wong on their campaigning techniques.
Quan's council chief of staff is Rogene Gee Calvert, who is also president of the Houston chapter of the 80-20 Political Action Committee. It is a nonpartisan effort to unify Asian-Americans of various nationalities into a cohesive national force to back candidates pledging to help expand Asian-American representation. The national 80-20 endorsed Al Gore for president, and the Houston chapter backed Mayor Brown last year.
The name 80-20 signifies that about 60 percent of Asians are political independents. The idea is that if they vote for a candidate endorsed by 80-20, it would create a potent 80 percent bloc that could influence the outcomes of close elections.
"We are the first to admit that we alone can't carry anything," says Calvert. She believes the Asian community has the potential to emulate Houston's politically influential Jewish community, which is "very small in number but very cohesive."
Quan says 80-20 has to deliver for all the different Asian nationalities, so they "see they are getting something out of this deal, and it's not all benefiting just Chinese-Americans or any one group. I think people will realize they are going to get more bang for their buck if they stay together, as opposed to saying, 'Come to my little event over here.' "
With the 2003 mayor's race looming and Brown term-limited out of office, Quan could soon be looking for 80-20 support of his own. He's sounding out supporters and civic leaders about a mayoral candidacy.
The immigration attorney grew up in Houston and says he's spent his career building bridges to the wider community. "That has given me a different perspective, being able to reach out to groups that I've worked with and have worked with me," says Quan, sounding very much like a candidate. "They know I would be sincere in making sure they were included in the decisions that were being made."
Quan likens his current City Hall role as mayor pro tem to being the second-string quarterback on a football team.
"You come in the game relieving the first-string quarterback and everybody likes you," laughs the councilman. "You really just have your moments, and everybody blames the first-string quarterback for the problems the team has."
Do you think Gordon realizes it works that way only because Lee Brown is the first-string quarterback?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.