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For Boston's Asian-American Community, A Political Arrival

This article is more than 9 years old.

One of the biggest questions going into Tuesday's preliminary mayoral election in Boston is whether younger and more diverse residents will show up at the polls in large enough numbers to influence the outcome. And the rapidly growing Asian-American community is among the groups in play.

A Fading Machine

Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley was just the latest mayoral candidate to make his pitch to Chinatown voters.

"My grandfather, James Conley, was born on Tyler Street in what is today Chinatown," he told an audience of about 100 at the Josiah Quincy Elementary School. "Does that make me an honorary resident of Chinatown?"

"If so, that means I'm the only candidate who has roots in Chinatown," Conley said, as laughter rippled through the crowd.

But if Conley was making headway, he already had the support of the most powerful man in the room — a slight figure in a pink dress shirt known as "Uncle Frank."

Frank Chin, 81, was born in Boston's Chinatown. His mother died soon after his birth, so he went to live with his father's first wife in a village in China. At 14, Frank's adoptive mother died and he returned to Boston with nothing.

But over time Frank and his brother Billy built a small empire. They invested in restaurants and real estate and constructed a political machine in a community that had been largely ignored by City Hall.

Chin said when he checked the voter rolls in 1970, he found just 300 Chinese surnames. By 1977, after a voter drive, he'd upped the total to 3,600, and that meant clout.

When he wanted public funds to build a large, decorative gate at the entrance to Chinatown, he sent an emissary to City Hall with a detailed proposal. Mayor Kevin White didn't even look at it. He put it down, Frank recalled, and asked one question: "How many votes do you have?"

When Frank's emissary said they had 3,600, the deal was done.

For decades Frank and his brother served as Chinatown's fixers — the men to see if you wanted to build condos in the neighborhood or win a seat on the City Council.

But politics are changing in Boston. The machine is fading and a new grassroots model is taking hold.

In Chinatown, that means more power for groups like the Chinese Progressive Association, whose political wing is supporting Roxbury activist John Barros for mayor.

Executive Director Lydia Lowe said her organization's approach marks a real break from the Chins' ward boss, deliver-the-vote politics.

"That's really how politics was done in Chinatown up until about 10 or 15 years ago," Lowe said. "We like to think that we have a newer approach. We think that people need to be aware at the grassroots level of, you know, why vote for one candidate versus the other candidate."

The approach seems to be paying dividends. Voter turnout has been steadily rising in Chinatown over the past decade. But some of those new voters are outsiders who have flocked to Chinatown and other downtown neighborhoods in the recent years.

And a report out of UMass Boston's Institute for Asian-American Studies found the community punching below its weight in last fall's presidential election. Asian-Americans made up just 6 percent of the Boston electorate, even though they're 9 percent of the population.

Paul Watanabe, director of the institute, said the challenges of immigration play a big role in the shortfall.

"About 70 percent of the adult Asian-American population are foreign born," he said. "This has electoral and political consequences because the minimum requirements to vote in the city of Boston is you've got to be 18 years of age and you've got to be a citizen."

A Political Arrival

Last month, the Boston Vietnamese American Council held its first official meeting above a Vietnamese grocery store on Dorchester Avenue. Their goal: build political clout in the community.

But the challenge of mustering power in a community of relatively recent arrivals quickly became clear when one member spoke of his trouble deciphering English-language campaign literature: "I don't know who is running for mayor and who is running for City Council. I'm lost."

Still, there was undeniable energy in the room.

Tony Dang, an MBTA police officer and veteran of the war in Afghanistan, ran the gathering with a soldier's precision and an activist's passion.

He called for the formation of a Vietnamese political action committee to host forums and endorse candidates and he insisted that the assembled educate themselves about the mayoral hopefuls.

Dang is personally supporting Marty Walsh, who represents a large swath of Dorchester in the state Legislature, and he said he's working hard to turn out the vote.

"I wish I started the campaign earlier," Dang said. "Me and my colleagues are just starting to be active. We're learning too. So hopefully, hopefully, we'll come out in large numbers."

But even if the Asian-American vote doesn't reach its full potential this year, analysts say, it will be critical. In a tight, 12-way race for mayor, every ballot is precious.

That has mayoral candidates fighting for support in Chinatown and Vietnamese Dorchester like they have for years in South Boston and West Roxbury. And that may be the most important sign yet of a political arrival.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to note that it is the political wing of the Chinese Progressive Association, a separate organization known as Chinese Progressive Political Action, that endorsed John Barros for mayor.

This program aired on September 23, 2013.


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