Asian Americans flexing political muscle in Texas
Friday, July 5, 2002
HOUSTON -- For two days, Andrew Tran and his family drifted
at sea off Vietnam in a small boat. The refugees were finally picked
up by a U.S. Navy ship on July 4, 1982. Within a year, Tran was in
America going to high school. And Thursday, 20 years to the day
after that Independence Day rescue, Tran held a fund-raising
celebration as part of his campaign for a West Harris County seat in
the Texas House of Representatives.
"America has given me an
opportunity, a gift to me beyond any price," Tran said. "Now I want
to give it back." He is one of two Asian candidates running for
House seats this year. The other is Martha Wong, who served three
terms on the Houston City Council until term limits ended her
council career in 1999. Tran, 34, is a Democrat. Wong, 63, is a
Republican. Both are running against longtime incumbents. Their
campaigns reflect a trend: As the Asian American population
increases in Texas, so does its political clout.
just a small fraction of the state's residents are Asian -- 2.7
percent, according to the latest census -- they are part of a
rapidly growing ethnic group. From 1990 to 2000, the number of Texas
residents identifying themselves as Asian increased at least 82
Tran and Wong are blazing new trails in Texas. If
elected, they will become or be tied for the honor of being the
second Asian elected to the Legislature.
The first was
Thomas J. Lee, a native of China, who was elected to the House in
1964 from San Antonio. Lee, a Democrat, served one term. He was
narrowly beaten for renomination in the 1966 Democratic primary by
The candidates are running in a region that is
among the most likely to send an Asian American to the Legislature.
Harris County's population is about 6.5 percent Asian, according to
the 2000 census. Those of Vietnamese ancestry comprise more than a
third of those; Chinese and Asian Indians are almost tied for the
second-largest category; and Filipinos are fourth. The rest are from
a dozen other countries of origin.
The Asian American Action
Fund, a Washington-based group that helps Asian Americans seek
political office, says Texas should have at least six state and
federal offices filled by Asians, based on the percentage of
residents who are Asian American. The state has none.
are a sprinkling of Asian Americans across the state in local
offices such as city councils, but the Texas Municipal League and
others did not have statistics to indicate how many.
place where Asians are a growing political force is Houston.
"They have a lot of clout," said Dan McClung, a political
consultant who has made a living helping Democrats and nonpartisan
city council candidates over the past two decades in Houston. "It's
a growing community."
They tend to lean Democratic, though
there are certainly a considerable number of Asian Republicans such
Tran is trying to unseat Republican state Rep.
Talmadge Heflin, in District 149, who was first elected in 1982. The
district on Harris County's western edge stretches from Katy south
Wong hopes to knock off Democrat Debra Danburg,
who chairs the House Elections Committee, in the greatly redrawn
District 134. Danburg has been a fixture in the House since her
election in 1980.
Using the same wordplay slogan she used in
her council races -- "Be Right! Vote Wong!" -- the former educator
ran first in the March 12 primary against three other candidates.
Wong then beat Mark Cole by 99 votes in the runoff -- with a
considerable get-out-the-vote effort among the district's
approximately 2,000 Asians.
Wong, a native Houstonian born
of Chinese parents, is a University of Texas graduate with a
doctorate in education from the University of Houston. She is a
longtime schoolteacher and principal who says education is her top
Same for Tran, who cites his own success as
evidence of the American dream.
He arrived in Everett,
Wash., at 16, unable to speak English. Three years later, he was
tops in his high school class and went on to earn two master's
degrees and become a Catholic priest.
He first came to
Houston in the summer of 1992, working on a project to feed the
homeless and improve housing for the poor. He returned here
permanently in 1998.
But he quit the church a few years ago
and has since become a paralegal and fallen in love with a woman and
with politics. He plans to go to law school.
"I believe in
making society a better place," Tran said. Though once a political
independent, he said that after studying the positions of the
parties, "I feel at home with the Democrats' values."
who proudly wore his cowboy boots and hat in the Cinco de Mayo
parade in May, says the Houston district he is running in appeals to
his idea of the American melting pot: 36 percent Anglo, 21 percent
African American, 23 percent Hispanic and 21 percent Asian -- many
of them Vietnamese.
Heflin has trouble remembering the last
time he had a Democratic opponent.
"I have significant
support in the Asian community, and I don't think that will be
eroded," he said. "Obviously, whether you're Asian or Hispanic or
Caucasian or African American, if you tend to have an alliance from
a party standpoint, I don't think the ethnicity is going to make
"I think it's healthy that they're
participating, and I'm really glad of that," Heflin said. He said he
expects Wong to win in her race to unseat Danburg, "but I expect to
win my race."
The 134th also was drawn by the
Republican-dominated Legislative Redistricting Board to favor a
"We expect to win," Wong said. "The district has
been drawn so that it's supposed to be close to 60 percent
Danburg disputes that, noting that Democrat
Paul Hobby narrowly carried the district for comptroller in 1998.
"I tend to attract the same kind of voters that Paul Hobby
attracts," Danburg said.
But there is new turf. Though
Danburg hails from the River Oaks portion of the district that has
traditionally voted Republican, she lost half of her base in the
Montrose area, which contained a significant amount of Houston's gay
population, and all of The Heights, where her family name was
familiar because of her parents' stores.
Danburg said the
race will be tough and expensive, but she's not conceding any votes
to Wong -- including those from Asians. She said several have
volunteered to help her organize. And Danburg, who is Jewish, noted
that the district has several thousand Jewish voters.
whose pharmacist husband died in 1981, is a lifelong Republican.
"If you look at Asian philosophy and Asian way of life, it
is very close to the Republican philosophy: family, education,
entrepreneurial, thrifty, frugal, business-minded," Wong said. "And
they're very conservative. . . . They have a belief that individuals
should take care of themselves."
Tran talks about the same
values and comes down a Democrat. But both of them hope they'll get
a chance to represent not just Asians, but all Texans in the
Jobs, Better Wages, Stronger Economy
Tran for Helping Texas Students Succeed
Tran seeks to be first Vietnamese-American elected to public office
from Harris County
turns in a contribution report showing tremendous support across the
district and posts over $37,000 for the campaign.