Asian American candidates talk about their vision for Austin and Travis County

With Asian Americans as the fastest growing ethnic minority in Austin and the nation (making up about 6.3 percent of the Austin population), it shouldn’t be so surprising to have multiple Asian Americans campaigning, but this is a major moment for Austin. It is with particular pride and excitement that we have four Asian American candidates running for office in Austin and Travis County.

Two candidates shared their insights at a forum hosted by the Asian Bar Association hosted an Asian Pacific American Candidate Forum, held at the McGinnis Lochridge & Kilgore law offices downtown on Oct. 16. Association president Lisa Tsai moderated the discussion.

“We wanted to show off the candidates,” Tsai said. “It is unprecedented to have this many Asian American candidates. The point of the event is to really talk to the candidates and ask the questions that people in the community really care about.”

Richard Jung, who is an Austin attorney and candidate for Travis County Commissioner, and Todd Wong, who is an Austin attorney and candidate for Travis County Court at Law Judge, both attended. Jade Chang Sheppard and Ramey Ko, both candidates for State Representative, District 50, were unable to attend due to campaign commitments and illness, respectively.

Early voting is currently underway and Nov. 5 is Election Day for general and special elections. Jade Chang Sheppard is running in the special election for State Representative, District 50. Todd Wong, Richard Jung and Ramey Ko are up for election during the primary elections, which takes place in March.

Question, Tsai: Why is it important to you to run?
Jung: For me, I hit a certain point in my life. I’ve been involved in a lot of different causes. You come to realize decisions makers have a significant impact for sectors of our community, and for some they don’t even know these groups exist. [And the reverse is also true]. There’s this gap. We really need people to help bridge that gap. Sarah Eckhardt encouraged me to run because [of the work I have been doing with various groups] … it’s not just an issue of ethnicity or race. You have to address a range of issues.

Wong: You start becoming a part of groups and start thinking you can change things, to lead and make things better. For lawyers, the next step would be to run for a judicial position. It’s just a passion to make a difference. A lot of you do that already. You just say “yes” and take on projects because you want to make a difference. I’m thankful I have that chance.

Question, Tsai: As an Asian American candidate, you stick out in a crowd, especially in Texas. Have either of you had any challenges, or even advantages, as Asian Americans?

Jung: My biggest thing is being mistaken for Todd Wong or Ramey Ko. People come up to me and say that they are so glad that I’m running for Judge. So I do my best impression of Todd and say, “Thank you, please vote for Todd Wong for Judge!” Amy Wong Mok ran, Jennifer Kim and Betty Hwang were both elected, but we’ve never had more than one Asian American candidate run at a time. It’s going to take some time for people to get used to the fact that we have Asian Americans running.

Wong: Ramey Ko, Nick Chu and I are always called each others names (laughing) – they are both younger than me and have more hair.

Question, Tsai: Another issue is that our community is not politically active. The trend is starting to reverse … Asian Americans are the fastest growing ethnic minority in Texas and US. Why do you think we are not as politically active?

Jung: You have a generation of people who may not [be accustomed to voting, come from countries where it is dangerous to participate politically, language barriers, etc.] so until propagation exceeds immigration … when you get to second and third generation Asian Americans you will see more exposure. We’re [afforded] those opportunity when we master the language.

Literally, 50 votes will swing the vote. We are out there in layers. We have been registering as many Asian Americans as much as possible. The fact there are four of us running, we are trying to make a concentrated effort. It’s an attempt to enlist as many Asian Americans registered to vote.

Wong: For my dad’s generation, it was always concerned about family. The younger generation really does feel their voice is important. With all the mess in Washington you’re going to have a lot of angry people and they’re going to want to vote. We all feel a connection now that we can make some differences. You’re going to have a bigger pool of people voting to make change.

Jung: It’s not something people really talk about, but the ability to raise money [cannot be underestimated] … It may be possible for an Asian American candidate to raise money entirely from the APA community. Whether we win or lose, it’s the need for politicians to listen to Asian American community. Unfortunately, money talks. In politics, it means a whole lot.

Question, Tsai: The Democratic/Republican divide – will that increase or decrease the impact?

Wong: It will probably increase the influence.

Jung: Even though there is a diversity of Asian Americans, really there is a lot in common just with the immigration aspect.

Question, audience member: What are your platforms?

Wong: With judicial candidates, there’s a commonality: listen fairly, work hard, apply the law to the facts and do your best. Lawyers want you to make a decision, even if they disagree.

Jung: I’m running as somebody who is an outsider. My [platform] has been on fiscal responsibility. The State Legislature is basically passing the buck to the County for everything [roads, etc.]. Eventually, it will have to be paid. We’ve had to issue more bonds to cover things that would normally be covered by the State. In the last jail we built, we had $100,000 million in overruns. In private practice you would NEVER allow that to happen. That $100,000 million could have gone to roads, water, social services. There are a lot of people who live in parts of the county who live in a ramshackle house with barely a road, drinking [contaminated] well water. They don’t think they have the right to ask for [services].

The City and County have put off the hard decisions to improve our transportation issues. We need to do a lot more. We need to ensure we don’t have a major catastrophe on our hands [with wildfire prevention].

Question, audience member: The Asian population will overtake African Americans in Austin. There are four African American judges in Travis County now. What can we do to get more Asian American leaders interested in running?

Wong: If they could talk to someone who’s won and someone who can walk them through the process. Or even just someone who ran. You have to go out and politic and be ready to work at it.

Jung: I think it’s naturally happening now. The mentoring thing is key. The AAEN in the City of Austin has an issue because they didn’t have a lot of managers. If you have Todd on the bench, then you will have more Asian American lawyers coming up to him [for advice].

Originally published October 2013

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