Md. Asians joining GOP Power: Republicans with roots in India, the Philippines and other nations of the region are banding together to strengthen their voice.

July 15, 1996|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

Asian-Americans once had an unspoken social contract with the United States: The more they were left alone, the better.

But a new statewide political club is challenging that arrangement -- and doing it in a way that cuts across traditional national and ethnic divisions.

The Asian American Republican Club Inc. also represents a break from the longtime alignment of the relatively small number of politically active Asians with the Democratic Party.

The year-old club boasts five chapters -- in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties -- and about 800 members from nine Asian nationalities. It is, in the words of one member, the "American assimilation of Asians personified."

The club embraces a fraction of Maryland's 136,000 Asians, about 3 percent of the state's population. But organizers hope to more than double its membership in the next two years -- and to register enough Asian voters to form a potent bloc in the 1998 gubernatorial election.

"We've matured," says Barry Mehta, a Howard County resident of Indian descent and the group's vice president. "We've achieved economic and social status in this country, and now it's time to be political."

Adds Alfreda Gill, chairwoman of the group's Howard County chapter and a native of Pakistan: "It's about time Asian-Americans are noticed by the political structure and having our issues vocalized. We haven't had an avenue to do that before."

Asian-Americans traditionally have remained aloof from politics, focusing on their families, earning an education and tending to their businesses and professions, says Jai Ryu, a demographer and sociology professor at Loyola College.

What makes this Republican group unusual -- if not unique -- among Asian- American organizations is its multinational membership and its conservative, Republican orientation.

In those regions where they are a political force -- California, Hawaii and Texas, for example -- Asians have tended to vote Democratic and to band together by nationality, rather than in groups spanning various Asian backgrounds, says Ryu.

The Maryland club may be at the forefront of a new national trend, says John Tsuchida, professor of Asian-American studies at California State University in Long Beach.

"Many Asian-Americans are still on the Democratic side. There are some who value an increase in social services over tax savings," Tsuchida says. "But the longer Asians stay in this country and become financially successful, they will become politically conservative and build up fairly strong Republican clubs."

The political club was founded in May 1995 by Shahab M. Qarni and Raymond Torreon -- of Pakistani and Filipino descent, respectively -- to offer a coherent platform for Asians concerned about the threat of restrictions on legal immigration, says Qarni, the group's president.

Qarni is a banking consultant from Baltimore County, and Torreon is a professional lobbyist from Howard. They tapped longtime leaders of small social clubs specific to each of nine Asian nations heavily represented in the Baltimore-Washington region: Bangladesh, Myanmar, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan and the Philippines.

"The values and experiences of the whole Asian continent are very similar," Qarni says. "We're all second cousins culturally."

Because Qarni and Torreon are Republicans, they reached out to others who shared their conservative philosophies.

While Asians have been slow to join the political process, Qarni says, more are recognizing their financial stake in political activism. "When you are involved in business, you are concerned with tax reform," he says. "When you are involved in business, everything affects you."

Believing that Maryland's Asian population is a sleeping giant, the Asian Republican group has some bold goals.

Qarni said his group hopes to add 20,000 Asian voters to the registration rolls in the next two years. Voter registration data in Maryland are not broken down by national origin or ethnic group, so the number of registered Asian voters is not known. Maryland had 2,149,293 registered voters last fall, according to the state .. election board.

The group also hopes to see at least 10 Asian-Americans bidding for a local or statewide seat within that time, Qarni says. The state has one high-ranking elected official of Asian descent. David M. Valderrama, a Democrat representing Prince George's County, has served in the House of Delegates since 1991.

The state's Republican establishment appears more than willing embrace what could become a new voting bloc.

At the invitation of club members, former Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey -- who in 1994 lost to Gov. Parris N. Glendening by 5,993 votes -- has addressed the group several times.

"Republicans really want Asian-Americans to be a part of our family," Sauerbrey recently told members. "We need the Asian American Republican Club to become actively involved in helping neighbors and friends understand that the Republican Party is where the future is."

To help build its base, the Asian Republican group this summer plans a seminar in Howard County on democracy and a debate in Washington on the effect of Christian, Jewish and Muslim coalitions on the political process.

Torreon acknowledges that his group has "a couple of years of growing to do," but he is confident it will play a significant role in Maryland politics. "Applying our work ethic to the political system will carry us a long way," he says. "We're not fly-by-night. Once Asians decide something, we sacrifice until it happens."

Pub Date: 7/15/96

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