Asian American Donors Feel Stigmatized
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 8, 1997; Page A01
LOS ANGELES—Once again, Charlie Woo is explaining himself, patiently, but not without irritation: how he makes his living as a toy wholesaler, that he is a U.S. citizen, that he has no links to the Chinese government, how he innocently got caught up in the John Huang campaign fund-raising imbroglio.
He has answered these same questions to government investigators and reporters countless times over the past year. But it is the call he received last December from an accounting firm conducting an internal investigation for the Democratic National Committee that bothers him the most.
"He asked me to confirm that I donated such and such amount on such and such a date," Woo said in an interview at his warehouse east of downtown Los Angeles. "He asked me whether I was a citizen. He asked me my profession and my income. He asked me my Social Security number [for a credit check]. . . . I said, `What if I don't give it to you?' His response was, `We will return your money and release your name to the media as someone who is not cooperating with the investigation.' "
The DNC has acknowledged such calls were made and has apologized to Woo individually and Asian Americans as a group for the aggressive tone used by investigators in its review of more than 1,200 contributions received from 1994 to 1996.
But the sting has not gone away. Nearly a year after the campaign fund-raising scandal story broke, many Asian Americans are feeling stigmatized for the actions of a few and concerned about the long-term effects on a community that has been making great political strides.
A number of Democratic fund-raisers of Asian descent are central figures in the campaign fund-raising investigation being conducted by a Justice Department task force. The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which is conducting a parallel inquiry into campaign finance abuses, also heard testimony last week from Buddhist nuns affiliated with a Taiwan-based order who attended a controversial temple luncheon with Vice President Gore last year where members of the order made contributions to the DNC.
Among those whose activities are being scrutinized are California businessmen and former Democratic fund-raiser Huang, who helped organize the temple event. Others include California entrepreneur Johnny Chung and Little Rock businessman Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie.
Justice Department investigators are examining records and seeking testimony to determine whether the three violated federal campaign laws to raise money for Democrats during last year's presidential election. Some Republican senators have attempted to tie their fund-raising efforts to foreign governments, a link that has not been proven.
The DNC has returned about $3 million from 93 contributors, about 1.3 percent of the money collected in the mid-1990s. Most of the money returned was raised by Asian Americans.
There has been much debate among Asian Americans nationwide about the possible short- and long-term impacts of the fund-raising scandal. But clearly the issue has upset and turned off many.
"I'm not going to give any money to any politician in the near future, and I'm encouraging all of my friends not to give either," said Suzanne Ahn, a Dallas-based neurologist who said she has given tens of thousands of dollars to both parties over the years.
Asian Americans have become an increasingly important source of campaign money, considered second only to Jewish Americans among ethnic and racial groups despite being only about 3 percent of the population. Fund-raisers estimate Asian Americans gave at least $10 million during last year's presidential race alone, with the edge to Democrats.
Most Asian Americans are concentrated in key electoral states such as California, New York and Texas. And their registration is almost evenly split between the parties with a large number of independents.
In the past two decades, Asian Americans have become increasingly involved in politics on all levels. More than 1,200 hold elected office in 32 states, said Don Nakanishi, director of the Asian American Studies Center at the University of California at Los Angeles. As of the late 1970s, only a couple of hundred held office, concentrated mostly in California and Hawaii.
Last year, several Asian American organizations helped to register 75,000 new voters. And in November, Democrat Gary Locke was elected governor of Washington, the first Asian American to hold that position in the continental United States.
But for all their political gains, many Asian Americans are tentative about getting involved more directly in politics. And many Asian American leaders fear the spillover from the fund-raising mess will discourage the positive trend.
"The community is about two-thirds immigrant, with many coming from backgrounds where politics and government are considered corrupt, a dirty area, one that is not highly regarded," said Daphne Kwok, executive director of the Organization of Chinese Americans in Washington.
Steve Erie, an associate professor of political science at the University of California-San Diego, said Asian Americans have been slow to follow the black and Irish models of full and active electoral involvement. While Asian Americans have long been big political contributors, he said, they have not been as diligent in registering to vote and working in campaigns. About 53 percent of Asian American adult citizens were registered to vote in 1994, compared with 61 percent of blacks and 69 percent of whites.
Karen Narasaki, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, understands the dilemma for Asian Americans. "My parents were [Japanese Americans] interned during World War II," she said, "The message from our parents was, `Keep your head down and try not to be noticed.' "
The notoriety of the fund-raising scandal is exactly what many Asian Americans feared. And it has been compounded by what many see as thinly veiled hints of racism.
Asian Americans said they felt particularly targeted when the DNC this year invoked a policy of not accepting contributions from legal residents who are noncitizens, even though federal campaign laws allow it. Many Asian Americans also have complained about comments made by congressional Republicans, most notably Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback's quip about Huang's incentive to raise money for the DNC: "No raise money, no get bonus." Brownback apologized, but the statement has been widely circulated in Asian American publications and Web sites along with offensive comments from other officials.
"I think the fact that I have to prove my innocence, that I have to meet a higher standard than everybody else, makes me angry," said Woo, who allowed the DNC to check his credit out of fear that refusing would make him look guilty of something.
"They asked me whether I was a citizen and whether I had the means to donate the money myself," said Munson Kwok of Los Angeles, an engineer who said his family has been in the United States for 134 years. "It was just a litany of questions, practically giving you the third degree."
DNC co-chairman Steven Grossman said in an interview that the investigation did not target people by last names, as many Asian Americans have suspected. Instead, the DNC focused primarily on those who had been solicited by Huang, Trie or Chung, most of whom happened to be Asian American.
Grossman said the DNC investigation was necessary for the committee to know whether it really had a problem. But he said he regretted the manner in which it had been handled. Grossman said he and co-chairman Roy Romer have met with Asian American community leaders to begin the process of "relationship rebuilding."
"I think what we apologized for was a certain level of insensitivity that we displayed in going about our internal review," Grossman said.
Many Asian Americans, however, continue to feel stigmatized. Matters were not helped when Rep. Jay Kim (R-Calif.), the nation's first Korean-born congressman, and his wife pleaded guilty last month to federal misdemeanor charges for accepting and hiding $230,000 in illegal campaign contributions. Five U.S. affiliates of Korean corporations also pleaded guilty to charges of making illegal contribution's to Kim's campaign.
Francey Lim Youngberg, who runs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Institute, said several Asian American groups are working to create a national civil and political rights organization along the lines of the NAACP and Anti-Defamation League. "We don't condone any illegal activities," she said. "But we don't want the actions of a few individuals to taint a whole community. This crisis has been a catalyst for people to mount these national efforts."
In California, a group of state Assembly members are sponsoring a resolution that urges President Clinton and Congress to "condemn all prejudice against Asian and Pacific Islander Americans" and to publicly support their participation in "the political, public and civic affairs of the United States." The resolution suggests intense media coverage of the campaign finance scandal "may result in the widespread denigration" of Asian Americans.
Locke said that he expects long-term repercussions and that he had already witnessed fallout some potential candidates in California have talked about their reluctance to run for office.
California Treasurer Matt Fong (R), however, one of the highest-ranking Asian American politicians in the country, remains confident the Asian American community will support his bid to challenge Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) in next year's election. "What I have heard from my Asian American friends is that because of abuse in how they were treated by the DNC they will not be raising money for the DNC or President Clinton," Fong said.
But Albert Chu, who heads the Asian American Political Coalition in New Jersey, agrees with those who think the fund-raising scandal in the end will hurt: "I think it will have a kind of chilling effect. All of a sudden people are getting in trouble, and people are afraid."
Woo is more angry than afraid. A picture of him shaking hands with Clinton hangs in an office in his warehouse. He said Huang, whom he knew through business circles, pestered him constantly last year about contributing to the DNC. Woo had long been active in local politics.
"He asked me to give $12,500 and said I could meet the president," Woo said. "I told him, `Whoa, that's way out of my league.' He said, `Okay, give $1,000 and you can meet the vice president.' "
Woo said he eventually gave $7,500 that included a $1,000 donation to attend the event at the Buddhist temple and met Clinton and Gore. He said was happy about the "access" he and others in the Los Angeles area community were getting through Huang. A few months later, the fund-raising scandal broke.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company