One of Virginia Rep. Frank Wolf's most stalwart supporters is a 32-year-old Vienna man and Fairfax County government employe, a savvy fellow who advised the Republican during his successful reelection campaign last fall.
Wolf's opponent in the race for the 10th District seat, Democrat Ira M. Lechner, benefited from the support of a 40-year-old Arlington woman who works at a small service agency.
The two political activists may be poles apart, but Augustine Ha-Ton Vinh and Lany Lang have at least one thing in common: both are members of Northern Virginia's newest voter class, refugees and immigrants from Southeast Asia, a group that political experts predict will one day be a potent force in the region's politics.
The first wave of Southeast Asian refugees arrived in this country in 1975. Already there are signs that the 15,000 Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians in the area--75 percent of the statewide Indochinese refugee total--have carved a sizeable niche for themselves. In Arlington, the Asian community has long been active in county school board affairs and PTAs, while in Fairfax, refugees have lobbied for broader housing and employment rights.
Last fall, however, in the Wolf-Lechner contest and in county races, politicans began actively courting Asian immigrants. Lechner sent out fliers and position papers in Vietnamese, and Wolf created a large committee of Asian-Americans to advise him in the final stages of the campaign.
"As more Asians become citizens, they will probably play a disproportionately significant role in local and state elections," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia government professor and expert on Virginia voting trends. "Four or five years or a decade from now they could very well have a real impact" on Northern Virginia elections.
Because refugees who become U.S. citizens take their voting rights so seriously, they could become assets to both major parties--much like the Southwest's largely Democratic Hispanic population or the mostly Republican Cuban community in South Florida, Sabato and other political observers believe.
Not that Northern Virginia's Asians will become power brokers overnight. Actual voter registration along the Rte. 50 corridor, where most refugees have settled, is still low: roughly 20 percent of the refugees have lived here for the six years necessary to become citizens. The population in Fairfax County's Wilston precinct near Seven Corners, for instance, is 15 percent Asian--but only 17 percent of the residents there are registered to vote.
By contrast, the nearby Tripps precinct, where the Asian population is just 2 percent of the total, 55 percent of the population is registered to vote, according to County Electoral Board secretary Jane Vitray. The trend of relatively low registration in neighborhoods with high numbers of Asians is repeated along Rte. 50, Vitray said.
Nonetheless, political leaders are already building bridges to the Asian community.
"Community involvement and politics go hand in hand," said Lechner, who set up four-person phone banks to tap the Vietnamese, Korean and Hispanic communities. "There's a nucleus of people--in the low-income apartment projects, in central Arlington, along the Rosslyn corridor--with very legitimate concerns about condo conversions, education or immigration issues.
"For many of them, politics is extension of those grass-roots concerns. They're trying to find their place . . . in the very elaborate structure of Northern Virginia."
Lany Lang, the past president of the Cambodian Women for Progress Inc., an Arlington-based organization helping refugee women and their children, met with Lechner during the campaign to discuss housing problems in Asian neighborhoods between Columbia Pike and Rte. 50.
"We were trying to address some basic problems--hot water, security, heat in the apartments," said Lang, an American citizen who came to this country from Cambodia in 1964. "The refugees who are citizens have fewer problems than the others, but for many families, the situation is not good."
While housing and education issues have made some refugees the Democrats' natural constituents, Republicans have made inroads into the Asians' affluent professional and business communities.
"Many refugees favor the Republicans because they want a strong national defense because they're anticommunist," said Augustine Vinh, a Vietnamese refugee who headed Asian-Americans For Frank Wolf last year.
"Refugees are very mindful of their vote, and they do vote," said Vinh, who fled Saigon in 1975 and became a citizen two years ago. "One of the ideas we have in mind is to use our vote to influence the system.
"Living in this country you realize you have to have polticial clout. You must know the system, and you must stick together."
A high school teacher in his native country, Vinh is a project coordinator in the Fairfax County Human Services Department, working on programs to assist the county's 6,000 refugees. He will soon leave his county post to become executive director of a consortium of area refugee assistance programs.
For many newcomers to Northern Virginia, the language barrier, coupled with the persecution and censorship they experienced under military regimes in their native countries, has made them reluctant to become involved with politics, Vinh said. Also, many whose family members remained in Southeast Asia shy away from local politics because they fear some harm will come their relatives as a result, he said.
At the same time, Vinh added, "our community needs to be involved. We need to be a little more active. But it takes time."
"Refugees have seen communism firsthand and they know how bad it is," said Wolf, who meets regularly with immigrants on transportation and immigration issues. "I don't know if that makes them Republican, but they tend to be very patriotic. They have seen violence in their own country, and now they want to assimilate into this country."
Wolf said he was uncertain what impact Asian voters had in last year's election, but predicted an even wider role for the area's newest citizens. "Voting for the first generation of new citizens may be higher than their children," Wolf said, "but even then, the numbers of voters will be significant.