11 Inspiring Asian American Political Leaders
On May 20, 2021, President Biden made history by signing the first bill of its kind into law: the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which was introduced into Congress by Representative Grace Meng (D-NY) and Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI), will designate people and resources to investigate the massive spike of hate crimes committed against Asian Americans during the pandemic. The bill is the first of its kind in that it acknowledges the struggle of a specific group and also in that it was penned by two AAPI women. In addressing the ongoing racist attacks, the government hopes to prevent future violence.
This progress may not have happened, but a video that Grace Meng made went viral in March 2021, illustrating the urgency of fighting hate. During hearings held by Congress to address the spike in violence against AAPI folks, Chip Roy brought up off-topic issues with the very finite amount of time that was allocated to discuss the ongoing issue. "This hearing was to address the hurt and pain of our community," Meng said on the video.
Both Meng and Hirono were sworn into their positions in 2013. Hirono, who served in Congress from 2007-2013, was the first Asian American woman elected to the Senate and is the first person born in Japan to serve in the Senate. As a Senator, Hirono has advocated for stronger pre-kindergarten education programs and has made birth control more accessible across the country. Representing Queens, NY, Meng has fought against vandalism made in the name of religious beliefs and supported increased funding for community colleges.
The term "trailblazer" is typically applied to people who are the first, or one of the first, to achieve a certain goal or position. But a harsh reality today is that every political and community leader of AAPI descent is doing some form of path-setting for future leaders. With no space guaranteed to Asian individuals, these leaders have earned their spaces and are finally in a position to advocate for people who have been traditionally underrepresented.
With the passage of this historic bill, Meng and Hirono are two great figures deserving of celebration. Below, we have highlighted 8 other inspiring Asian American political leaders.
Born in 1926, George Ariyoshi was the first person of Asian descent to be elected governor in any American state. Ariyoshi is only the third governor in Hawai’i’s history as a state. During World War II, he served as an Army interpreter in Japan. Ariyoshi went on to graduate from Michigan State and earned his JD from University of Michigan before devoting himself to public service. Still alive today, Ariyoshi is a reminder of how young Hawai’i’s time as a state is while also serving as a reminder of progress. He served as governor for the state for 12 years and guided Hawai’i through their first economic recession as a state.
Lou Leon Guerrero
The current Governor of Guam, Lourdes "Lou" Leon Guerro started her career as a nurse. Her nursing background has helped her reform healthcare in Guam, a United States territory much like Puerto Rico. In 2019, Guerrero signed a claims advance for World War II survivors that helped people who served in or were affected by the war. Because of her work, the minimum wage in Guam is now $9.25 as opposed to $8.75, a small progress, but progress nonetheless. Her experience in healthcare is coming in handy again as Guererro leads the "Path to Half" initiative for COVID-19 vaccinations.
Norman Mineta was the first Asian Cabinet member. He is also a survivor. Born in San Jose, California, Mineta’s parents were not able to become U.S. citizens because of the Asian Exclusion Act, a racist immigration ban disguised as "reform." During World War II, Mineta and his family were uprooted and sent to a Japanese Internment Camp.
Despite the odds, Mineta earned his degree from UC Berkeley and, soon after, began a long, inspiring career in politics. Starting as a City Council member in San Jose, Mineta eventually became the Mayor of San Jose. Later, Mineta would serve as a congressional representative in California’s 13th district for 18 years.
After two more years in Congress, Mineta worked in Washington for the Department of Transportation. In 2000, Mineta was appointed Secretary of Commerce by Bill Clinton, and in 2001, George W. Bush appointed Mineta to the Secretary of Transportation role, which he manned until 2006. Mineta is a shining example that one can overcome adversity and atrocity. Not only is he the first AAPI Cabinet member, but he also served for both Democratic and Republican presidents, which showed that he was open to working with people of different viewpoints as opposed to against them. We could use more of that energy in government today.
Tammy Duckworth is the first Thailand-born person to serve in the United States Senate. Following in the steps of many noteworthy politicians like George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Duckworth’s resume includes military service in addition to a strongly educated background. As a pilot, Duckworth served in Iraq in 2004. While in combat, Duckworth lost parts of both her left and right legs. Duckworth is the first double amputee to serve in Congress and advocates for people with disabilities in addition to serving in the Senate for Illinois.
Not many people think of politicians as people who can fly a plane or serve in both the Army and the Marines, but Duckworth is a living reminder that one’s accomplishments can be quite varied. As a senator, Duckworth serves on committees for the Armed Services, Commerce, the Environment, and Small Businesses. Many give her credit for saving the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2018.
Hawai’ian native, Hiram Fong, is a trailblazer with many firsts to his name. He was born in Honolulu in 1924. His father had immigrated from China during the Qing dynasty in 1872 to work on sugar fields. Fong was originally born Yau Leong Fong, but he changed his name to "Hiram" in 1942 during World War II. He was also the first practicing Buddhist to join the U.S. Senate. Fong is the first and only Republican to ever serve as a Senator for the state of Hawai’i. Additionally, Fong is also the first person of Asian descent to earn delegates in a presidential race. Can you imagine if Fong had made it a bit further in that nomination process? As the signs say, you can’t go wrong with Fong.
Civil Rights attorney Jane Kim was a District Supervisor in San Francisco from 2011-2019. During her time in office, Kim fought for affordable housing, made the city more bicycle accessible, and oversaw the establishment of the world’s first Transgender District. Kim continued to make waves in the political world when running for a California State Senator position and for Mayor of San Francisco. Kim lost both elections by very close margins, but that did not stop her. In 2020, Kim campaigned for Bernie Sanders on the road and continued to champion progress and equitable policy.
When Nikki Haley’s family first moved to South Carolina, they were the first Sikh family in their small town. Little did anyone know back then that young Nimrata Nikki Randhawa would go on to become the first woman to win a South Carolina gubernatorial race as well as the second Indian governor in United States history. She was also the youngest governor in the country at the time at age 39. Haley continued to blaze the trail in 2017 when she assumed the post of Ambassador to the United Nations after being nominated by Trump. Haley is often celebrated for carving out space for women in conservative spaces. Since resigning from her Ambassador role, Haley has started a nonprofit called Stand for America, which aims to strengthen the economy, culture, and security of the United States.
These days, it’s hard to NOT include Kamala Harris on any list of inspiring political figures. The first woman to be sworn in as vice president, Harris is proud of her Black and South Asian heritage and has been vocal in her support of both the Black Lives Matter and Stop AAPI Hate movements. This San Francisco Bay Area native received degrees from Howard University and UC Hastings. Naysayers might try to label Harris as tough, going as far as calling her a "cop," but in a time where there were (and still are) few women in these political spaces, it would have been easier for Harris to step aside.
As District Attorney of San Francisco, Harris pledged to never seek to use the death penalty and upheld that. When appointed Attorney General in 2010, Harris helped Californians rebuild from the 2008 recession and put protections in place to prevent mortgage fraud. After being sworn in as a senator in 2017, Harris made a big name for herself during the hearings for controversial Trump Cabinet nominees and spoke out against Trump’s Muslim Ban. After ending her presidential campaign in 2019, Joe Biden asked her to serve as vice president.
Ted Lieu was born in Taiwan in 1969. His family emigrated to the U.S. and settled in Ohio when Lieu was three years old. He now serves as the incumbent of California’s 33rd Congressional District. In 2017, Lieu was appointed Whip of the Democratic party by Nancy Pelosi. That means that Lieu makes sure congressional leaders within the party follow patterns and guidelines set by the party. In 2012, Lieu penned a bill that ended conversion therapy. Most recently, Lieu was named a manager of the Second Impeachment of Trump. Like many other figures on this list, Lieu is poised to continue being a major player in the political landscape. Like all of the people on this list, Lieu remains an inspiring leader, and will be regarded as one in many history books to come.