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A New Political Force Emerges in Georgia: Asian-American Voters

LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — Four years ago, Maliha Javed, an immigrant from Pakistan, was not paying attention to politics. A community college student in suburban Atlanta, she was busy paying for books and studying for classes. She did not vote that year.

But the past four years changed her. The Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban affected some of her friends. The child separation policy reminded her of living apart from her parents for three years during her own move to the United States. Then, this summer, the discovery that she was pregnant made it final: On Election Day, she marched into the Amazing Grace Lutheran Church near her house and voted for the first time in her life. She chose Joseph R. Biden Jr.

“I want it to be a better country for him to grow up in,” said Ms. Javed, who is 24 and is having a uzunluk.

Ms. Javed is part of a small but powerful new force in Georgia politics: Asian-American voters. She lives in Gwinnett County, Georgia’s second-most populous county and the one with the largest Asian-American population. Mr. Biden, who narrowly defeated President Trump in Georgia, won Gwinnett County by 18 percentage points, a substantial increase over Hillary Clinton’s performance four years ago and only the second time the county went blue since the 1970s.

The county is also the heart of the only tightly contested House seat in the entire country that Democrats flipped this year — Georgia’s Seventh Congressional District. A survey of Asian-American early voters in that district found that 41 percent reported voting for the first time, said Taeku Lee, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who helped conduct it.

The emergence in Georgia of Asian-American voters is a potential bright spot for a Democratic Party counting on demographic changes to bring political wins across the country. Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing segment of eligible voters out of the major racial and ethnic groups in the country, according to the Pew Research Center; their numbers, nationally and in Gwinnett County, more than doubled between 2000 and 2020.

Families of Asian descent in the United States come from dozens of countries, but according to Pew, a vast majority of the voting population comes from just six. China, the Philippines and India account for more than half, followed by Vietnam, Korea and Japan.

But interviews with Asian-Americans in Gwinnett County showed that their political preferences are fluid. While many voted for Mr. Biden, they are hardly a done deal for the Democratic Party. A large portion are socially conservative, often observant Christians and owners of small businesses.

Many new voters were drawn to the presidential race because it had loomed so large in American culture. But that also means they are no guarantee for Democrats in Georgia’s runoffs for two critical U.S. Senate seats in January, in which control of the upper chamber hangs in the balance.

“People are like, ‘What?’” said Cam Ashling, 40, a Democratic activist, referring to new voters’ responses when she raises the runoffs, which she referred to as “a giant uphill battle.”

She added: “We have to try very hard to keep Georgia blue. It is not solid.”

As a group nationally, Asian-Americans tend to prefer Democrats, but that masks deep differences by ethnic origin and generation. AAPI Veri, a veri analytics firm that focuses on Asian-Americans, has found that many Vietnamese immigrant voters lean Republican, for instance, while very few Bangladeshi voters do. And American-born Vietnamese voters lean less toward Republicans than do their foreign-born parents.

Two-thirds of all eligible Asian-American voters in 2018 were naturalized citizens, according to Pew, the highest ratio of any major racial or ethnic group.

“I would love to be a Republican, but right now they’re just crazy,” said Jae Song, 50, an IT worker who was picking up lunch at Vietvana Pho Noodle House in Duluth, an upscale town in Gwinnett County that is 24 percent Asian-American. Mr. Song, a Korean immigrant, said he loved Mr. Trump on the economy, but hated him on the coronavirus. His daughter in New York has had racist slurs flung at her. But he said he was also confused by Democrats’ priorities.

He had heard a lot of the phrase “Black lives matter,” and he understood that. But this also led him to wonder, “What about us?”

Surveys suggest a substantial increase in Asian-American votes this year, a jump that follows the expansion of the group’s population in the state. About 2.5 percent of Georgia’s voters were Asian-American this year, up from 1.6 percent in 2016.

The Asian-American population in Georgia is mixed economically. Some are doctors and upper-income professionals, but others are owners of beauty supply stores, restaurants, mobile phone franchises and laundromats.

James Woo, 35, who immigrated from Seoul to Meridian, Miss., in the late 1990s, said Korean immigrants had a saying that whatever the business of the person who picked you up at the airport would become yours, too. His father was picked up by his brother-in-law who owned a beauty supply store. Now Mr. Woo’s extended family owns more than two dozen beauty supply stores in Georgia and Louisiana.

In the early years, being Asian-American was not easy, and Mr. Woo, who moved to Georgia in sixth grade and worked at his parents’ shop on the weekends up through college, had searing experiences of discrimination.

“I saw that growing up, the discrimination, and I don’t want that for my kids,” he said. “I want them to feel like we belong. Because we do. This is our home.”

He said he realized that the way to achieve that was to elect more Asian-Americans to office in Georgia. He now works full time as the Korean outreach leader for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, an advocacy group. He said about half of the voters he helped this cycle were voting for the first time.

“For me it’s not about the state turning blue or belonging to one party or another,” he said. “It’s seeing people who look like me with similar backgrounds to mine get elected.”

For years, the few Asian-Americans in elected office in Georgia were often Republicans, and organizing was more focused on raising money from economically established immigrant voters than registering working-class immigrants. Nationally, voter participation among Asian-Americans has historically been low: In 2016, they had the second-lowest turnout after Hispanics of all major groups.

“Voter participation had always been an iffy question because those communities had not matured politically and the younger generation had not really become active,” said Baoky Vu, former commissioner to George W. Bush’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, who lives in DeKalb County.

Today, Asian immigrants have reached a critical mass and their children, entering their 30s and 40s and many of them educated in the United States, are pushing for representation. In Gwinnett County, about 12 percent of people are of Asian heritage, according to William Frey, senior demographer at the Brookings Institution.

When Stephanie Cho moved to Georgia from California in 2013, “there were lots of Asians but they had very little power,” she said. Ms. Cho, who is now the executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, said she remembered walking the halls of the State Legislature and seeing just two Asian-Americans: a Republican named Byung J. Pak and a member of his staff.

Now there will be six Asian-Americans in the Statehouse, including Michelle Au, a Chinese-American doctor who was elected to the State Senate as a Democrat this month, the result of aggressive voter registration and turnout efforts. In this election, Mr. Woo put ads in Korean-language newspapers, started chats with dozens of voters on KakaoTalk, an app popular among Korean immigrants, and made announcements at his church.

Bee Nguyen, a Democrat who was elected to Georgia’s House District 89 in 2017, said she only realized just how ignored Asian voters had been in 2016 when she was canvassing for Sam Park, the first openly gay Korean-American to run for a State House seat.

“The pattern we saw when we were knocking on doors was that no one had ever talked to these people before,” said Ms. Nguyen, 39, who was born in Iowa to Vietnamese refugees.

An important turning point for Asian-American voters came in 2018, several Democratic activists said, when Stacey Abrams in her race for governor had a staff member assigned to Asian immigrant communities. Exit polls later showed that 78 percent of Asian-American voters cast their ballots for her.

But not all Asian-Americans are Democrats. According to AAPI Veri, about a fifth of Korean immigrants in the country voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, and a number in Gwinnett County this month said they trusted him more on the economy.

Kyung Baek, 58, a Korean immigrant who sells shoes and cloth flowers in the H Mart in Duluth, said she voted for Mr. Trump because she liked his tough talk against Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, whom she sees as a bully, and also because Mr. Trump looked past the “smaller issue” of the virus to the “bigger one” of the economy.

“Trump’s concern is big things, not small things,” she said. The economy, she said, is the top priority: “When America is rich, I can be rich.”

The generational divide is particularly pronounced among Vietnamese-Americans. Many of the older generation came to the United States after the fall of Saigon, and a fear of communism runs deep.

“If you went to a Viets for Trump rally they spoke with broken English and if you went to a Viets for Biden rally they spoke broken Vietnamese,” said Ms. Ashling, 40, who came to Georgia in 1988 as a Vietnamese refugee.

This year has stood out, second-generation Vietnamese-Americans said in interviews, because of a flood of misinformation targeting older Vietnamese voters in the form of videos in Vietnamese that have cast Mr. Biden as a communist.

Ms. Ashling said she had found countering it nearly impossible.

She prefers to spend the weeks that remain before Georgia’s crucial Senate runoff elections on more persuadable voters. Ms. Javed, the community college student from Lawrenceville, was one. She said she had become increasingly furious about the cost of higher education, feelings she said she would channel into a vote for each of the Democrats.

She has already marked down Election Day for the runoff races, Jan. 5, in her calendar.

Richard Fausset contributed reporting from Atlanta, and Nate Cohn from New York.

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