Andy Kang noticed the funny looks.
At an Asian American Center for Advancing Justice conference in Chicago last year, Kang, the Asian American Institute’s (AAI) senior staff attorney, presented an idea for a legislative caucus that would address the needs of Asian Americans in Illinois.
However, Illinois doesn’t currently have—and has never had—an Asian American member in the state legislature. “They said, ‘you’re going to form an Asian American caucus with no Asian American elected officials?’” Kang told Progress Illinois. “But it makes sense, so long as we yield results.”
Kang said AAI heard that state legislators would be open to forming an Asian American legislative caucus. When Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Skokie) and State Reps. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) and Edward Acevedo (D-Chicago) showed interest, Kang began approaching other state senators and representatives who had a significant amount of Asian Americans living in their districts. With 12 Pan Asian Voter Empowerment (PAVE) partners also signing on, an initial caucus rally was held this past May in Springfield. After that event, the caucus got its first piece of legislation passed. The Asian American Employment Plan (HB4510), which Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law this past July, focuses on ways to encourage and assist Asian Americans seeking jobs in state government.
But Kang said the caucus is still waiting for Quinn to name an advisory council for the plan. While happy that the General Assembly passed the bill, Kang said that without an advisory council being appointed, formulating the next steps for the Employment Plan will be difficult. Kang said the caucus has sent Quinn a letter asking for a timeframe of the council appointments.
“We’re not in the business of getting bills passed for the community, and letting them fall off the radar,” Kang said. “We want diversity in state government, and Gov. Quinn wants it too.”
In addition to prioritizing diversity, members of PAVE believe general health should be at the top of the list. Inchul Choi, executive director of Korean American Community Services, said hepatitis B education and outreach is needed (according to an Asian Health Coalition study, chronic hepatitis B infection is present in 5 percent to 15 percent of Asians living in the Chicago area, compared to 1 percent to 2 percent of the general United States population).
Jerry Clarito, executive director of the Alliance of Filipinos for Immigrant Rights and Empowerment (AFIRE), said one out of three Filipino Americans die from heart disease. Clarito said he’s not aware of any steps being undertaken by the Department of Public Health to address the issue in the Filipino American community.
“Like other minority groups, the Filipino Americans are rarely studied,” said Clarito.
But the caucus will keep an eye on non-health issues, as well. Lang, the acting chair of the caucus, said the cutting of social services is a concern for Asian Americans in his district. According to Lang, whose 16th House District contains the highest percentage of Asian Americans at 24 percent, the caucus needs to be sure Asian American communities aren’t inadvertently discriminated against when social service cuts are made.
Even with the stated goals of the legislators and PAVE members, Biss, whose district is about 12 percent Asian American, said the caucus isn’t enough. According to Biss, an Asian American candidate for the state legislature needs to be embraced. “In 2013, people are more likely to think of a white dude when you say close your eyes and picture a politician,” he said. “We need to promote people who don’t look like the stereotypical image of the successful politician.”
Two Asian Americans have recently been elected to office in Illinois. At the national level, U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill) was elected to the 113th United States Congress in November. In 2011, Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) became the first Asian American elected to the Chicago City Council. When asked what the key is to getting an Asian American elected to the state legislature, Pawar said more Asian Americans need to get involved in the political process. He said he has 100 to 150 young Asian American volunteers ready to help him get re-elected in 2015.
Kang agreed with Pawar, and said voting and running for office are relatively new concepts for his community. “Growing up in a Korean household, the joke is, ‘become a doctor, become a concert pianist, become a lawyer,’” Kang said. “You don’t hear, ‘become the next congressman or president'. That may be something that we start seeing.”
The state legislature's Asian American caucus last met in December, and the plan is to meet on a quarterly basis.