the fixers

Ron Wakabayashi

Wakabayashi Ron Wakabayashi is a Los Angeles county official and a former volunteer for Asia Pacific Advisory Council-VOTE. In 1992, Wakabayashi, John Huang and seven other Clinton supporters were honored at an APAC awards ceremony organized by Nora Lum.

Ron Brown | Melinda Yee | Gene and Nora Lum
Nora and Ron | APAC | Richard Choi Bertsch | Nora's White House list

Q: How are Asian-Americans split along political party lines?

Wakabayashi: I think it's a mixed bag....I have a close Republican friend [who] says that Asians are culturally Republican, that we're [a "pull yourself-up-by-your bootstraps" community], that many of the Asians who fled from Communist regimes...are anti-Communist, and also [that] the large participation in small business also gives [us a] Republican bent. So his claim is that we're culturally a Republican community, and I think there's some element of truth to that.

...We've seen registration patterns reflect the party in power. So when the Republicans [were] in power in the Reagan/Bush years, you saw a little bit of a bent in that direction. We're seeing a swing in the other direction now the Democrats are in power. So I think like other communities we tend to go where the activity is, try to run to the winning side. But I think there's a pretty even split....

Q: Are Asian-Americans big political donors?

Wakabayashi: In some quarters, yes.

If we look back in the 1980s, there was a significant amount of Republican fundraising in the Asian community, and I think that's really the start of this fundraising phenomenon. And at least from my view, the fundraising portion of it is understandable in the sense that that's the easiest way people can participate, particularly if you're first-generation...

...[The] amounts were significant already in the 1980s. They just didn't have the same amount of public attention that has come up in the last few months.

Q: What does a relationship to the political process mean if you're a first-generation Asian-American?

Wakabayashi: ...[From] what I can glean out of my conversations with the foreign-born part of the Asian community, the role of elected officials, the roles of law enforcement, of teachers are viewed just very differently than the way we view them in America. So I think many of the immigrant populations carry over the assumption that how it operated there is the way you ought to do it here. So the idea of making contributions is not just something you should do, it's something that you have to do, in a sense.

[The] first generation is [almost] involved without thinking about what they want out of the process...[They] just know that they better do it or otherwise there's some kind of adverse consequence. That's very different, that's not a view that an American-born [Asian] has. [An] American-born [Asian] has a view like, "If I make this contribution I want to know what I'm going to get out of it."

Q: Is there anything wrong with expecting you get something for your money?

Wakabayashi: I think there's some dangers in the sense that those [who] have...the most capital get the most access. That's the primary danger....

Q: How was the wind blowing in the late 1980s and early 1990s in your constituency?

Wakabayashi: My that the Republican National Committee was being very successful in tapping into Asian money.....[It] was really a period of Republican dominance in the State House and in the White House, [so] if you looked at who was being appointed to the Regents of the University of California and....getting other kind of appointments and access, I think people had an object lesson first from Republicans...

At the same time, I think [Brown] did a much better job at it than the Republicans did. [The] Republicans tended to work through...some gatekeepers [who] were very controlling. My sense is Ron Brown had a much broader network of people....

Q: Tell me about Ron Brown.

Wakabayashi: ...I think it was a relationship that was cultivated over time rather than the kind of experience that many of us have [of people showing up] during election years....[He] had deep personal relationships with people who were identified with the community as well.

That kind of person serves as a translator in a sense. We're interpreting politicians as well, and while we may give money to a candidate, we may not feel terribly enthused. Part of that enthusiasm is not tied to newspaper accounts of that person, but how people [whom] we know are close to them will interpret them.

I think Ron Brown had those kinds of relationships, very differently than almost anyone else I can recognize outside of an Asian-elected official.

Q: Why?

Wakabayashi: I like to think it's because it was visionary.

After he became Secretary of Commerce, one of the things that at least was anecdotally observable was that [many] Asian-Americans who came from community environments [and] had competencies in the area of commerce ended up in the Department of Commerce with him. So it felt that there was a real community tie to that department, which was unusual. It's never happened before.

Q: What were the issues confronting this community when he started to reach out?

Wakabayashi: I think that the Los Angeles Asian community was just starting to feel its sense of growth, that we were reaching a numerical level where we were starting to show up on the map. That's a real issue for Asian-Americans. If you look at the Los Angeles Times surveys on different issues, you rarely see a column that reflects an Asian attitude. It's just not surveyed by the Times. And that's been a point of contention, feeling like you're not "in" because they don't ask your opinion of things.

But at the same time, I think the community has recognized that it's had the economic clout and some political clout....We were a large small business community,...[we were] interested in immigration issues because family reunification kept so many of our families separate for so many decades. So there are those kinds of federal issues that were clearly very important to us.

Q: Did you ever see Ron Brown when he came to town?

Wakabayashi: Sure.

Q: What was he like?

Wakabayashi: ...[You] had a sense that he was comfortable with this Asian community, which is not always easy to do because there's such a variety within them. You're talking to someone whose accent sometimes is so strong it's unintelligible, it's hard to figure out what they even said to you. Other people were just strident activists, others were just newcomers to this whole process and poking their nose into it.

I think the things that struck most people were that you would hear later on about followup, that there'd be a conversation in those environments where he would say, "I'll look into that," or, "I'll get back to you on it," and he actually did, which is not what you normally experience in those kind of settings.

Q: Was he evangelizing on behalf of a candidate or was he carrying the flag for the Democratic National Committee? What was his mission?

Wakabayashi: I think he [was] doing all those things in a sense.

...In many ways, whether he recognized it or not, by having the DNC play an operational role in helping us organize and reach out and have a banner under which people could be convened, that was neutral. It was outside of something local or outside of one community. The DNC...gave us, in a sense, neutral turf in an organization around which you can convene and build a process.

Q: Was he a big believer in Pres. Clinton in those days?

Wakabayashi: I think so, from everything I heard him articulate, from early on.

Q: What would he say?

Wakabayashi: He essentially said that this is a kind of a guy [who], despite whatever you see on the news, really agonizes over what's the right thing....Even if he makes a different decision, he's someone who at least had what we would consider...real concerns...on that table. He said the only thing you can ask of an elected that they'll at least agonize over it. He said most of them don't.

Q: Did it feel that Ron Brown was creating "money machines," as cynics have said?

Wakabayashi: The initial groups of people...were people without money [or] access to money, so it didn't feel like that. The fundraising part...developed in a sense later on, and I think it's overstated....[The] amount of fundraising that I saw in the Republican period within the Asian community locally was as large or maybe even a little larger than what the Democrats were able to pull off....

[Ron Brown] wasn't getting a lot of money before the election....[He] tapped into a phenomenon that was reoccurring every four years in most communities where there's any kind of level of political contribution.

Q: Tell me about the leadership he might have tapped into here. Was Melinda Yee here or was she in Washington?

Wakabayashi: For the most part, she was in Washington. There were periods of time that she was out here for little blocks, but Melinda is originally from the West Coast and she also served as the director of Organization of Chinese-Americans....[She was] known to the Asian community prior to [the] DNC and prior to Ron Brown. So she walks in with her own relationship.

Q: And it's a good relationship?

Wakabayashi: Yeah, I think she played a very important role because there were so few Asians out on the East Coast.

One of the things the Asian community is terribly and deathly afraid of is that there's constantly an East Coast definition of what the West Coast is and it never includes Asian-Americans, and it seldom includes even Latinos, even though they're getting close to half the population. [The] East Coast tends to view the world in a black/white kind of paradigm, and our reality is really vastly different than that. The black population in Los Angeles is smaller than the Asian population.

...Melinda's role was significant [because] she was one of the people pioneering getting Asian-American issues on the screen on the East Coast...The toughest part of...being Asian on the East Coast is being invisible and being ignored...

In Washington, I think you have to elbow your way into a conversation, even if you come from a large constituency and even a moneyed constituency...That's culturally difficult. I think we're inexperienced in that, and I don't think many of us are willing to go through that because you get beat up in that process. Melinda went through that...

Q: She may have been the one that said, "When you go to Los Angeles, let's get all these groups together."

Wakabayashi: Yeah, I would suspect some. She's a West Coast person who knows the ground out here. And even though she spent a considerable amount of time on the East Coast in her work, she maintained those ties, and even the organizational structure kept her in touch with the West Coast as well.

[There was] a basic degree of trust...It might not have gone as well with an East Coast Asian who was not familiar [with the West Coast and] who did not pay the kind of dues that Melinda paid in terms of fighting her way in and us understanding that. So she was in some ways ideal for someone like Ron Brown to work with. She was a good collaborator.

Q: What was their relationship like?

Wakabayashi: I don't have an intimate view of it, but my sense of it is ...Melinda thought of Ron Brown [as] something between a big brother and a father. I remember when he was killed and I talked to her on the phone,...I don't think there any kind of feigned mourning, I think she was in very deep grief....There was a real sense of loss, not just loss in losing your boss, but losing someone much more personal.

Ron Brown seemed to take care of people, and I don't mean that in a political/economic sense, but that to the extent that really had a sense that he was very nurturing with her, helped her grow in a lot of ways.

I know that when he died, I felt terribly saddened, in a personal way.

Q: How did Gene and Nora Lum and the Asian-Pacific Advisory Council-VOTE appear in your life?

Wakabayashi: That's an interesting one.

I had heard Nora Lum's name on a few occasions prior to that first Clinton election bid, but it was just in passing. It wasn't anyone on the screen. I didn't know anything about her, except I had some general sense that she was able to raise funds, but even that was just very vague.

...[Some] of us got together, and it [was] the usual cast of characters that you see in that kind of Pan-Asian grouping in Los Angeles...What she raised was that for the upcoming election,...there was interest in putting together some level of Asian campaign to keep an Asian face, Asian issues visible in the campaign so that we wouldn't be forgotten. That kind of statement would generally draw support.

Q: What was your first impression of Nora?

Wakabayashi: ...I saw her as much more aggressive...and assertive than most Asian-American middle-aged women [whom] I would run into on a first meeting. She was very forthright, would articulate what she thought was an interest and push it. Other people would dance a little bit before, there's a little bit of courtship before you jump further on. She was more aggressive. That's probably the dominant impression.

Q: Did she have a plan for APAC? What did she say?

Wakabayashi: As I recall it, I think it was fairly vague. My sense of the initial convening that there was a general goal, not much more, and that the general goal was we've got to do whatever it is we need to do to help keep an Asian-American presence, visibility, and attention during the Presidential elections because otherwise we'll get lost in all the soup that comes up later. I think there was general agreement to that.

[We were] listening to see, are we going to be asked to do something specific or are we being asked to come up with a design, or are we going to be given a certain amount of resources, or are we going to be asked to raise funds? None of that was completely clear.

Q: What did you think she wanted?

Wakabayashi: I didn't know that she was focused....I wasn't sure that she knew what she wanted. I tend to be much more goal-oriented and structured, and I remember having conversations with try to explore...whether there was a focus that she had so that we at least had that on the table. I was not able to extract that, so it reinforced my sense that she didn't have a particular focus in terms of what was going to come out of APAC-Vote.

Q: When you look back on it, what do you think it was?

Wakabayashi: ...It was an activity generally to keep [the] Asian-American presence elevated..[It] raised consciousness more than it delivered.

Q: Did she know Melinda Yee before?

Wakabayashi: I believe so, yeah.

Q: How?

Wakabayashi: I don't know that one. I heard Nora's name earlier during the [Michael Dukakis presidential campaign] actually, the first time, and it was in conjunction with raising some small amount of money for some Asian-specific event. So I had some sense she had some ties to the national party because that was a campaign that was centered here in Los Angeles and she was being called in Honolulu by the campaign operation.

Q: To what extent did you get involved with APAC after that meeting?

Wakabayashi: ...It was really a hodgepodge of things...sort of miscellaneously listed under the heading of APAC-Vote....It all fit under that umbrella and had the convenience of an operational place with a copy machine and telephones and those kinds of things, but in terms of anything more coordinated,'s not anything that anyone would call a "campaign." 02:21:38

But it did have the ability to convene and create a presence for [the] DNC,...for Democratic candidates in the Asian community, which is I think better bang for your buck anyway.

Q: Tell me about Gene Lum.

Wakabayashi: Gene's much more of a mystery. He seemed like a nice, kind of easygoing guy that you didn't see a whole lot of. He was around there but he was kind of in and out. Nora was the person that you saw and was generally there....You had the sense that [Gene] was very laid back. He'd offer a sort of opinion but it was the kind of opinion [like] when someone's drinking beer during a football [game]. [It] didn't necessarily seem like it had deep analysis, but you got an opinion.

Q: Tell me about the offices at Torrance. And why Torrance?

Wakabayashi: "Why Torrance?" is an interesting question.

...You have to imagine a large warehouse in an area that is mostly warehouses...adjoining the Torrance airport....The front part of this warehouse has got some partitioning and carpeting and phone lines... But the physical plant wasn't much.

Q: You were there with Ron Brown the day the ribbon was cut. What happened?

Wakabayashi: I don't recall much of it. I think we got a pretty good crowd. That was the photo op so that you could show Ron Brown coming to an Asian-Pacific event....Having a picture of [the] ribbon-cutting of APAC-Vote creates a larger image than actually exists....[To] the people who are reading the ethnic press and seeing that photo of several hundred Asians standing in front of this building, cutting a ribbon with the chair of the DNC, [it] looks like there's a pretty large operation and commitment from [the] DNC. So I think it was a photo op, and it did work for that.

Q: It also sounds like it was one of those false front kind of environments.

Wakabayashi: Close, close. From a substantive standpoint, APAC-Vote did not make much impact in terms of doing traditional campaign work....It did a little bit of all of those things in a lot of little different places, but nothing in a coordinated way.

The most substantive thing it did, I think, was to create a very strong impression that the Democratic Party was very actively involved with the Asian community and very concerned and sensitive to Asian-Pacific needs and concerns. That's what I think could be achieved out of something like APAC-Vote, and I paid off.

Q: What did Nora do, day in and day out?

Wakabayashi: I think it varied. On some days, I think she functioned like an office manager for that operation. There were later in the campaign a couple of people part-time who got paid, so there was staffing, but Nora and her family [were] as much the staff as anyone else. They were the ones who were constantly there. So the rest of us who were doing some sort of volunteer aspect of it, of putting together a flyer, or putting together a mailing list, or whatever the activity was, we could run down there and it would be convenient that someone's there and you could hit the Xerox machine, get some calls, get whatever follow-up done.

Q: Did Nora appear to know Ron Brown well?

Wakabayashi: Very well. They obviously knew each other very well, and that's not anything I think you can act. He hugged her in a very demonstrable kind of way. They knew each other, it wasn't a political hug.

Q: Was it jocular? Did they have conversation back and forth?

Wakabayashi: There's no question in my mind that there was a fairly close tie or access that Nora had with Ron Brown. Just the information she was able to communicate, the interactions I've seen with them, her and Ron Brown. There's nothing for me to think otherwise. I'm fairly skeptical. I know that at times there are individuals who try to embellish their relationship with a public official, and so I scrutinized that as well...

Q: And the relationship was personal as well as professional?

Wakabayashi: I think so. I think it went beyond political. There's a politeness to political relationships and there's elected or public officials that you have to deal with, and so you're kind and polite and thoughtful and you're almost gratuitous in the way you introduce them, and so on. This was more than that. At least on Nora's side, the way I heard her articulate things about Ron, he was someone [whom] she had very strong feelings about.

The relationship between Ron Brown and Nora Lum in my view was more than a political relationship....

Q: Did she ever tell you what she thought of him?

Wakabayashi: The most common thing that I heard from Nora [was] that Ron Brown is the one public official at a very senior level who has been demonstrably and consistently [reaching out to] and including Asian-Americans. And I think she was right.

Q: Ron could be funny and friendly at all levels. Was he that way with Gene, for example, with Trisha Lum, with Melinda, or was it saved for Nora?

Wakabayashi: I don't think it was saved for Nora. I felt there was a very close relationship between Ron and Melinda, that showed up as well. With Gene maybe, and quite possibly, but that's sort of a guy thing, it doesn't necessarily show up the same way. It's easy for men and women to embrace each other and be more expressive. Gene was not unfriendly, he was shaking hands and happy and talking with Ron. Trisha as well. But with Melinda and Nora in particular, my sense is that there was a fondness for the people as individuals as well as for their roles...

Q: Did you have a sense that they had a business relationship beyond the politics?

Wakabayashi: There's nothing that ever pointed to that in the work we did.

Q: What is Gene doing around the office at that time?

Wakabayashi: He's in and out. He's not always there. Sometimes he's out of town for one reason or another. My observation is that Gene didn't play a programmatic role. When he was around he played grunt. I mean, he carried things. If we had an event we had to carry food in or whatever, Gene's a pretty burly guy, he helped carry things. That's why I remember him the most. He was not a policy person or a campaign person. He's definitely opinionated, but he wasn't there consistently enough.

Q: And Trisha?

Wakabayashi: Trish was out doing sort of eclectic organizing among the youth things, some things that even worry me.....[She] apparently hooked into some people who represented that they had a role in [the gang truces in Los Angeles],...and I was a little nervous about that. But except for those kind of episodes and adventures that she went on, I think most of what I saw is that she was an assistant to her mom in helping out with the operations.

Q: Was Melinda around much?

Wakabayashi: She would come into town with some frequency. It depends on what much means, but like during campaign periods maybe as frequently as every other week, during the peak of it, and other times less.

...[When] Melinda was in town, we would use the opportunity to convene people and have her debrief [us on] what's going on.

Q: Was APAC-Vote a big fundraising vehicle?

Wakabayashi: ...Most of the events that took place were more media-oriented and did some fundraising, but they were the kind of bucks you could ask for when you invite people to a warehouse....I think it paid for whatever overhead that was going on there.

[There] was one event that people have told me raised considerable amounts of money, which was an awards program. I was an awardee and I sort of scold myself for maybe being too naive, but it was a busy time for me as well...I guessed that the amount was around $10,000....Other people have given outrageous figures that range up to a quarter-million dollars.

Q: Tell me about the event.

Wakabayashi: The event was basically a reception format and they presented awards. The awards were like 31 Flavors. One person out of each community was identified to get the award because this was an Asian thing, and you have to balance it off so you get one of each flavor.

It wasn't much different than other kind of events of that sort that I've seen before. You had music, you had food, you presented the awards. The awards were kind of neat. There was a plaque with a rock....That was given to all the awardees, plus a book that was autographed by the President.

That was a fairly tight part of the program, boom, boom, get people on and off, get the awards, and then the rest of it was rah-rah, and photo op for [the] DNC.

Q: What role did Nora play in this?

Wakabayashi: I think I would characterize her as the principal organizer. ...She was the one who was getting in touch with the people who were bringing the food and ordering the food, and getting things printed. But she was at the center of that.

Q: Was it her idea?

Wakabayashi: I think so.

Q: How did she pitch it to you?

Wakabayashi: "This is a fund-raiser, we're going to do a fund-raiser." And I remember saying if it's going to be a fund-raiser, we ought to identify some folks who have greater drawing power because what she did was she identified first the people who had some level of active role in APAC-Vote as the people who are getting the awards. I know that in our discussions we felt we were not necessarily the people who had the biggest draw for raising funds and thought that maybe we ought to structure it around who could draw more funds, if the goal was to raise funds.

Q: One of the honorees was John Huang. Tell me about John Huang: his history here, his relationship to the Lums, to APAC. He's such a famous name now. I presume he wasn't such a famous name then.

Wakabayashi: No, John was like one of us. I could be John Huang, which is a little scary to me, in the sense that I think he's in a very uncomfortable position right now.

Q: What do you mean you could be John Huang right now?

Wakabayashi: I had lunch this week with a young woman who was being interviewed [for] a deputy director [position] for this Asian desk in [the] DNC. She said the same thing, "I could be John Huang right now."

...[I was being considered for] an appointment in the Clinton Administration as well. And from there, any one of us could have said, "Hey, why don't you jump over and help with the fundraising for the reelection," and you could have just as easily said, "Sure, okay, I could do that" and walked into a situation where you didn't have control of circumstances, didn't understand the potential of what it could do to your life and so on. That's why I'm saying I could be John Huang.

Q: Was John Huang a high roller?

Wakabayashi: I wouldn't call [him] a high roller. John was a fund-raiser, but the kind of fundraising that generally went on was not at the levels that [goes] on in Presidential campaigns. John didn't have prior experience in doing that kind of fundraising that I'm aware of. I saw John doing fundraising when we had candidates for local city councils, for assembly, for state senator, even maybe some gubernatorial campaigns, but the events here were not large ticket events.

....A $100 event is fairly common in political environments, and that's what would be more typical, what John was doing. Because he came out of the banking community, John could probably pull together tables better than many of us because he was tied into networks and knew who had money and had some relationships. So that's why I think he served as a pretty good fund-raiser at that level.

Q: In that sense was Huang different than Nora?

Wakabayashi: ...John's a banker, he knows other bankers, he knows other financial people. There's an existing relationship. So it's not a cold call. Nora is from outside the area - it would be cold call. And she'd have to sell very differently than someone with whom you have a relationship.

...With John, it was primarily in the Chinese community that he was raising funds. I mean, he couldn't do the same thing in the Japanese community, it would play different. You'd have to go to someone else there. But within the Chinese merchant and financial community, John did very well.

Q: If you've got a Huang who's dealing with the Chinese community, you and others are dealing with the Japanese community, what is Nora doing? She's from Hawaii, why is she here?

Wakabayashi: ...I agree that not anyone from Hawaii could walk in and probably set up an APAC-Vote...

At the same time, I think someone from Hawaii who has political standing unknown to people in Los Angeles could use that political standing as an initial basis to convene a group...Asian communities are largely newcomer communities...The ethnic-specific, being Chinese or Korean or Indian, has a far stronger, more essential part of a person's identity in Asian communities than being Asian-American....So...someone from outside in many ways provides the neutrality that allows for people from these ethnic communities to convene.

Q: Did she strike you as capable?

Wakabayashi: Yeah. She didn't strike me as unintelligent, not at all.

Q: Tell me what you know about Richard Choi Bertsch.

Wakabayashi: ...Richard occupies a kind of middle position in the Korean community. He is not of that generation that is one of the elders, nor is he one of the younger people. But he's also sort of old enough to be viewed as an adult, not like a young buck, successful enough to be regarded and taken seriously by the elders.

So he's one of these people who can broker the kind of situation in the Korean immigrant community that has the divisions between the first generation that hold the purse strings and the power and the second generation, or the 1.5 generation that is here that plays a more activist, more integrated role....Richard is that kind of bridge.

Q: A Korean equivalent of you? Or Huang in the Chinese community?

Wakabayashi: Closer to a Huang, I think. I mean, John's not an elder, he's younger than that, but he occupies a position where he can go back and forth generationally. But each community's a little different. The generational dominance is much more significant in terms of getting access to fundraising because there's a larger immigrant population....

...In the Chinese community the economic infrastructure, meaning banks and all that, is much more developed. So John...can deliver more because the community has more banks. The Korean community does not - it's much more of a small business rather than financial profile.

Q: Do you think APAC had a lot of cash?

Wakabayashi: No, we really scrimped on the kind of operational things that we were doing. No, it didn't have a great flow of cash.

Q: Where did what money you had come from, other than the big event?

Wakabayashi: My understanding is that there was initial seed money that [the] DNC provided, and there were these smaller events that provided some revenue, small receptions at $10-a-head kind of thing with food donated. The overhead wasn't that much either for what was going on there.

Q: How much in DNC money, do you know?

Wakabayashi: I don't have a picture of that. We never had any financials. I think it's wrong to characterize it as an organization because it didn't reach that level. It had a title called APAC-Vote because that worked, but it's really very much like other campaign entities; that is, fleeting.

Q: Did you ever have a business dealing with the Lums?

Wakabayashi: No. That would be unlikely anyway. I'm a civil service bureaucrat. There's not that kind of access to anything where you can go into business with me. It's more the other way around, you're going to have to give me something to make that work. So, no. Some of the things I've heard alluded to, quite frankly, I feel a bit almost embarrassed. I mean, I missed all of that going on?...

Q: If it was a front for some sort of nefarious activities, would you have known about it?

Wakabayashi: I don't think so....There hasn't been anything in the Los Angeles Asian community that's raised that kind of anxiety. So I don't think people have been skeptical or scrutinized it....I think there was a general sense that the Lums had personal wealth, but that was separated, I think, at least what people perceived it, from APAC-Vote.

Q: What do you mean in a general sense they were believed to have had personal wealth?

Wakabayashi: Even by being able to be here, away from home. I had some understanding that Gene Lum was involved in some golf course development, something like that. There was just a sense that they had some level of wealth just to be able to not have regular jobs.

Q: Did they dress well?

Wakabayashi: Stylish or well or expensive? I'm not Mr. Blackwell. And they're from Hawaii, we have very different tastes. I mean, they didn't dress badly, but I wouldn't characterize that they dressed well.

Q: What kind of a car were they renting?

Wakabayashi: I don't remember the exact car but it wasn't one of the compacts....My general recollection [is that] it's a car that you go, "Oh, that's a nice car," compared to what I drive.

Q: Where did they live when they were here?

Wakabayashi: My understanding was they were living in a hotel....I think it was the Holiday Inn...

Q: This whole thing is being played by the national press as the Clinton Administration first got interested in Asians and fundraising after the 1994 mid-term when Newt Gingrich and the Republican revolution took over, and these guys swung Asia and they came roaring through. In fact, what we're discussing is something that happened many years before that. Is that right?

Wakabayashi: Yeah, back in the 1980s when the Democrats were not in power. When people like John Siu were doing heavy fundraising in the Republican Party, ...Democratic circles were saying, "Look, the Republicans are doing that, they're treating Asians better than you are."

...I think even some of the Republican fundraising back in the '80s had these same kind of elements. I mean, like if you kicked in so much you get to sit down with the President and have coffee or tea or whatever. That's not different from 1980 than 1996-97....

So from the perspective that I occupy, this is not new stuff, it's shown up before. It's not surprising to me given the demographics of the community that there's going to be some mix of foreign money that is going to be difficult to categorize, even if you want to try and do the right thing, because the right thing's not very clear in terms of who belongs in what box, and it's sometimes a technicality....I don't know that there is a substantial difference between the 1980s and the 1990s in a real world sense.

Q: So when you wake up six years later and you look back on APAC-Vote, do you have any qualms about what that was all about?

Wakabayashi: Oh, yeah...I think the qualms are there.....but the qualms are really much more... that you can get beat up so badly publicly like John has ....My sense of John Huang is that he's just a basic decent guy and as I knew him in LA, he was trying to help build community and doing some small part...something that was fairly innocent and simple.

Q: Has it hurt the Asian community?

Wakabayashi: Probably. I think there's other kinds of ways that Asians become less likely to participate politically, that the nail that sticks up gets hit.

....I think we're seeing a downturn in corporate good citizenship on the part of Asian companies because they're afraid. Before they were afraid not to contribute because they were going to be seen as not being corporate good citizens if they don't. Now they're being afraid to contribute because there'd be something else sitting out there that'll come bite them.... 04:17:39

...I think it's done deep damage. I think you're seeing Asian communities just pulling their heads back into their shells, which is not a good thing in a diverse environment.

Q: What are your feelings about Gene and Nora now?

Wakabayashi: I think I feel very mixed and anxious....I don't have all the information, so I'm careful about judgment, but in an emotional sense I feel a sense that I hope that all this stuff is wrong, that they're really just good folks, that a weird twist happened there as well.

On the other hand, if there are things that went on that used the process for a narrower benefit, one that's hurt the community, I think that's going to be very painful...

Q: After the elections, [Nora] heads off with a list of more than 100 names to Washington. She goes into the White House, she meets with Bruce Lindsey.....Did she ever say things during the campaign like, "After we win we're going to get Asians on the Cabinet, I'm going to participate in it. Ron has promised me that we can go forward." Was there an implicit promise in any way of a quid pro quo for her and Gene's hard work?

Wakabayashi: There's nothing I understood as a quid pro quo on it. I understood clearly that that was an agenda that we wanted, that we would want to see more Asians appointed, Cabinet level, sub-Cabinet, but just generally, and that Nora was back in Washington following the inauguration...

Q: Were you on that list?

Wakabayashi: ...I don't know if I was or not, but I think I could very likely have been on that list.

Q: When Trish and Melinda got jobs back there, were you surprised?

Wakabayashi: ...I wasn't surprised that Melinda got a job. In fact, I think from an Asian perspective we were a bit disgruntled that Melinda was not put into a position much more quickly because we saw her as being the primary person in the Asian community that worked the campaign and...both symbolically as well as operationally ought to be placed, and she wasn't placed for a long time.....To this day, I didn't know Trish was appointed to anything or had a position.

Q: She became Ron's secretary. Did Nora and Gene make a difference in Los Angeles Asian-American politics?

Wakabayashi: No, I don't think there's been a major consequence. It was a blip that took place during a Presidential campaign.....


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