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Asian-Americans Get “Gored”

What is the best way for Democrats to woo Asian Americans into their camp?

July 3, 2000

What is the best way for Democrats to woo Asian Americans into their camp?

If he takes the job, Mr. Mineta will help President Clinton fulfill an old campaign promise to have a Cabinet that reflects the racial diversity of the United States. But, more to the point, the nomination fulfills another key promise — that of helping his vice president, Al Gore, win the White House this November. Ever the shrewd operator, President Clinton’s selection of Mr. Mineta, who is widely respected in the Asian-American community, provides Mr. Gore with a much-needed inroad into that segment of the voting public.

So far, the vice president has kept Asian-Americans at a distance, and he has made very few public campaign stops at Asian-American events. That is because photographs of Mr. Gore at the Shi Lin Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles, where he engaged in some rather questionable fundraising activities back in 1996, keep popping up in the news. These images help his Republican opponents make a case against Mr. Gore’s broader sense of judgment.

The Temple and its monks, who had taken a vow of poverty, are wrapped up in a murky issue of alleged campaign contributions from China and from American corporations, like Loral, who wanted to sell sensitive high tech equipment to Beijing. The insinuation that Republicans are keen to make is that Mr. Gore is in the pocket of Communist China — a country their candidate, George W. Bush, has labeled a “strategic competitor.”

Another explosion was triggered by the case of Wen Ho Lee, the Taiwanese-born scientist accused of passing on secrets from the Los Alamos nuclear research lab. Mr. Gore’s opposition has voiced the concern that Chinese-Americans shouldn’t be trusted with matters of national security. Meanwhile, the Asian-American community is up in arms over Lee’s treatment while he’s awaiting trial, deeming the unproven charges against him as racist scapegoating.

Republicans are keen to press the insinuation that Mr. Gore is in the pocket of Communist China — a country their candidate has labeled a “strategic competitor.”

All of this matters to the vice president for the simple reason that, while Asian-Americans make up less than 4% of the U.S. population, they are concentrated in states that are strategically vital for victory.

For example, Asian-Americans make up 12% of California’s population — a state that, if won, provides a candidate with one-fifth of the electoral votes necessary to win the presidency. Asian-Americans also make up relatively large segments of the states of Washington, New York and New Jersey. In a close election, their votes can be critical.

That is why Mr. Mineta’s nomination is great news for Mr. Gore. It allows him to continue to shy away from Asian-Americans on the campaign trail — and thus avoid the stigma of the Buddhist temple episode. Meanwhile, back in Washington, Mr. Gore’s boss and mentor, Bill Clinton, could wink and grin as he presented Mr. Mineta to the media. After all, who is to say that Mr. Mineta won’t someday be part of a Gore Cabinet?