API PA helps bring Dems to victory in Pennsylvania
By Eddie Wong. Posted Nov. 19, 2022
Intro: When CNN announced that Democrat John Fetterman had won the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania on election night, progressives throughout the country screamed with joy. Perhaps the night would not be as terrible as predicted for the Dems. Although Trump made several appearances on behalf of Republican Senate candidate Dr. Oz and election denier Dennis Mastriano, who ran for governor, the voters rejected them in favor of John Fetterman and Josh Shapiro. They won by comfortable margins thanks to the efforts of many grassroots organizations and coalitions. Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance (API PA) Executive Director Mohan Seshadri tells us about the massive effort among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders helped deliver these progressive victories. The interviewed was conducted on Nov. 10, 2022.
Photo from API PA.
Eddie Wong: Congratulations, you guys cleaned house and most surprisingly flipped the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives. Is that confirmed?
Mohan Seshadri: I would say that it’s sufficiently confirmed; I trust the folks who made the announcement.
Eddie Wong: Maybe we could just back up a bit and say briefly what the victories meant, where they were and what contributed to them. I know there was a massive ground game that was conducted not only by API PA but by other groups and the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania.
Mohan Seshadri: Absolutely, we’re really proud of the work we did across the state, both on the 501C3 nonpartisan side and us handling the political work to get our candidates across the finish line and make sure our communities were protected from what the right wing had planned for our people. Similar to 2020, we once again ran the largest Asian American voter contact program in the USA. We knocked on 140,000 doors, made 2.5 million calls and did so in 15 languages. We made around 3,000,000 attempts to contact voters across Pennsylvania, and we talked to 62,000 people. And 1,700 were Asian voters who didn’t speak any English whatsoever and would not have been turned out if not for our intentional deep in-language voter contact work.
Eddie Wong: What sort of messages do you think resonated the most?
Mohan Seshadri: One of the biggest things we heard from our folks across the board of all ages, especially in the Philadelphia suburbs and among our young people, was abortion. Access was on the line in this election. Bodily autonomy, it was on the line.
We also heard a lot from our folks about health care access that works for our Asian communities regardless of immigration status with outreach in multiple languages and care in a culturally competent manner. Lastly, just COVID and the way the Republican Party stoked the flames and fueled the fire for anti-Asian violence across the country in the last two years. The Republicans tried hitting our folks with deceptive mailers blaming Democrats and progressives for anti-Asian discrimination and anti-Asian violence, and I think what we’ll see once we’ve crunched the numbers is that our folks across the board rejected that in favor of bodily autonomy, in favor of rights and freedoms and health care access.
One thing that we went in on heavily was the attacks on our communities’ right to vote and to access to vote by mail. Our ability to participate in politics and organize and build power – we made that a central plank of our election program. If we did not flip the State House, Republicans were going to ram through constitutional amendments next year doing an end run around the governor to completely ban abortion and institute voter ID in Pennsylvania, which probably would have handed the Republicans the White House in 2024. So, we specifically went all out for Josh Shapiro for governor. We went all out for Senator-elect Fetterman, but we especially went all out for a chamber flip in the State House and state Senate. We’re really proud that at least one of those seats that flipped from red to blue was in the Philly suburbs where we, API PA, was the only organization on the ground knocking doors during GOTV.
Women’s March, Oct. 4, 2021. Photo from API PA Facebook page.
Eddie Wong: Was that district of significantly Asian Pacific?
Mohan Seshadri: One of the one of our commitments to the broader ecosystem that we inhabit in Pennsylvania is we will go wherever we gotta go. We will do whatever it takes to make sure people are safe and healthy and strong, even knocking non-Asian doors and in non-Asian areas. This was an area where our comrades and allies in the broader Pennsylvania progressive political ecosystem just put out a call for anyone to go knock those doors because no one was knocking those doors and we were the ones who said yes.
Eddie Wong: That’s fantastic. What district was that?
Mohan Seshadri: It’s House District 168. (Ed. note: The district is located in Southeastern Pennsylvania/Delaware County and it is 89% white.)
Eddie Wong: Were people surprised to see Asian faces at the doors?
Mohan Seshadri: Absolutely yes. We’ve had to get pretty good at explaining to folks exactly why we’re showing up on these doors. But I think people got it and people saw the rise in anti-Asian violence. In so many cases, people were hungry to be talked to at all. I will also note that in some suburban districts where we do have middle class and working class Asian American communities, they told us that we were the first people to ever knock on their door, that they had been ignored and erased. We went to working class housing complexes talked to them with messaging and in languages that they spoke, and they turned out because of that.
Eddie Wong: You must have been able to mobilize hundreds of volunteers. Did you notice a predominance of young women coming out because of the Dobbs decision?
Mohan Seshadri: In addition to the volunteer program, we also ran a paid door and paid phone program. We brought our community members, including some of our volunteers into jobs that paid a living wage with health care and paid sick time.
And then on the volunteer side, we’re also really proud of the intergenerational movement we had with elders and young folks in high school and in college. And we were able to build spaces that brought them together, got them talking to each other, getting to know each other, and learning from each other, especially on issues like reproductive rights, immigrant justice and workers’ rights. I think at its height we had a staff of roughly 75 to 80 people.
API PA canvassers. Photo from API PA Facebook page.
We held a number of days of action, especially with partner organizations that like SEIU API caucus and Desis Rising Up and Moving. There were 501C4 groups like DRUM Beats (Ed. Note: the political arm of Desis Rising Up and Moving) in New York, especially knowing that we had pockets where we wanted to a South Asian canvas in Upper Darby in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, a Chinese focused canvas in Chinatown in Philadelphia, a South Asian canvas in Bensalem in Bucks County, in the suburbs. There were times where we had 80 to 100 folks on the doors together, all across southeastern Pennsylvania and across the state.
Eddie Wong: What do you hope to do in the coming year then?
Mohan Seshadri: Alongside our partners at the AAPI PA Power Caucus, the statewide 501C3 nonpartisan civic engagement and power building table of 16 Asian organizations across the state, we spent the last three years building a first of its kind Asian Pacific Islander Policy platform from 1,600 conversations conducted in 15 different languages about what our folks actually want and need out in Pennsylvania. And us having a governor who’s going to listen to and be accountable to our interests, us having a Lieutenant governor who’s going to do the same and having a State House that is democratic and progressive means that we are 26 votes in the State Senate away from passing that pro-Asian, pro-Pacific Islander, pro-worker, pro-immigrant, pro-refugee agenda. And so that’s what we’re going to spend next year doing.
We’re going to make sure that we’re churning out our folks for people’s champions. We’re going to be running for office in the Philly area. We’re going to make sure that we’re fighting back against any constitutional amendments that may get on the ballot. Based on the what the Conservatives and the Republicans trying to try to pull in the next two months, we’re going to make sure that our democracy is defended, and our votes get counted.
But especially, we’re going to pass pro-Asian legislation in Harrisburg. We’re going to get justice for Christian Hall by funding a program to put in place non-violent, unarmed language accessible, culturally competent crisis responders for instances of mental health crisis. Volunteers and our organizers are going to be digging deep in building power especially focused on legislative advocacy and lobbying campaigns to actually win justice for our communities because for us electoral work is just a tool in the toolbox that gets us people that those legislative wins.
Mohan Seshadri. Screen grab from 2020 zoom chat with Eddie Wong.
Eddie Wong: That’s a smart strategy because the issues-based work is really a means of educating people about the political process. How do you go about recruiting members?
Mohan Seshadri: Our members pay sliding scale fee of roughly $15 a month. Just as importantly, if not more importantly, they take action with us once a month whether that is knocking doors, making phone calls, sending postcards, showing up to our rally, or helping with one of our political education programs. We built a new political education program this year called CAMP Summer Camp, the Civic Asian Mobilization Project that holds monthly meetings both in English and in language, especially in Chinese to talk through who’s on the ballot, how does voting work, what does environmental justice mean to our communities? What does health care access mean to our communities? What is community safety that doesn’t just fund the cops? And that’s how a lot of our volunteers got activated this year. That’s how we built membership this year and we’re excited to take all of that and build again.
Eddie Wong: And you also have a robust website. Are there any new things you’re going to do with that?
Mohan Seshadri: One of our priorities is building out the language accessible portions of our digital work writ large, and our communications work writ large. This year we’re proud to have built a special site for our election work, specifically as a one stop shop for Asians to be able to how to register, how to check their registration status or find out which candidates are actually going to fight for us and which candidates are going to sell us down the river. It’s AsianforPA.org.
Eddie Wong: I know that API PA is part of the Asian American Power Network. I recently interviewed them. (See AAPN: Interview with Nadia Belkin). What are your hopes for the AAPN?
Mohan Seshadri: I see the AAPN as a national organization that is actually accountable to the people who actually do the work day in and day out, rather than being in DC. The Asian American Power Network is a is a place for our voices to be lifted up to WDC and to the national political players. It’s a place for us to advocate for our needs. It doesn’t make sense for us to all have a data director given our limited resources, it doesn’t make sense for us all to have a research director to handle polling and focus groups and things like. We can all come together and invest in these key things that lift all our boats, especially around things like API data and learning more about our communities’ wants and needs.
We can invest in how to build the next generation of field directors, digital directors, communication directors, and organizing directors. There’s no place for our people to learn how to do this in a way that’s still accountable to our community. I’m excited that AAPN is helping us learn from each other because we all have our strengths and weaknesses. Rising Voices in Michigan have incredible video and arts and cultural work. We (API PA) can run an incredible field program. Aisha Mahmood in Georgia with Asian American Advocacy Fund (AAAF) runs incredible mail and digital work. One API Nevada has incredibly inventive organizing program involving goats and boba, fun, cool things that bring people into the streets and get people learning about politics that way. And us all learning from each other in these ways makes us all better.
So many of us are ready to once again support AAAF on the ground and throw down for the Georgia runoff.
Eddie Wong: That’s great. Do you have any last thoughts? Are you planning to go to Disneyland after this?
Mohan Seshadri: (Hugh laugh) No, I’m not. Right now, I’ve got a whole lot of work to do to make sure that folks know just how much work we did. Again, the largest Asian American field program in U.S. history and one that was successful in not just electing Josh Shapiro and John Fetterman but flipping the PA State House. Our leaders don’t do enough bragging. Our people are just a bit too humble. It’s my job to make sure that the powers that be, whether it’s the press or elected officials, know that it wasn’t just API PA that did all this amazing work this year. Viet Lead did amazing organizing. Asian Americans United did amazing work. The Woori Center, the Filipino American Association of Pittsburgh and CAIR Philadelphia did amazing work this year. It’s high time that everyone in Pennsylvania and across the country sat up and took notice of the brilliant Asian American organizing happening on the C3 side and on the C4 side and the PAC (political action committee) side here in PA and started resourcing our organizations at the level that we need. So, that’s my job, making sure that we’re lifting up all of our folks, lifting up all of our leaders and getting our people resourced so that we can continue to do this work in 2023 and 2024.
Interviewer Bio: Eddie Wong is the editor/publisher of East Wind ezine. He is a longtime activist in the Asian American political and cultural arenas.