Asian American Leader Fears Scandal Will Set Back Asian Voter Participation
Sandip Roy, Aug 16, 2004
SAN FRANCISCO -- The Asian community in San Francisco is reeling from an unfurling political and financial scandal. An investigative series in the San Francisco Chronicle has reported that Julie Lee, a prominent figure in the community who founded the immigrant resource center, the San Francisco Neighbors Resource Center, may have helped funnel back well over $100,000 of a $500,000 grant from California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley. The $100,000 allegedly went to Shelley's campaign war chest. The FBI is investigating the story; the state senate wants hearings; and new details of more alleged money laundering are emerging every day. David Lee, executive director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee in San Francisco, spoke to NCMís radio show UpFront about the fallout of the scandal in the cityís influential Chinese community.
What is the larger significance of this story for the Asian community?
David Lee: Itís been on the front page of every Chinese newspaper. Itís been in the Chinese news broadcasts on the radio and on TV and I think itís accurate to say that the communityís eyes are focused on this story.
Are they saying that this will have a really bad effect on the community as a whole as opposed to being about one person?
DL: Setting aside guilt or innocence in this case, the story as itís unraveling has really worried a lot of activists and leaders in the Asian American community because we are fearful that it will have a chilling effect on Asian American civic and political participation. As we head into a very important November election, in which a brand new voting system called ďrank choice votingĒ is introduced which will impact seven of the heavily immigrant and Asian districts and their choices for the board of supervisors, the Asian community will need to overcome yet another barrier -- in this case, the hesitation to involve themselves in registering or voting. One of the main messages weíve received from the community is that we as a community need to pull together so that Asian Americans will not be turned away from the political process. People will need to work twice as hard to get their constituencies out, to educate people that itís okay to get involved.
This is not the first time that the Asian community, that the Chinese American community as a whole has found itself under this kind of spotlight. There was the fuss over campaign contributions to Al Gore, the John Huang story, the Buddhist temple donations. Is this different because itís taxpayer money thatís involved as opposed to private, well-funded individuals making donations?
DL: It plays into the stereotypes that people already harbor that Asian Americans are somehow not playing by the same rules that everybody else is playing by. In 1996 when the Asian ďdonorgateĒ scandal as it came to be known happened -- there was massive mainstream media coverage about the Asian American community, and most of it did not put the community in good light. It did not, however, have the chilling effect that many predicted on Asian American turnout.
With a city that is one-third Asian American, is there a concern that the spillover could actually widen and are other Asian officials concerned that their names will be dragged into this controversy?
DL: A case like this is going to unfold however it does. There is no control over that and I would think that Asian American officials and leaders would uniformly agree that if laws have been broken, there needs to be a thorough investigation, and a thorough review of the procedures.
But in previous financial scandals before when it might have been one Asian businessman who gave the money but everyone with an Asian surname who gave money immediately got investigated.
DL: I think there is a fine line between wanting justice done -- and to see a fair and impartial investigation -- and a witch hunt. The best way to ensure no witch hunt happens is to allow investigative agencies to do their work, watch as the facts come in, but at the same time educate the larger community. People tend to paint the entire community with a broad brush and that is unfair. There are many people in the community following the rules and doing good work.
Leaving aside the principals named in this, Julie Lee and her son Andrew Lee, there are several people who have no history of political giving, who received money and turned around and gave it back to the Shelley campaign, some of them not even knowing who Kevin Shelley was. Does this mean people are just ill-informed about how the system works and allowed themselves to be used?
DL:That is an indication that we need more education and outreach to people as they begin to be politically involved about how to involve themselves in a legal way. Itís a community that is new to the political process. Some people may not be as aware as other people about what the campaign finance rules and laws are in the state.
But other immigrant communities who came here much earlier all had their share of these sort of financial scandals to gain political access. Ironically, could it be said that this scandal in some peculiar way is a political coming-of-age?
DL: Every group, as they become politically aware and engaged, goes through a period of learning. Thereís a steep learning curve. As the community moves forward, I think there will be more engagement and participation, and cases like this will be in the minority.
Financial improprieties aside, one of the real tragedies in this story is that there was this $500,000 grant given to build a community center for immigrants and that didnít happen. How has the community reacted to that?
DL:In the community in this particularly bad budget season, where we saw many people laid off in the non-profit sector and many social service agencies tightening their belts, the loss of services hurts. The fact that these services never came online resonates with people in the community. However, we canít lose sight that there are many other good organizations in the community doing this same good work that have followed the rules. Our concern is that those organizations will be painted with a broad brush and scrutinized even further than what is necessary. We are talking about taking a proactive role in educating non-profits and other social service providers about the risks that are out there. This could be a great learning opportunity.
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