Voices as Diverse as Their Backgrounds

Annabel Park says she senses Obama's
Annabel Park says she senses Obama's "authenticity." (Jahi Chikwendiu - Twp)
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Sunday, February 10, 2008

The looming "Potomac Primary" has shifted the Democratic nomination battle to one of the nation's most diverse immigrant strongholds. One in five Washington residents is foreign born, with natives of not just El Salvador but also of more than 10 other nations, including Korea, India and Ethiopia, accounting for a sizable share.

Until now, immigrants' electoral clout has lagged their numerical strength. Because most aren't U.S. citizens, foreign-born locals account for only 7 percent of the area's eligible voters. Even those who are citizens often aren't familiar with the political process.

But that doesn't take into account the growing number and sophistication of immigrants' U.S.-born adult children or the galvanizing effect of a dead heat in which even the smallest voting bloc stands to make the difference. Amid the excitement, first- and second-generation immigrants across the region say they are mobilizing as never before. Here's a sampling:

Dave Kumar, 36, the District

Revelation came to Dave Kumar through a TV screen, as he watched Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) tell the 2004 Democratic National Convention about "the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too."

For Kumar, a lawyer born in the United States to Indian parents, the sense of identification was immediate.

"Here was someone who understands what it's like to be perceived as different yet still believe he's an American," he said. "I just felt this moment of absolute pride."

Hundreds of like-minded peers have flocked to the "South Asians for Obama" volunteer group that Kumar subsequently co-founded.

Attracting their parents has been another matter. Kumar attributes at least some of the older generation's apparent preference for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to political immaturity. Many first-generation Indian immigrants are content to have their photograph taken with a politician in place of getting genuinely involved, he said. Others are narrowly focused on the issue of U.S. relations with India. Either way, they are drawn to establishment candidates with a track record of support for India.

By contrast, "for the younger generation, it's about so many other issues. It's about civil rights. It's about bringing the nation together and getting past all the identity politics that bog us down."

Annabel Park, 39, Silver Spring

Filmmaker Annabel Park dates her political awakening to a rather less-inspiring historical moment: then-Sen. George Allen's use of the word "macaca" to mock an Indian American Democratic activist shadowing the Republican's 2006 reelection campaign.

"I suddenly felt like I was back [to] when I was the only Asian in my school, and people literally viewed us like monkeys," said Park, who was born in Korea and moved to the United States at age 9.

Her outrage inspired her to volunteer in support of Allen's opponent, Democrat James Webb, forming a tight bond with more than a dozen other Korean American first timers in the process. Now they are tapping their considerable network of Korean American contacts to drum up votes for Obama.

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