Reflections on First Chinese Immigrant-Sponsored Candidate Forum in the National Capital Region

by Lily Qi

Saturday night, March 26, 2016, exactly one month before the Maryland primary election, over 350 people packed the Cabin John Middle School Cafeteria in Potomac, Maryland, to meet ten candidates from both the Democratic and Republican parties running for Maryland’s 8th Congressional District seat.

According to the candidates, it was the second largest event of the 17 forums they had participated in thus far.

What made the event special to me, besides the amazing attendance even on the night before Easter and the beginning of Spring Break, was the fact that it was the National Capital Region Chinese immigrant community’s first candidate forum. It was our political “coming-out party”, signaling our growing majority, power, and transition from being spectators to becoming participants in local civic and political affairs.

1st Chinese Immigrant-Sponsored Candidate Forum in the NCRMore than a candidate forum, the event was also a Politics 101 lesson. Organizers and volunteers made a point of urging voters to sign up for a political party in order to be able to vote in Maryland’s closed primary elections. With strong leadership by a team of Chinese American leaders from the Coordination Council of Chinese American Associations, the entire event was superbly organized, well-publicized and flawlessly executed. Volunteers from the League of Women Voters helped voters become registered; they also explained the election process.  Civil rights organizations like OCA-DC and the Asian Pacific American Public Affairs reached out to potential members. Just about all the local Chinese language media, both broadcast and print, were present with a line of cameras at the back. It was a moment not to be missed. The energy, excitement and pride permeated the space. The atmosphere felt both very Chinese, with familiar faces speaking Chinese language, and undeniably American. It felt great to be there.

To say the candidate forum was a morale booster would be an understatement. Something magical happened after the event.That magical moment was a tipping point in the journey of Chinese Diaspora in the Washington, DC region, with each election cycle drawing out more first-time voters. Compared to Chinese Americans living in the New York or California areas, we are a much newer community and the vast majority of us are immigrants. From voting to campaign rallies and fundraisers to hosting candidate forums, we are making history one milestone at a time toward our social integration in the community.

As moderator of this historic forum, I felt a weight of responsibility to ask insightful questions reflecting both our evolving community’s sentiment at this moment in history as well as our contemporary interests as local Marylanders and Americans. Based on the questions submitted online and my careful research and consideration, I chose questions addressing the disadvantage of independent voters in Maryland’s closed primary election system; discriminatory college admission practices that hold Asian American students to a higher bar; racial profiling in espionage charges against Chinese American scientists, and how to ensure Maryland’s economic competitiveness.

Not surprisingly, some candidates struggled to answer the questions as most had not been introduced to those issues until the forum, but they all heard our voices.

To say the candidate forum was a morale booster would be an understatement. Something magical happened after the event. Many registered independent voters decided to register for parties afterwards in order to be able to vote for the candidates they met that night in the Maryland primary and persuaded their friends to do the same. In the past, I have written and spoken about voting and especially about the importance of registering for a political party in order to make one’s vote count more powerfully. But it was not until that candidate forum where real candidates were discussing real issues that our people got energized and actions followed.

Two weeks after the event, our community is still on a “high”, somewhat in disbelief that we actually pulled off such a fantastic feat and made a splash with only less than three weeks of preparation. We overcame many doubts and fears about a lack of candidate interest to connect with a community not known for a reliable voting record; fears about a lack of interest from our own community as well, one with a famous cultural disdain toward politics. But we charged forward because we owed it to ourselves and our children to not defer our American dream to the next generation. You don’t have to be born here to be American. You don’t have to speak perfect English to ask the right questions. As the best-educated Chinese immigrants in American history, we are uniquely qualified to accelerate integration and leave our generation’s mark on the history of Chinese in America and of immigrants in the Washington, DC region.