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Presidential Town Hall Meeting Without Candidates

Another Case of Asian American Amnesia?

Pacific Citizen, News Analysis, Lynda Lin Posted: Jun 11, 2008

Irvine, Calif.- It was a presidential town hall meeting without any of the candidates, so Cindy Yang wondered if the May 17 event could even be described as a town hall.

Traditionally, a town hall involves a face-to-face meeting between community members and elected officials where opinions are voiced and ideas are exchanged. Instead, the candidates for the United States' top elected post were either beamed in through satellite, telephone or not at all for the historic event presented by APIAVote.

For emphasis, no candidates showed up to the first ever presidential town hall put together by Asian Pacific American leaders during APA Heritage Month with the expressed purpose of having a dialogue about APA specific issues.

No Hillary Clinton. No Barack Obama. No John McCain. At least, not in person.
"Not having any of the candidates there defeats the purpose of a town hall," said Yang, who is leaning towards voting for McCain. She has not been following the primaries, so she attended the event to learn something new about the candidates' positions on hot button issues.

Instead, she along with other attendees stared at large projection screens with rotating images of Obama while he answered questions by phone. Clinton, on the other hand, read and answered her own questions in a satellite video. And McCain sent a surrogate speaker because he was taping a cameo on "Saturday Night Live."

"It was disappointing and discour aging," said Yang. "It was the ideal forum to show that we do matter as a group."

In a primary season already marred with controversy over the community's exclusion from the election process, was the candidate-less town hall another example of APA amnesia?


"In the past, we as Asian Americans thought the candidates overlooked us," said Jhemon Lee, a Los Angeles resident.

In this primary season and past elections, presidential candidates have reached out to other ethnic groups like African Americans and Latinos - why not APAs? Americans are taught the squeaky wheels - or the most vocal group - get the most grease, said Yang. Maybe it's time for the community to squeak a little louder?

Many say the town hall was an ambitious first step to fill the void.

"There is no track record. I thought it was important," said Lee, who volunteered at the town hall. But he has mixed feelings too. There's less magic behind it when there is no interplay between the candidates and the audience, he said.

"I'm happy with the event, but I'm disappointed that candidates didn't take us more seriously by showing up and making it more of an interactive session."

And for the record, it wasn't from a lack of trying.

For the last decade and a half, there have always been attempts to have presidential candidates be more accountable to the APA community, said Vida Benavides, APIAVote interim executive director.

"We wanted to connect with the candidates to show we matter [and] we can impact the vote," she added. So the month of May was chosen because of APA Heritage Month, despite the fact that Democratic primaries were slated to take place in Oregon and Kentucky a few days after the Southern California town hall.

A Two-Way Road

In February, APIAVote sent out invitations to the presidential candidates, but it was really a community effort - everyone from voters to donors to members of Congress got involved in making the event happen and encouraging the candidates to show up.

But who knew the primaries were going to last to June?

"The race is so drawn out there were circumstances that were beyond [the candidates'] control," said Naomi Tacuyan, an APIAVote staff member. Negotiations with the candidates' campaign staffers went down to the wire. Once it was determined that they all could not make it to the event, it was about what communication vehicle they could use.

Obama was campaigning in Oregon where there was no satellite feed, so he answered questions from a panel of APA community leaders via phone. He apologized for his absence, took questions, and talked about his Hapa niece. Clinton was in Kentucky where they had satellite access, but no two-way feed, so she read and answered questions.

McCain was scheduled to participate by phone, but pulled out at the last minute, said Tacuyan. Van Tran, a Republican member of the California State Assembly, representing portions of Orange County, spoke on McCain's behalf.

Still, it's a two-way road, said Benavides.

APA leaders provided a venue and an audience of about 2,000 for the candidates - some who were either already there or planning to be in Orange County close to the town hall day. Clinton was fundraising in neighboring Newport Beach two days before - it was dubbed her "last stop" in California during the primaries.

Despite her physical absence, Clinton is committed to working with the APA community, said spokesperson Jin Chon, who pointed out that the senator has hosted several events with the community and voted on the Filipino veterans legislation "when the other candidates were out campaigning."

McCain attended a finance reception in Irvine four days later. A McCain staffer who worked with the APA community to schedule the senator's possible appearance at the town hall did not comment on record, but spokesperson Crystal Benton said it was a scheduling conflict.

"Unfortunately, a scheduling conflict prevented Senator McCain from attending the APIAVote Town Hall. Senator McCain is grateful that Assemblyman Van Tran, the highest ranking Vietnamese American elected official in the nation, was able to address Asian and Pacific American voters on his behalf," said Benton.

Some have even pointed out that with Oregon's 100 percent vote-by-mail balloting system, Obama could have made it to the town hall because thousands of Oregonians had already mailed in their votes. Obama's camp did not respond to the Pacific Citizen's requests for comment, but supporter Oiyan Poon said the senator was the only candidate to engage in-depth with the audience.

"I think Senator Obama's interactive phone call was a good compromise, and really made the event a success for me. He saw this as an important event to participate in, but we also all know that the nomination process [was] not done and he needed to be working hard in Oregon and Kentucky, not in a state that voted three months ago," said Poon.

Do It Again

Despite statistics that say APAs are the fastest growing minority group in the U.S., events like the town hall remind Yang that "it's still at a very beginning stage of our movement."

In January, Nevada was also the backdrop for controversy when APAs were excluded from a live national Democratic presidential debate on minority issues.

The Iowa Brown and Black President Forum has been a tradition for Democratic candidates since 1984. Their first event took place at a Des Moines childcare center, said co-founder Mary Campos. But they managed to attract many of the candidates, who were in Iowa campaigning during the primaries anyway.

"Timing is everything," said Campos. "Don't give up. Do it again."

Many JACLers are driving new efforts to increase the voices of the APA community in the upcoming elections. The PSW district has launched a Get Out the Vote Committee to create awareness of political and social issues that concern all minority groups.

"JACL is the oldest APA organization. It was so important that we stood with the other organizations in a commitment of political involvement," said PSW Distict Gov. Alayne Yonemoto, who attended the town hall along with many other JACLers.

"Some of the speeches talked about being at the table or having a seat at the table. JACL has worked many years to have that seat. And it is important that we continue to participate and be relevant to the younger generations to inspire them to participate. If we don't, we'll lose that seat at the table," added Yonemoto.

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The Ethnic Voter

Election 2008

Articles by Lynda Lin

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