What Andy Kim's run means to Asian Americans, the fastest-growing racial group in N.J.

Gouri Sadhwani, a longtime New Jersey resident and Democrat, isn’t so enthusiastic about the presidential race this year, saying she plans to vote for President Joe Biden as a “defensive” measure against Donald Trump. But she gets fired up when she discusses the Senate race, particularly the Democratic candidate, Rep. Andy Kim.

“Andy Kim is very different,” said Sadhwani, 52, who moved to New Jersey from India when she was a child. “He happens to be in the right place at the right time with the right amount of guts.”

Sadhwani is among the rapidly growing group of Asian Americans in New Jersey, who have surged by 99% from 2000 to 2022. They make up 11% of the state’s population. They’re also incredibly diverse. While Indian Americans make up over 40% of all Asian Americans in the state, there are also significant numbers of Chinese, Filipino and Korean Americans. And it’s amid these shifting demographics that Kim is running for a Senate seat.

Voters and experts say New Jersey candidates and parties haven’t been particularly effective in engaging Asian Americans in the past. With Kim polling as the front-runner in the Democratic primary next Tuesday, many say his campaign could help usher in a new era of motivated voters. For Kim, who would be the first Korean American U.S. senator if he’s elected, it’s a chance to listen to a voting bloc that has felt excluded from American politics.

“We don’t only want to be talked to by political figures when there’s a spike in xenophobia,” Kim said in an interview, speaking as a member of the Asian American community himself. “Treat us not as a special interest group. Treat the community as a full and dynamic and complex and complicated community that you need to listen to.”

Supporters hold signs for Andy Kim as he greets them (Seth Wenig / AP)Supporters hold signs for Andy Kim as he greets them (Seth Wenig / AP)

Supporters hold signs for Andy Kim as he greets them (Seth Wenig / AP)

For years, Asian Americans in New Jersey didn’t feel the political system was ‘for them’ 

Asian Americans are now more than 9% of eligible voters in New Jersey, and the number is expanding fast. From 2010 to 2020, the number of eligible Asian American and Pacific Islander voters in the state grew by 42%, while the statewide general eligible voting population grew by 5%. And in many areas, the electorate has proven to be an indisputably critical voting bloc. For example, in Middlesex County, the second most populated county in the state, Asian American eligible voters make up almost 38% of the electorate. In Bergen County, the most populated county, Asian American eligible voters are almost a quarter of the vote.

But traditionally, Asian American voter outreach has been scarce in the state. Nationally, 56% of Asian Americans received no contact from the Democratic Party, a 2022 survey said. And roughly two-thirds reported the same from Republicans.

Democratic strategist Trip Yang said New Jersey candidates in the past have excluded the Asian American electorate because they “don’t take the time needed to understand it.” There’s also a belief that reaching such a diverse electorate is too complicated and costly. But given the skyrocketing population, that’s “a huge mistake,” Yang said.

“The Democrats’ Phil Murphy, running for re-election as governor, only beat his Republican opponent by 3 points,” Yang said of Murphy’s 2021 race against Jack Ciattarelli. “There was a huge missed opportunity for any campaign not to go after Asian Americans.”

With more than 68% of Asian American adults in New Jersey speaking languages other than English at home, Yang said, campaigns with more resources can make their outreach even more effective by translating materials across Asian languages, including Hindi, Chinese and Korean.

Regardless of funding, when it comes to courting the Asian American vote, “just do it,” Yang said.

Asian American New Jersey voters who spoke to NBC News mentioned that they themselves didn’t grow up in households that were particularly active in politics. Their immigrant families, they said, never felt the political system was “for them.” Others said their families often avoided any political discussion, which was seen as contentious or uncomfortable.

Hyun-Ju Kwak, a member of the civic nonprofit group Action Together New Jersey, said politics in the state can be particularly difficult to access outside the “corridors of power and influence,” calling it an “old boys’ network.” For Asian Americans, many of whom are immigrants, politics can take a back seat when establishing financial security and a foothold in a new country are the priorities.

“The immigrant story is not about coming to a new country and being politically engaged,” Kwak said. “It’s really about survival and social mobility and freedom. So then it’s up to the second generation, or ‘one-point-fivers,’ like Andy, who can now say, ‘I want to give back.’”

Behind the new era for Asian American voters

Kim announced he was challenging the longtime Democratic incumbent, Bob Menendez, in September after Menendez was indicted on charges of taking bribes in exchange for official government acts. In scant recent polling, Kim has been ahead of the two leading GOP candidates in next week’s primary, businessman Curtis Bashaw and Mendham Mayor Christine Serrano Glassner. Kim, 41, the son of Korean immigrants, said his own experience growing up in South Jersey largely echoed that of other Asian Americans whose families stayed away from politics.

Given the rarity of Asian Americans in federal office, Kim’s foray into running for office in 2018, to represent New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District, was accompanied by some uncertainty over how to handle his identity. And his victory surprised some, especially with no Korean Americans in Congress at the time.

“I had people in politics really advise me not to talk about my family story in any identifiable way as Asian. And I’m like, ‘I’m pretty sure people are going to figure this out,’” Kim recalled, laughing. “It’s a district that voted for Trump twice. … A lot of people, including political pundits, didn’t really think I could win.”

But a collision of factors in recent years has culminated in what he calls “the most engaged moment” for Asian Americans today. For starters, Asian American communities across the country have begun to mature, he said, and now, more young people can see themselves running for office. Kim added that the rise of anti-Asian hate during the height of the Covid pandemic also pushed previously apolitical people to understand the necessity of getting involved.

“That has led to a level of advocacy and activism, as well as investment in money into different groups and organizations and communities around the country, that I haven’t seen before,” he said.

Tapping into a diverse, ‘unheard’ electorate Simply being Asian American, of course, doesn’t guarantee getting Asian American votes.  Sadhwani said the community expects more than just “people who look like them.” It was Kim’s “humanity” that spoke to her. She said she first heard of Kim after she saw a viral photo of him on his knees on the floor of the Capitol cleaning up after the Jan. 6, 2021, riot.

“There was something so beautifully simple and decent about that act, which was like … ‘Instead of standing at a podium and screaming about it, I’m actually going to start working again,’” Sadhwani said. “It also symbolizes someone who wasn’t above picking up garbage, and … I think most politicians wouldn’t do that.”

Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., cleans up debris and trash strewn (Andrew Harnik / AP)Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., cleans up debris and trash strewn (Andrew Harnik / AP)

Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., cleans up debris and trash strewn (Andrew Harnik / AP)

Engaging Asian American voters involves getting to know them, rather than stereotyping their concerns, Kim said. And so far, he has found that they’re not so different from other voters.

“A lot of the AAPI families that I talked to in New Jersey, their top issues are the issues that others are concerned about: health care, education,” Kim said. “I caution people in politics of just assuming that if they need to run a digital ad to AAPI communities that you make it about AAPI hate, things like that.”

He said he hopes that Asian Americans are able to have a voice across all issues and that they don’t exist to politicians just “on the margins of Lunar New Year.”

While New Jersey’s Asian American community is diverse, with an array of cultures to reach out to, Kim said the experience of being an immigrant is the most unifying one.

“​​It’s this shared experience of the nervousness of immigrating to America, the courage that was needed and doing so to be able to support your kids and raise them in this way and to invest in their education, giving them these opportunities,” Kim said. “That’s something very powerful for a lot of AAPI communities.”

Ultimately Kim’s campaign is going to benefit from what many feel is his authenticity, Yang said.

“He came across as pretty authentic, because he didn’t wait for a poll or focus test to put himself in the race,” Yang said, adding the Kim entered after Menendez was indicted and said he didn’t plan to resign. “He didn’t go through the song and dance that other political figures may have, and he just said, ‘I’m going to run.’”

Already, Sadhwani, who considers immigration and the economy among the key issues for her in this election, said Kim’s openness seems to have had a real impact on Asian Americans and others in her community. She said she feels Kim stands in contrast to Menendez, whose 17-year incumbency she said was driven by insider politics and an imperviousness to change.

“In our Northern Jersey area, a ton of people are holding fundraisers for him, and he shows up at all of them,” Sadhwani said of Kim. “We have friends who have never really been politically active, who are actually hosting things for him. And I think that comes from this opportunity to actually have a voice who represents us.”

She added that, to her, Kim “represents an America that does look different than it did 100 years ago.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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