NCAAT in Action Staying Strong for the Long Term: Interview with Chavi Koneru

By Eddie Wong. Posted November 22, 2022.

Introduction:  During the intense 2022 midterm elections, the eyes of the nation were focused on the open U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina and several hot Congressional races.  In the end, the Democratic hopeful Cheri Beasley, the former Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, lost to Republican Ted Budd, a three-term congressional representative, by 3.2%.  Democrats were able to pick up two Congressional seats. However, in the state legislature Republicans gained seats, and the state Supreme Court now has a 5 to 2 Republican edge.

Chavi Koneru, who was profiled earlier in East Wind ezine, tells us about the important victories that were gained as NCAAT in Action, a relatively new organization empowering the Pan-Asian community in North Carolina, is just flexing its muscles and building strength for the battles ahead.

Eddie Wong: The last time we talked, you mentioned that in addition to the federal and the state races you had local races that were bumped from 2021 to 2022. You had quite a bit on your plate. How do you feel about some of the results?

NCAAT In Action canvassers.

Chavi Koneru: We had to be strategic about it. We certainly couldn’t—with our limited capacity—participate in every single race across the state. And it did feel like every single office was up on this election. We picked areas that had very large Asian American populations, where the margin of victory was lower than the number of Asian Americans. We knew that the Asian American vote could make a difference in those races. We did that in the primaries and one of our candidates Mario Benavente, who was the first Peruvian/Korean American to be elected to Fayetteville City Council, won his election by six votes. We continued with this strategy through the general election.

We focused on the US Senate race and Congressional races in areas where there’s a large population of Asian Americans. Additionally, we prioritized a handful of state house and state senate races because it was really important for us to hold onto these seats and flip some seats in order to protect the governor’s veto power. Looking back, we worked really hard this year: we hosted a voter protection hotline in over 20 different Asian languages, we knocked 12,000 doors, made over 80,000 calls and texts, and sent 490,000 mail pieces. Ultimately 18 out of our 22 endorsed candidates won their election. So, we feel good about that.

One big victory was Congressional District 13, which was a race that was being watched across the country. We invested a lot of time and capacity in it. Our office is headquartered in that district, so it felt very personal to us. We were out there knocking doors literally until Election Day for Wiley Nickel.

One state house district was in a county where the Asian American population has grown over 226% and where campaigns just haven’t been reaching out to the Asian American community. We won that election. We definitely take some credit for turning out Asian American voters in House District 73.  Diamond Staton-Williams won by just 629 votes and that was the difference between holding onto the governor’s veto power. All in all, there were things beyond our control, but within what was in our capacity, knowing that we’re working with a smaller population within the broader state, I think we feel pretty successful about our efforts. That’s not to say we don’t feel grief about some of the races that were lost and the impact that’s going to have over the next two years.

Eddie Wong: I know that NCAAT in Action is working in coalition with Blacks, Latinx communities, Native Americans, and progressive whites. Do you see a steady progression to a point where you’ll be able to contest statewide?

Chavi Koneru:  I have a strong belief in that. I think our coalition is strong. There is room for improvement in terms of coordination and this was a great year for us to see what we could do within our capacity. And now we get to work on coordinating better so that we’re reaching every single part of the state. The Supreme Court race was hard, and I will say for the Asian American community, what we realized pretty early on in the year was that these were offices that no one had talked to the community about before. Initially, there was a lot of confusion between the state Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court. And that confusion, I think is valid because this isn’t the sort of general education that people are getting.

We spent a lot of our time educating people about the races. We did try to make the candidates more accessible to people; we hosted a couple of virtual meet-and-greets. But it’s very, very hard because I also don’t think that these races should be partisan in any way. These are judges who are supposed to be using their legal knowledge to make unbiased determinations, and then we’re asking them to run as candidates.

(From left to right). State Rep Ya Liu and State Rep Maria Cervania.

I did also want to mention in terms of our wins that two Asian American women, Maria Cervania, who is Filipino American, and Ya Liu, who is of Chinese descent, won their State House seats and they will be the first Asian American women ever in the North Carolina legislature. Both of them represent Wake County. There definitely are some positive notes to focus on at the end of this cycle.

Eddie Wong: What are your plans for 2023?

Chavi Koneru: 2023 is our time for continuing year-round civic engagement, focusing on educating people. One of the biggest issues in the Asian American community when it comes to politics is disinformation. Making sure that we are doing a good job year-round, sharing accurate information with people so that when they’re bombarded close to elections with inaccurate messaging via WhatsApp or WeChat or mailers that they’re able to recognize what’s factual and what isn’t.

We did a survey in collaboration with UC San Diego’s U.S. Immigration Policy Center, and we found that health care was one of the issues that Asian Americans in North Carolina are most concerned about, along with immigration. So, we have a focus next year on potential Medicaid expansion and health care with language access. Even during this election, after so many years of having these conversations about how many Asian Americans speak other languages, there was not a single candidate out there in the state that put out in-language materials. That’s something that we hope to change, not just for candidates, but making sure that counties and municipalities are offering in-language materials for all the services people need.

Eddie Wong: You had mentioned earlier the multiracial solidarity that had been building up. Are there things that you can do in between election cycles to further those relationships?

Chavi Koneru: We’re going to be meeting in a couple weeks once we’ve all recovered and debriefed from this cycle. We’ve been working with the Black Alliance, and we’ve talked about “how do we bring our staff together and our volunteers together and really build that solidarity in a deep way?” It’s not about an election cycle, it’s about long-term change for North Carolina, and I think we all recognize that we have the desire to work together. A lot of our organizations, especially the C4 arms of them, were only formed in 2019 and early 2020, so this has been our first election cycle together. We’re ready to do better in 2024 and beyond.

Eddie Wong: NCAAT in Action is also part of the Asian American Power Network. Are you going to be able to sort of reinforce each other? Are you guys all going to Georgia for the Dec. 6 US Senate run-off?

Chavi Koneru: We are definitely all ready to support Georgia. We’re just waiting for Georgia to give us the word. The Asian American Power Network has been one of the most helpful places to be a part of this year because we can provide that solidarity to each other. We are all doing the same work in different parts of the country with slightly different demographics, and different geographies, but really the same goals. We are able to support each other through the wins and the losses. Some of our counterparts had great Senate victories. We, unfortunately, did not, but to know that our team of folks will be there for us as we get over this and as we work toward the next one is really empowering.

Disinformation mailers that were sent to APA voters in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, California and several other states by Trump operative Stephen Miller/America First Legal Foundation.

Eddie Wong: Do you have any last comments? Are you going to go to Disneyland after this?

Chavi Koneru: Definitely not. I’m going to do something that avoids crowds and maybe spend some quiet time at home. Lots of naps for sure.

Eddie Wong: Chavi, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.

Chavi Koneru: Take care, bye.

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Interviewer’s Bio:  Eddie Wong is the editor/publisher of East Wind Ezine.

Chavi Koneru. Photo by Jonathan Fredin from Cary Magazine.

Chavi Khanna Koneru is co-founder and Executive Director of North Carolina Asian Americans Together in Action (NCAAT In Action). Koneru moved to North Carolina in 1989 and has spent the majority of her life living in the state, including attending college and law school locally at the University of North Carolina. This has allowed her to gain a deep, personal understanding of what it means to be Asian American in the South. Additionally, her legal background in voting rights law has given her the opportunity to interpret and enforce laws impacting the Asian American community, including during her time in the Voting Section at the U.S. Department of Justice, where she focused on language access for Asian American voters.

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