Cutting her own path

Chu, a political veteran from Solis’s district, had an immediate, almost reflexive reaction.

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“It dawned on me that it was possible to run for Congress,” she recounts.

Nearly seven months later, Chu, a Democrat, was sworn in as the country’s first female Chinese-American federal lawmaker. Her ascent to Congress, however, had a much longer buildup, one that early on earned her a place in the coterie of Asian American politicians.

She now joins Sens. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) and eight others to make up the largest contingent of Asian Americans in Congress in history.

This group of 12 still far under-represents the Asian American population, but Chu and other experts say the ethnic group’s political maturity has reached a critical point. The trailblazers have now set an example for others to follow and proven their ability to maneuver in an arena that many Asian Americans used to shy away from, they say.

For Chu, the symbolic richness of her election hit home when she was sworn in in July. She brought her two young nieces to witness the ceremony on the House floor, realizing she was exposing a new generation to the importance of politics and their potential role in it. Chu was also affected by the reactions of her constituents and supporters.

“People had tears in their eyes,” she says. “It’s times like that when I realize there’s been a void for so long. People thought it couldn’t be done.”

Chu, 56, initially thought she wouldn’t be the one doing it. Her grandfather came to the United States “from nothing,” she says, but opened a neighborhood Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles that gave her family a footing in their new country.

As an undergraduate at the University of California, Los Angeles, Chu liked math and thought she would be a computer scientist. That changed when she took an Asian American Studies class and became privy to the discriminatory laws her grandfather was up against when he immigrated to the U.S.

Still, she thought she would play more of a supporting role in politics and policy rather than taking the lead herself.

According to many experts, it’s remarkable that the young Chu’s political aspirations even reached that level.

Asian Americans interested in politics for a long time have had to overcome doubts about their professional pursuits both within and outside their own community. The early generations of Asian Americans often carried over a distrust of the governments of their native countries, experts say, and they largely came to the U.S. with other skill sets or career goals. Meanwhile, other segments of the American population have historically viewed Asian Americans with skepticism when it comes to having them step up as political leaders.

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“Because Asian Americans are frequently seen as ‘perpetual foreigners,’ their loyalties continue to be questioned,” C.N. Le, the director of the Asian American Studies program at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, wrote in an e-mail. Le, who also writes the Asian Nation blog, cited several other factors contributing to Asian Americans’ slow involvement in politics, from a historical aversion to “rough and tumble” professions like politics to the general population commonly overlooking them as leaders who can inspire the masses.

As for the congressional level, Asian American politicians have been slow to attain it for simpler reasons, says Don Nakanishi, the director of the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA. Because Congress does not have term limits, aspiring Asian American members often wait a long time for their chance to run — or never get one, he says.

(Nakanishi uses as a counterexample the California State Legislature, which, with its term limits, has nearly reached parity in its Asian American representation. On the other hand, Asian Americans make up about 2 percent of Congress while they constitute more than 4 percent of the total U.S. population, according to an analysis by The Hill.)

But also, because of population patterns, Asian Americans are very unlikely to make up a majority in any congressional district (except for Hawaii), eliminating the chance for any Asian American politicians to be elected to office solely on account of their ethnicity, he says.

However, therein lies the key to many contemporary Asian American politicians’ success, Nakanishi says. Politicians like Chu, whose district is majority-Latino, and former Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) and Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.), who were minorities in their congressional districts, had to reach out beyond their own ethnic communities to win elections.

“From the very start of their political careers, they’ve had to appeal more broadly,” says Nakanishi, who has known Chu for 30 years. “They could not simply be Asian American elected officials representing Asian American interests.”

Indeed, Chu has been described throughout her political career as a “bridge builder,” but she says she also owes a debt to the growing infrastructure designed to help her and her Asian American colleagues win elected office.

Gautam Dutta, the executive director of the Asian American Action Fund, a political action committee, says the Asian American community is just now building a “farm team” of leaders who can get elected to Congress.

“Asian Americans as a political group are relatively young,” he says. The AAA PAC has been in existence for 10 years, and Dutta predicts Asian American politicians’ continued success, especially considering what he sees as their prowess in netroots organizing.

Chu was inspired to step out of supporting roles and run for office to combat a movement in her native Monterey Park, Calif., in the 1980s to pass English-only laws. She won a seat on the school board in 1985 and progressed to the City Council and State Legislature — usually starting off as the lone Asian American woman in the room but often seeing other Asian Americans close behind.

When her shot at Congress emerged, she saw the chance to blaze a trail once again.

“I was excited. I was overwhelmed at the possibility of it,” she says.

Chu has since thought of her grandfather and the distance between the circumstances he faced and the reality she now lives.

“Now, two generations later,” she observes, “here I am, his granddaughter, a member of Congress.”