A sudden hush comes over the once rowdy room at Orchid Vietnamese Restaurant.
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, who is making another visit to Nevada since launching her presidential bid, is just a few minutes away, causing members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community to go silent in anticipation.
Harris along with U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke and entrepreneur Andrew Yang have all had events catering to the local AAPI community. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden and former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro are expected to speak to the community in the coming weeks.
“It is not an exaggeration to say the AAPI community in Nevada has the Democratic Party in its hand,” Yang said during one of those town halls.
Since becoming active in the political scene in 2011, Evan Louie, the chair of One APIA Nevada, which works on voter voter outreach and engagement, said he has never seen as many candidates hold events centered around the Asian American Pacific Islander community.
That’s not by accident. As Louie’s 11-year-old daughter Cevan put it when she introduced Buttigieg, the community has been working hard to have their voices heard and their votes fought for.
“My father tells me just eight years ago in Las Vegas, our AAPI community would fight to be visible and included in presidential campaigns,” she said during an impassioned speech. “We had to push to have a seat at the table and to be recognized for our issues.”
According to Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, the AAPI community had nearly 6 million eligible voters across the country in 2015. That is projected to grow to more than 12 million by 2040.
The organization notes that in the last three presidential cycles, nearly 620,000 Asian American and Pacific Islanders became eligible voters.
Nevada has one of the nation’s fastest growing AAPI populations, increasing 167 percent since 2000, according to the policy research group AAPI Data. An estimated 335,000 AAPI Nevadans account for roughly 10 percent of the state’s population. About half of them are Filipino (162,936), followed by Chinese (50,878), Japanese (26,359), Korean (16,169), Vietnamese (16,169), and Indian (15,022).
AAPI Data estimates the Nevada AAPI population of eligible voters at a 202,000, having grown by 35 percent from 2000 to 2016.
But presidential candidates traditionally have not pursued the AAPI community as aggressively as other voters. The 2016 Post-Election National Asian American Survey found 74 percent of Pacific Islanders and 71 percent of Asian Americans across the country received no contact about the election.
“There is a perception that the AAPI community doesn’t vote,” Louie said. “We hope to change that.”
In acknowledgement of the growing political force of AAPI voters, the revamped Nevada Democratic Party presidential caucus in 2020 will publish voter preference cards in Tagalog.
In 2014, Vida Chan Lin founded the Asian Community Development Council in Nevada in hopes of providing resources to the local community and to encourage residents to find, and use, their voice. In the five years it’s been around, the organization has registered 20,000 AAPI voters in the state.
Just months before the 2018 midterm elections, One APIA Nevada was founded. It began mobilizing the local community determined not only to educate prospective voters but also to encourage the community to flex its political muscle during the midterm elections.
In the end, the election had a near historic turnout for a midterm, and resulted in several Democratic lawmakers winning seats across the state.
One APIA Nevada was one of the groups working to get out the vote. The group knocked on more than 30,000 doors and made nearly 60,000 phone calls. It also presented campaign materials in Tagalog, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean and Mandarin Chinese.
With about nine months until Nevada’s Democratic caucus and more than a year from the 2020 presidential election, the AAPI community is building on its momentum. Some candidates have already taken notice to the importance of their vote.
“They know in the last two elections Nevada turned a deeper blue,” said Margie Gonzales with the Asian American and Pacific Islander Democratic Caucus. “I’m sure they are noticing. (The AAPI community) is becoming more active and more engaged in the election process and voting.”
But voters don’t just want candidates to show up to events.
Louie said the community also want to know candidates understand how issues, such as health care and education, affect them.
An estimated 13 percent of Asian Americans in Nevada lack health insurance and nearly 10 percent live in poverty according to AAPI Data, which is why those rank as top issues for them.
Gonzales added immigration is also a top issue within the community. During Harris’ visit, Marife Aczon-Armstrong with the Asian American Pacific Islander Nurses Association’s Nevada president highlighted how immigration policies can hurt Filipinos. Nurses coming from the Philippines, she said, have trouble getting their nursing licenses after they immigrate.
“Not all states accept their nursing degrees,” she said. “They have to go back to school and start all over again.”
Harris said California’s approach was “spot on” and that there should be a process to look at the similarities with nursing degrees obtained in the Philippines to “figure out if there is any symmetry there and give credit for the education we require here if it matches.”
As more candidates engage the community and set up events with One APIA Nevada, Duy Nguyen, the organization’s executive director, said it is equally important for them to have a basic understanding about the complexities and differences within the Asian community.
“We need them to understand that we are made up of 48 ethnicities, languages and cultures in Nevada alone,” he said. “If they can spend the time and ask questions rather than just checking the box (that they attended an event), then we will be there for them.”