the fixers
Interview

David Lang

Lang David Lang is a Los Angeles-based fundraiser and political consultant who observed Gene and Nora Lum's entrance into mainland politics. Lang helped to raise money on behalf of local candidates and was an aide to former California Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy.

Ron Brown | Gene and Nora Lum | scandal in the Asian community


Q: I heard Leo McCarthy's run for Senate in 1988 was a really fantastic training ground for a lot of Asian-Americans. You worked on the campaign. Was that true?

Lang: I think that's a correct assessment. He was the first serious non-Asian political candidate or elected official [who] really showed a genuine interest in our community, [who] really wanted to invest some time in developing relationships with the community, getting to know the people, getting to know our history, our culture. And [he was] unlike many other non-Asian candidates who just want a quick buck from us, who only show up in Chinatown during election time, take some quick pictures with us, have a dinner, collect our checks, and you never see them again for another four years....

Q: Give me the sense of the state of play in Southern California Asian-American politics in 1988.

Lang: ...I think at that time not that many Asian-Americans were involved in politics. I think we had a few Asian-Americans elected to different local city council seats, like in Monterey Park... I think a few people attempted to run for assembly or State Senate but couldn't make it. So it was like we were in the kindergarten stage, so to speak, in 1988.

But with people like Leo McCarthy who extended a hand to us, and for the few of us who wanted to get involved in the process and learn how to get involved, I think that offered a very good opportunity because he invited people from Washington, D.C., to come in and meet with us -- senators, high level congressmen, sometimes even some Cabinet officers....

We had a few fundraisers for him, and I recall the first one was in Monterey Park, and that drew a few hundred people, including some movie stars. I think that was historic for non-Asian American elected officials....Leo McCarthy showed what non-Asian politicians can do, and so a few other non-Asian politicians followed his steps and began to pay more attention to our community.

Q: There was a bubbling going on in the 1988-90 run-up to late Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown's getting the Democratic National Committee chairmanship -- a belief that a Democratic President could be elected, that the economy was a big issue, that there were untapped resources such as the Asian-Americans in California. Is that a fair assessment?

Lang: Yeah, I think that's a fair assessment.....[On the one hand] was Leo McCarthy's campaign, but on the other hand a core group of us also began to pay more attention to issues that affect our community.

[At] the top of the list was immigration, because at the time there were big debates in Congress about limiting the number of Asian-Americans [who could] move into this country,....and a group of us actually founded...an informal Pacific Leadership Circle. These people contributed to different election officials, they organized trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby, meet with different Congressional representatives, and I think that was historic because I don't think any Asian-American has done that kind of thing before.

They got results, and I think through this group and many other groups , ...the tide was turned, ... which was very much to our liking. A lot of the restrictions that would be placed against Asian-American immigrants were lifted off, so I think we were very happy.

I think as a result of that, that also showed other non-political people why it's important for Asian-Americans to get involved in politics, because, hey, by getting involved we can extend our influence and we can show results.

Q: In that 1990 period, did you have interactions with Ron Brown?

Lang: Yeah, when he became the Chairman he came and we had several meetings with him, usually with a group of community activists, leaders of different groups, sometimes leaders of certain social service organizations.

He came and made a pitch and reminded us how important [it was] for us to remain loyal to the Democrat Party and all that sort of thing. But again, I think that was sort of interesting to our community, too, because most of us so far were just active in the local level, and the chairman of the national party came to meet with us.

You know Ron, he has a very nice personality, he'd get along well with people, he likes to joke, so people feel very comfortable with him. I don't think people ever felt intimidated by his presence. So those meetings were very useful.

Q: Did he seem to understand and listen to what the real issues were? Or was he a guy who was hitting and running?

Lang: Not really. I think he did spend time with the community. And of course, we did bring up the different issues - immigration, racial discrimination, the glass ceiling and all those things - and I recall he usually listened attentively....Whether things were followed up, I didn't know.

Q: Was the Asian-American community around that time fairly complex?

Lang: I think the Asian community is always a very complicated community. When we talk about the Asian community it's not just one community, it's different communities.... There's the Chinese, the Koreans, the Japanese, the Filipinos, the Cambodians, you name it. And even within each ethnic group there are different subgroups, there are different factions....

...I've seen politicians who [could] virtually, if they want, spend six, seven days or nights a week going to different Asian events, and there was still a lot they could not cover because virtually there are three, four dinners at Chinatown every night, [and] three, four dinners at Koreatown every night. You can go to Long Beach and go to the Cambodian community, go to Westminister, go to the Vietnamese community. There's almost like one or two even every weekend.

So in order to really understand this community means a lot of persistence, a lot of commitment, and anyone needs to invest the time to get to know the community.

Q: And if you want to raise money in that community?

Lang: The same thing. We used to joke about our community, how naive we were...[When] politicians called us, we became nervous and when they asked us to support them, we always said, "Yes, how much do you need?" And then they came, and we usually [had] a fabulous dinner for them [with] everybody [fighting] for the spot to take a picture with that candidate, and then the candidate stuffs his checks in his pocket and says, "Bye, bye," and you don't see them again for another four years, or maybe two years.

But I think through...1988-92, our community's [became] more and more sophisticated. People are not just content with taking a picture with elected officials....[The] most sophisticated ones...really want to talk about issues. They really want the elected officials to show their commitment before even talking about our support for them....

Q: Is there big money in this community?

Lang: Yeah, of course, there's big money. We know how to make money. A lot of us are businessmen, and a lot of us are very successful entrepreneurs, a lot of us already were well established in Asia before we decided to come over. So whatever capital resources and talent we had over there, we brought that with us when we moved over here.

Take the example of the Vietnamese Chinese. Most of them came here in 1975-'76, penniless. They came here as refugees. Now over 75 percent of the businesses in Los Angeles Chinatown are owned and run by Vietnamese Chinese.

Q: Do they understand the political process in the way some farmer, some NEA member or some unionist working in an automobile factory in Flint, Michigan, understands the political process?

Lang: Well, I think up to now, no. Most of them still don't understand what politics is about. Most of the time I think they attend a fundraising reception only because a friend asked them, or because they heard about such-and-such politician is coming to town and 200 other people are going and they wanted to be there in order to show that they're somebody...

Only very few of them, up to now, I think, would show up because they really want to know about a candidate, or because there's an issue that they want to lobby.

Q: Tell me about guanxi, the idea of connectedness, of establishing a relationship....

Lang: ...I think sometimes people may be exaggerating this term or maybe they don't fully understand what guanxi is. Yes, you need Guangxi, you need relationship to do business, you need guanxi to open some doors for you. Maybe in Southern Asian countries it's more important, because maybe in Southern Asian countries the rules of the games, the systems, the legal system, whatever, are not as well established as over here. So over there people need more personal relationships to get things done.

...We have stories about people [who] use pictures that they've taken with elected officials to open some business doors for them. I think in Southern Asian countries, it's like a...membership card. You show that and people will say, "Wow, you do have some connections overseas." Then they would pay you more respect.

But when you look at the larger picture of Asian-American political empowerment, I think only a small group, maybe a few people are doing that consciously. ...They want to take a picture with the candidates, but I think only a few of them would have a plan that says, "Okay, I want to take this picture, and then step two is I want to use this picture on a brochure from a company, and then the third step is I want to take this brochure to China or Taiwan and to market my company." Maybe a few people would do that, but I don't think it's fair to say that all Asians will do that.

Q: Do you think anything's wrong with it?

Lang: I don't think there's anything wrong. When you look at all this, you have to give a reason for people to get involved, to open the checkbook and support a candidate

...And if the reason is [to] take a picture and use that picture for some business purpose, I think...a lot of other communities have been doing it for many years, and the Asian community's just started to do it.

Q: Did President Clinton's relationship with the Asian community start in 1994 or did it start much earlier?

Lang: ...I think it actually started in the 1992 Presidential campaign. If you recall, during the primary there were like six or seven candidates, and I think the Asian community was sort of divided....A lot of people were sitting on the fence, they said, "Well, we should maybe wait until the primary's over before we place our bet."

But after the primary was over, I think some people started to organize [and] said, "Hey, he's going to be the Democratic nominee so if you want to have a role to play we should," and certain Asian elected officials at the time took a lead, [and] Congressman Bob Matsui took a lead in organizing the Asian community nation-wide to support candidate Clinton.

There was a big fundraising event in the city of San Gabriel, which was attended by President Clinton, and that was the first big Asian-American fundraiser for a Presidential candidate [since 1988] in the Democratic Party. That drew a lot of attention. Even the mainstream press were there.

...Much to his credit, he also appointed a large number of Asian-Americans to various positions in his Administration, and that happened in 1993-94.

Q: Was Ron Brown a visionary in the sense that he recognized this untapped community?

Lang: I think that's true. Again, we have to give him a lot of credit [for] making sure the Democrat Party, the Democratic National Committee especially, [reached] out to the various Asian constituencies through the country. It was under his leadership that the DNC created the first Asian affairs position and Ron Brown hired Melinda Yee. The Republican National Committee, of course, they did the same, and I think they probably created the position a little bit earlier than the DNC.

We had also Asian-Americans serving on the DNC executive committee. I think several advisory committees were also set up. The committees communicated with the DNC on a regular basis. We would send the newsletter and stuff, and whenever there were interesting figures that traveled to different cities, we'll call them, we'll ask to meet with them.

Also, I think the minority press cultivated it to some degree. Before that, they never received any press releases from the national parties, and I think... Ron Brown ... started to pay more attention to them. Minority reporters were invited to certain meetings and they received regular press releases.

Q: Was it understood within the Asian community that what he was doing would require financing, fundraising, and successful support of the effort?

Lang: Of course. It's this national party, what they go after is money and votes.... The attention naturally would be on money because, as I said before, we are a growing economic, thriving community, and a lot of us have the financial means to give.

Q: Tell me the story about when he offered you a job.

Lang: I recount the story just to show that Ron Brown is really a sensitive guy and I was really touched by him. ... That was in 1990. They decided to create a position of an Asian Affairs director at the DNC and fortunately I was offered the position.But because of personal reasons, my wife was pregnant with our first child, and that was in the middle of December. Who wants to go to a cold place in the middle of December?

...I decided not to go, so I called the DNC and politely declined. So I thought that was over, but one evening my wife and I were eating dinner, and I think it was about 8:00 p.m., so it must be 11:00 in Washington [and] the phone rang. I pick up the phone and on the other end came a voice and he said, "I'm Chairman Brown," and I thought this guy must be joking, so I said, "Well, if you're Chairman Brown, then I'm Chairman Mao." Then he laughed on the other end, and then he said, "David, this is Ron, this is the chairman of the Democratic Party," and so I realized he's for real, so I said, "Sorry, Ron."

So he asked me, "Why didn't you take up the offer?" and I explained to him because of my personal situation, and he understood. But the point I want to illustrate is I was really touched by that. I mean, who am I? The chairman of the Party called me, and I was really touched by him.

Q: Tell me about Melinda Yee.

Lang: We're friends, and she used to be the executive director of OCA, the Organization of Chinese-Americans. [She] did a wonderful job for that organization, took [it] to new level of activism, developed new chapters for the organization, testified on behalf of the Chinese community in Congress. She did a wonderful job for that. I think she was a wonderful candidate for the Asian affairs position.

Q: What was your understanding of the Asian Pacific Advisory Council-Vote's mission?

Lang: I think it was an effort to organize our community and to get our community involved with the presidential campaign, to put it in a nutshell.More specifically, through voter outreach, voter registration, certain fundraising, and to talk about issues of importance to our community.

I think in a sense it was a pioneering effort because I don't recall any other presidential campaign before that had such an organized effort to reach out to our community.

Q: Were Gene and Nora Lum brought in because they were from Hawaii and could act as a neutral party among the various local Asian groups?

Lang: ...It might run against the conventional wisdom because if you want to do something locally, you would tend to go to the local leadership because they know who the local players are, they know how to avoid pitfalls, they understand the local process, they can get certain things done quickly, although there might be different factions.

The traditional thing is to set up a committee and have different groups nominate a leader to sit on the committee. You can have everybody together. A committee meeting, it might last for the whole day because different people have different opinions, but that's the traditional way of doing things.

Q: So why did the Lums come in, do you think?

Lang: Why? I have no idea. I don't know them personally. I think some of us were sort of interested to know more about them because, as you said, they came from Hawaii so what did they do in Hawaii before? Were they involved politically? How much clout do they have in Washington, D.C., and the DNC? I think these were some of the questions that were raised at that time.

Q: And what were the answers?

Lang: I don't think those questions were fully answered. But this whole APAC thing was set up in a relatively short period of time, and I think the focus at that time was on getting the President elected, making sure that our community were involved. So I think a lot of those questions were just brushed aside.

Q: Did you call anybody and check them out?

Lang: No, it wasn't our business.

Q: Were there Asian-Americans who were appropriately rewarded by the Clinton administration?

Lang: Oh, of course, yeah, I think, because if you look at the list of Asian-American appointees, ...there were close to 200 of them. Most of them are very well qualified. Most of them have served the Administration well. A lot of them got to the kind of position they wanted. Of course,...we didn't have a Cabinet secretary, so that was a major disappointment, but on the other hand we also realized that our history of political involvement is relatively short compared to other candidates, so maybe we need to invest more time and get more involvement before we can reach that level yet.

I think the Administration has paid attention to us...We're happy.

Q: Who are the big hitters in the Asian community in Southern California?

Lang: This is a tough question.

Q: Because you don't know or.....?

Lang: I know a lot of them, but I don't think I want to mention the names. Because if I mention some names and don't mention others, a few may get offended.

Q: So then everything hits the fan and it feels like a big black eye to the Asian community; does it?

Lang: I think so far all this negative coverage and all this accusation and all this speculation definitely have had strong negative impact on our community in terms of people's willingness to politically participate, because I've already seen that during Gary Loc's campaign for governor of Washington. We organized a big event for him here and a lot of people who committed to the event before all this was brought out changed their minds later because they were scared....[We] reassured them, "Hey, don't be scared. This is your right to participate, and we do things in a legal manner." But still some people decided not to show up at the event because of this negative thing.

...My concern is if this is going to continue, this would definitely affect future Asian-American candidates wanting to run for high office.

Q: In what way?

Lang: Well, this will affect the fundraising, because then people would be less willing to contribute, or people will find a new excuse not to contribute. The press would look at every Asian dollar with a tainted perspective.

Q: Could you say, "There but for the grace of God go I. I could be John Huang," given what's happening?

Lang: Well, I don't want to comment on John Huang because the John Huang I know, he's really a community-minded person.....He's not guilty until he's proven guilty. So I don't want to comment on that.

Q: But let's say you're working for Ron Brown in Washington. Look at what's happening to Melinda for that matter.

Lang: Yeah, it could happen to another person. If it's not John Huang, if another person decided to be active in this, this could happen to that person.

Q: Is it a big fear?

Lang: I won't say it's a big fear. A lot of us are very concerned, a lot of us are angered by all of this, but on the other hand we realize that we have a bigger agenda. We have to move on.

....We need to keep on recruiting good qualified candidates to run for office, especially the lower level, school board and city council, because we are in this country. We're here to stay.

Q: Do you think racism is behind the media frenzy?

Lang: I hope it's not racism, but when I read a lot of these stories I can't help but just think, hey, what other explanations can I have...?....

Q: When people say, "All that money had to be turned back, " what do you say?

Lang: I would say that if the money was contributed illegally, if it came from a foreign source, if it came from people who were not US citizens or residents, then we've got to return it because it's illegal. But on the other hand, there's a lot of wealthy Asians who had the means to contribute.

Sometimes I can't help but laugh when I read some of these stories. They thought that there [are] no wealthy people in the Asian community. They thought when some people can write a $300,000 check, there must be some question about that guy's financial means.

I mean, if they go to Hong Kong, they go to Taipei, ...there are millionaires everywhere. A flat in Hong Kong costs easily a million US dollars. You know how many millionaires are there in Hong Kong? So I think it's just ridiculous to think that Asians are poor. Maybe this is a stereotype that a lot of people have: " These are new immigrants and they're just trying to establish themselves, so where did they get the money from?" That just shows they don't understand our community.

Q: Did you ever approach the Lums on behalf of any political candidates?

Lang: My impression at the time was that they were just solely interested in presidential and federal races. I didn't approach them in 1992 for any local candidates, but as I recall, I think I did have a chance to talk to them in '93 about supporting Mike Woo who was running for mayor of Los Angeles at the time. They didn't say 'no' to me, but the impression I got from them was they were not interested in a local race. So I just dropped the subject.

Q: I had the impression that they liked the idea that they were connected more to Ron Brown and the federal stuff than local Asian politics specifically. True?

Lang: You have to ask them, but I don't recall seeing them at any local Asian-American candidate's fundraiser. I don't recall seeing them having any close relationship with any Asian-American elected officials, and as you know there were not that many of them. So that makes me think they were just interested in presidential politics and federal campaigns.

Q: What was the buzz among the Asian community about why they came in from Hawaii?

Lang: I think a lot of people...didn't pay attention to that. ...Since they took it upon themselves to organize the whole headquarters and all these things, and the impression was they were spending a lot of money,...why would people object to that? Nobody would say, "Hey, why are you doing this?"

On the other hand, I think a lot of people were saying, "Hey, it's great that we have some people like the Lums who are spending their resources finding a headquarters, hiring all these young people, running an operation."

Q: You attended the most recent presidential inauguration. How would you describe it?

Lang: It could have been a crowning achievement for the Asian-American community, but unfortunately that wasn't the case. So far, we haven't seen any major appointments in the Asian community....I don't want to use the term going down the drain, but I think our involvement at the national level has a serious setback. I think it's a serious setback.

I haven't seen any elected officials that are bold enough to come up and issue a strong statement saying that, "I want to tell Asian communities to be politically active, and I want Asian money as far as it's legal."

Q: What did it feel like to walk around that inauguration having that in your gut?

Lang: Well, if all these things didn't happen,...I think people would be so joyous, I think we would have a lot of clout, I think we would have a lot of recognition, I think we would be welcome with open arms by a lot of people, I think there might be a lot of special events, functions organized by the Asian community for the Asian community, attended by many politicians, ... things like that. There would be a lot of community leaders that would take a trip to Washington, D.C.

Unfortunately that didn't happen. A lot of people choose not to go because they didn't want to be associated with that.

[END]

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