APIA Vote New Faces of Leadership Keynote Address - Cleveland
February 18, 2012
Rep. Judy Chu
Good evening! Thank you to Christine Chen and APIA Vote Michigan for
inviting me here as you kick off your activities for the 2012 cycle.
APIA Vote’s push for registering 2000 voters for this Presidential
Election year is so important. We know how powerful civic engagement
and advocacy can be. And we know it’s important that Asian Americans
have a seat at the table where decisions are being made, if we hope
to advance our agenda.
It was about 3 years ago, President Obama made a lightning bolt of
an announcement that would change my life. That’s when he revealed
that Hilda Solis was his choice to be our Secretary of Labor. I was
so thrilled because I had worked with Hilda in a coalition on
redistricting, and I knew how great she was. But then it occurred to
me the Congressional seat would be open. When I thought about the
fact that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, I decided I had
It was an extremely tough primary. There were naysayers that said
that someone like me, an Asian American, could not win this seat.
But I thought I had a chance. I thought I did because of my deep
roots in the district, having been elected at that time 9 times over
26 years by the people of the district, from school board to city
council member to Mayor, to state Assembly and then to the Board of
Equalization. I thought I did because of my long history working to
bring the community together as a coalition builder.
On July 14, 2009, I was elected. But what was even more amazing was
the next day when President Barack Obama called me from the White
House to congratulate me for being the first Chinese American women
elected to Congress in history!
Many people think that I always wanted to be an elected official.
But growing up, I never even thought about, I saw so few role
models. Then, I went to the university. I was a math major and
thought I would be working in computers. In my first quarter as a
freshman, I was walking across the quad and somebody handed me a
flyer for this new thing called Asian American Studies and I took
the class. A light went on in my head! I learned about the whole
history of discriminatory laws passed against Asian Americans
depriving them of citizenship, the right to own land and putting
them in concentration camps.
There was a moment in that class that I’ll never forget. There was a
guest speaker. Her name was Pat Sumi. She was a strong and
articulate community activist. I was thunderstruck. That was the
very first moment that I thought, it is possible for an Asian
American woman to be a leader.
That did it. I changed my major to psychology and became a community
activist. But it still never occurred to me to run for office.
And then, I got involved in an issue in Monterey Park. An
anti-immigrant backlash occurred. Many new immigrants were moving
in, and the old time residents had a hard time with it. They wanted
English-only on the signs in the city, and only English books in the
library. The last straw was when there was an English Only
resolution passed by the city council. A multiethnic group of people
formed to fight this. We circulated many petitions, and the
resolution was overturned. It became apparent that the make-up of
the city council did not represent the population of the city. Out
of this, I ran for the City Council, won, served as Mayor 3 times
and spent the next 13 years working to bring together the community.
Then, a vacancy occurred for the State Assembly seat in my district,
and I decided to run.
This is when I found out just how difficult it is to break that
glass ceiling, to get to the next level when the stakes are so high.
There are so many forces operating within Sacramento that it is
difficult to win unless you have legislators or powerful groups
backing you. Since Asian Americans were not yet organized in the
state, for instance there was no Asian American legislative Caucus,
I had virtually none.
The Old Boy’s Network chose a male to be their candidate, and
because of their powerful backing, the Speaker at that time did not
support me. Things looked bleak.
But then, there was a turning point in my campaign, and I remember
it well. It was the moment that Congresswoman Hilda Solis decided to
support me. You see, she had gone against the Old Boy’s Network
It was her support that gave me the momentum I needed to win. And I
From the State Assembly, I then got elected to the State Board of
Equalization and from there, Congress.
I learned something very important from that experience. The
importance of building coalitions; the coalition I had with Hilda
Solis turned around my election.
CAPAC and the Tri-Caucus
Last year, I had the honor of being elected Chair of the
Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus or what we call CAPAC!
Today, CAPAC consists of Congressmembers of API descents and those
Congressmembers who have large API constituencies in their district,
and we are so proud that now we are 40 members strong!
Together, with our partners in the Congressional Black Caucus and
Congressional Hispanic Caucus – the Tri-Caucus – we make up over 40%
of the Democratic members of the House! And with this strong
coalition, we are able to not only advocate for the priorities of
the API community – but for all minority communities – at the
Last year, CAPAC met with several Cabinet level secretaries, and
most significantly, had our first meeting with President Obama.
During this meeting, we covered a range of issues affecting our
community including immigration reform, health disparities, and data
disaggregation that will illuminate such facts as Lao Hmong and
Cambodians having a dropout rate as high as 40%. . And we asked the
President to speak at our API Gala in Washington DC. We said, you
speak at the Congressional Black Caucus dinner, and at the
Congressional Hispanic caucus dinner every year, but not yet at the
Asian Caucus dinner, and yet your words will be broadcast to Asians
all across America. Will you come? Well, he and his staff said yes,
if you make sure the crowd is there. So we have decided to make this
year’s Asian Pacific Heritage month celebration in Washington DC
bigger and better than ever, and we are inviting all of you from all
across the nation to participate.
We’re proud that we made a difference in so many critical areas.
We’ve made a difference on health disparities on diseases like
Hepatitis B. Hepatitis B so disproportionately affects Asian
Americans, resulting in too many deaths through liver cancer. But
the greatest tragedy of this disease is that it can be prevented
through vaccinations. And yet, there’s been so little action on this
on a national basis. Well, we are so proud that finally, this year,
the White House had it’s first World Hepatitis Day, at which time
the Administration rolled out a national strategic action plan to
address viral Hepatitis for the very first time on a national basis.
We made a difference for the Vietnamese fisherfolk in the Gulf Coast
of Louisiana affected by the BP oil spill. About one third of
shrimping boats in the area were Vietnamese American owned and
operated, and one in five Southeast Asian Americans in the region
worked in the seafood processing industry. So many of them do not
speak English, and they are isolated by language and culture. As a
result, when the oil spill happened, they could not get the proper
compensation for their losses. They had nowhere else to turn, so
they asked us, CAPAC to organize a town hall to bring attention to
the issue. Our efforts paid off when Ken Feinberg the Administrator
of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, announced that he would increase
the payments made to shrimpers and crabbers from 2 times their
losses to 4 times their losses. This was a big win for the
And, we are making a difference on Anti-China bashing. During the
November 2010, both Republicans and Democrats engaged heavily in
China-bashing in campaign commercials, and we know from our own
history how that misguided fear and anger can translate into hate
crimes and other attacks on Asian Americans. We raised our concerns
about this inflammatory rhetoric to our leadership in the House and
to the White House directly, and both have committed to refrain from
this kind of messaging in 2012.
Anti-China Ads/Recent Bigotry
All of you here know just how ugly and inflammatory racially charged
messaging can be. Just in your neighboring state, people were eating
potato chips in front of the TV last week, ready to enjoy the
Superbowl. Suddenly on comes an ad –an Ad put out by a candidate for
Senate, Pete Hoekstra. You know what I’m talking about. An obviously
American born Asian woman is in a rice paddy with a coolie hat on,
rideing on on her bike. As she gets to the camera, she says
gleefully to the camera, Isn’t it great that we get to steal your
This was offensive, stereotypical and hateful. Worst of all, it
played in Michigan, where 30 years ago, Vincent Chin was murdered.
Vincent Chin was in a bar about to celebrate his wedding when 2
white unemployed autoworkers, thinking he was Japanese, bashed his
head in with a baseball bat, shouting, “It is you Japanese who are
taking away our jobs!” To make matters worse, the judge only gave
the 2 murderers a $3000 fine and no jail time. In the meanwhile,
instead of going to Vincent’s wedding, his friends and family went
to his funeral.
So you know what hateful rhetoric can do. Well, there was a time
when Asian Americans might been silent about Hoekstra’s ad. NOT THIS
APIA Vote-Michigan jumped in right away to speak out against the ad
and said that candidates should pledge to be respectful in
campaigns. They contacted us, and we in CAPAC issued a statement
denouncing the ad and demanding an apology and I went on CNN to do
the same. Finally, Hoekstra had to take down the ad and the website.
We should all consider this a triumph!
A Sea of Change
This is the change we need to bring about. And we should bring it
about. Today, AAPIs are the fastest growing ethnic group in
America…we are a growing force, and things are changing.
There was a time when the only Asian Americans that you saw on
television was someone like Hop Sing, who played a cook on a show
called Bonanza, and all he said, was, “You want dinner, boss?”
Today, you turn on the television and see Jeremy Lin all over the
place, taking NBA basketball by storm! In fact, now, random
Congressmembers come up to me and say, Hey how about that Jeremy
Lin! And I say, “Yes”, claiming credit, even though I don’t even
know the guy!
There was a time when Asian Americans so invisible in the Capitol
that if you walked by an Asian American or Pacific Islander, you had
to turn around and look – it was such an unusual phenomenon!
Today, we have 11 Asian Pacific Islanders Members of Congress. And
out of President Obama’s 19 cabinet members, 3 have been Asian
American: Stephen Chu of the Department of Energy, Eric Shinseki of
the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Gary Locke with the
Department of Commerce, who is now serving as the first Chinese
American to be our U.S. Ambassador to China! All around the country,
we have Asian Pacific Islander elected officials in local, state and
federal offices. In fact, today, we have the greatest numbers of
APIs in state and federal office in history.
And I know that with the help of organizations like APIA Vote, this
momentum will only continue to grow! And it must grow.
I think back to over 60 years ago, when 120,000 Japanese Americans
were taken to concentration camps all around the country during
World War II. They were accused of being spies, despite the fact
that ? of them were U.S. citizens. They lost everything they had,
home, businesses, possessions. In the end, not a single case of
espionage was proven,
How could this happen? Because there not enough voices to say, we
cannot let this happen.
Today, we must have voices to say, we cannot let this happen. We
must have the voices to advocate for empowering our communities, and
to speak out when injustice occurs.
Today, I look around this room, and I see the grassroot groups, the
business leaders, the elected leaders…we have all of you.
And we need you now more than ever.
Whether it is to advocate on issues affecting the community,
volunteering on a campaign, running for an elected position, or
exercising your right to vote, you can effect real change.
I will never forget that day that I was on the floor of Congress in
front of the 435 members of Congress. I could not bring my husband
down with me. Instead, I was allowed to bring my 3 little nieces,
ages 7, 10 and 14. So there they were standing behind me, as I was
It was at that time that I reflected upon the fact that my
grandfather came to this country with nothing. In fact, he faced the
hostile laws of that time, such as that Chinese Exclusion Act, the
California laws that prevented Asian Americans from owning land, and
from being hired in any corporation. But he decided to make
something of his life anyway. He opened up a small Chinese
restaurant in Watts, and worked day and night and night and day. And
he used that very expensive labor, his sons. And finally he was able
to make ends meet. And now, 2 generations later, his granddaughter
can be a member of Congress.
But what was even better was those 3 little girls could see with
their very own eyes that it can be done. I look forward to
continuing to work with all of you. Together, we can increase our
influence and become an even stronger voice across our nation. And
together, I know we can make a difference for our communities and
for future generations to come.
Thank you all so very much!