3 Candidates Attend First Asian American Democratic Presidential Forum

All candidates were invited, but only Andrew Yang, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Tom Steyer participated in the event.

A major Democratic presidential event geared toward the Asian American and Pacific Islander community was held for the first time in history this past weekend. 

All Democratic presidential hopefuls were invited to the forum, which took place in Costa Mesa, California, at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts on Sunday. Three candidates ― tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and activist Tom Steyer ― participated in the event. 

During the event, candidates took the stage individually, taking questions from moderators and audience members and addressing issues that weigh heavily on the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, including immigration and income inequality. 

Yang ended up making headlines at the forum for crowdsurfing, riding atop a sea of his own supporters, who have been dubbed the #YangGang. In addition to his main proposal of universal basic income, the candidate also touched on climate change, among other issues. He called for further investment in renewable energy as well as relocating people from residents from areas with rising sea levels.

Along with his platform, the presidential hopeful, who’s Asian American himself, opened up about the bullying he had received in his younger years due to his race. He said that, as the son of Taiwanese immigrants, “You feel like your spot in this country is somewhat in question.”

“I was one of the only Asian kids in my town and that made me feel like i had to prove myself a lot. I got, I guess you’d call it, bullied a lot,” he said. “I got called ‘chink’ and ‘gook’ regularly and I felt like I had a choice at that time to either take it or fight, and so I decided to fight and I ... was very skinny so I would lose most all of those fights.” 

Gabbard, an Iraq War veteran, called for the end of “wasteful, counterproductive wars.” The lawmaker said that she would meet with the Taliban “under the right circumstance that would further our national security” and called on the for the end of the U.S.’ role as “the world’s police.” 

The congresswoman also said she’d protect LGBTQ rights and work to lift the travel ban. 

Tom Steyer, a billionaire philanthropist, explained to the crowd that, as a presidential hopeful, he is largely focused on climate change. He announced that, if elected, he would declare a “climate emergency” on his first day in office. 

While explaining his involvement in the political sphere, Steyer assured the audience that “it isn’t like I just came to [politics].” The billionaire, who founded political advocacy group NextGen America, explained he’d spent years advocating for tobacco taxes and clean energy among other causes. 

“I’ve been doing this for 10 years,” he said.

Varun Nikore, president of one of the forum’s organizing groups, AAPI Victory Fund, told HuffPost that he felt more presidential hopefuls should’ve taken the opportunity to reach Asian American voters. 

“It’s unfortunate that candidates can’t be more straight with a constituency group that is the fastest-growing constituency group in the country,” he said. “This is a big missed opportunity.”

Nikore told HuffPost that while he felt the event was a success, campaigns have a long way to go before they’ve proven they value the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. He noted that he was disappointed the other candidates did not take the opportunity to speak to an important constituency, calling their inability to show up an “epic fail.”  

Research shows that in battleground states, Asian Americans have the power to flip districts. Analysis from AAPI Data shows that during last year’s midterm elections, the racial group had the ability to make significant impacts in 27 congressional districts across 11 states. 

Nikore argued that, given the crowded Democratic field, presidential hopefuls should be putting in further efforts to speak to Asian Americans as every last vote counts. The AAPI Victory Fund president said that even as candidates attempt to clinch majority-white states like Iowa and New Hampshire, constituents of color could could make a difference in ranking with so many individuals in the running. 

“Do you not think that you have to fight for every last sliver of the votes and microtarget every last voter, every last ethnicity, every last demographic?” he asked. 

He added that the forum was also significant in that it featured three Asian American hosts: MSNBC’s Richard Liu and Ester Lee and author Viet Nguyen. Two rounds of Democratic debates have occurred, and each adhered to the DNC request that at least one woman and one person of color serve as moderators. However not a single one has featured an Asian American or Pacific Islander host thus far. 

In August, the Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders Rising & Empowering (ASPIRE) political action committee issued a letter to Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, demanding representation from the community on the debate stage in future debates. 

“Under your leadership, there are more Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) holding senior positions at the DNC than at any other time in the organization’s history,” the letter read. “An important way to further this commitment to our community would be to ensure that at least one of the DNC-sponsored presidential debates features an AAPI moderator.”

Going forward, Nikore said that Asian American and Pacific Islander groups will be holding candidates’ “feet to the fire” and demanding they do a better job of outreach to the community.