On California, Nikki Haley and Identity Politics


So Democrats lost the House, but the Republicans couldn’t win the Senate.

It means on the national level, we are in for two years of “incremental nothing,” when things only seem to be happening but aren’t.  We’ve seen gridlock before. And it really isn’t too bad–if you’re at a parade. Makes it go slower so you can enjoy the colorful floats more.

And as it happens, a parade is my post-election antidote. Especially the San Francisco Giants victory parade. Now that the New York Times has editorialized on the team, its achievement must be tres importante.  The parade was a half-million strangers in orange and black, brought together only by the actions of a baseball team that hasn’t won a World Series since 1954. Politicians can’t get this kind of unity on anything, let alone bring a heightened sense of joy and pride to a community.

So to see this type of diverse and disparate and massive crowd come together for anything is a worthy American fable.  Here was a grassroots team of mostly discount nobodies that topped the pinstriped establishment of the sport, and beat back the best of the best, with pitching, heart, and very little offensive pop.

They are America’s Recession Era Champs!  And they provide exactly the kind of hope and optimism we need after such a dismal midterm election season.

Let’s run down a few salient points:

First off, California (where I am and 8 percent of the voters are Asian American) is different.

Meg Whitman in Ross Perot drag didn’t quite cut it. If she had just kept her undocumented Latina housekeeper, adopted her as a family member and helped her become a citizen, Whitman would still have a clean house and a clean conscience. And she might have something to show for that $160 million she spent. Instead, 73 percent of the Latino vote just said no to Meg. And Jerry Brown gets his old job back.

That also had to help Sen. Barbara Boxer defeat Carly Fiorina, another ex-tech CEO running on a “government needs to run like a business” theme.

One wonders why the GOP didn’t go harder after Asian American John Chiang, the state controller, and a masterful manager and adversary to Gov. Schwarzenegger during the fiscal crunch. When Arnold wanted to cut into bone, Chiang was tough-minded but fair. Chiang won by a landslide, gaining recognition as he builds a real path to higher office in the state–if he can build a winning campaign persona.

That could be something, an Asian American governor in California. It’s possible if he works well with Brown to solve the state’s financial woes.

Of the props, the one worth watching was Prop.19 (marijuana legalization). I don’t smoke, and don’t care if you do. I saw the measure strictly as a financial issue that could raise billions, empty the prisons, and make drug dealers seek honest government work.

Prop. 19 didn’t lose by much (46 percent Yes to 54 percent No), but that’s still just a few tokes short of victory.  I’m told Asian Americans were mostly against the measure, as were conservatives. The measure will come back in two years, but it will take a real focus on ledger sheets and bottom lines (and not the lifestyle factors) to lure social and fiscal conservatives to yes.

Overall, the state was a lot more cheerful than the national Congressional numbers.  But it’s not enough to obliterate that feeling of hopefulness I felt just two years ago, standing in the cold of the Washington Mall with a half-million others at the Obama Inaugural. Hard now not to think the brakes have been applied and the country is about to head in reverse._

Thank god for gridlock.

The Fate of Two GOPers:  Identity Politics When There’s No Identity
All hail Nikki Haley, nee Nimrata Randhawa, new governor of South Carolina.

It’s perhaps the highest profile Asian American victory in the country and is historic for the southern state.  A female governor. The first Asian American.  And a Republican.

Is she the second coming of Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal (up for re-election in 2011)? I hope not, although Haley follows in his footsteps as the second South Asian to be elected governor of a southern state.

By most accounts, Haley, born in Bamberg, SC to immigrant Sikh parents, does pay occasional homage to her ancestral culture. But that’s not her real political M.O. She ran her campaign on an anti-incumbency theme, as a fresh-faced outsider, a junior state legislator ready to reform the establishment.

For this go-round, it was no ethnicity necessary.

Haley did use some of that in the primary, when reportedly a fellow GOP legislator called her a “raghead” on an internet radio show. When the going gets tough, the tough go ethnic.  The slur got Haley some pub and perhaps gave her a bit of moral high ground and some public sympathy too.

In the general election, it was old fashioned campaigning that defeated Democrat Vincent Sheheen by just four percentage points.

When you have to run on your merits in a state relatively devoid of Asian Americans, you’re really on your own, forced to build coalitions with groups like the Tea Party, which Haley most noticeably did. (Perhaps easier for her, having converted from Sikh to Methodist and being a Republican.)  When it’s all about the individual and not the group, we end up with a different kind of identity politics. It may be flexible, but is it principled? If you want to survive and win, it is.

Even a creationist believes in that kind of evolution.

What other way is there?  You can’t expect to appeal to a bloc of voters just like you ethnically. Not if there are few Asian Americans in your district.

So Asian American politician?  Who cares?  What do you believe in?  What will you fight for?  And for whom?

Joseph Cao from Louisiana’s 2nd district learned his ethnic political lesson the hard way, though at first it seemed easy. He lives in an area that’s just 2.7 percent Asian American. As a moderate Republican, he became the first U.S. Congressman of Vietnamese descent when he defeated the compromised, scandal-ridden incumbent William Jefferson in 2008. It was the first time a Republican won that district since 1891.

So where was the love two years later this mid-term? Where was the Tea Party or even GOP Governor Jindal?  Cao, the moderate Republican, was practically abandoned, trounced by a more than 30 point landslide and beaten by Democrat Cedric Richmond.

Maybe non-Asian constituents had a hard time when Cao suggested at a BP hearing that the oil execs commit “hari kiri.”

You can’t play identity politics when there’s no one with your identity. Republican or Democrat, you build your coalitions judiciously like Haley.

Or you fall like Cao.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
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The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
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