Pennsylvania APIs Lay Groundwork for Victories in 2022: An Interview with Mohan Seshadri, Co-Executive Director of Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance.
Posted Sept. 8, 2021.
Asian American and Pacific Islander voters certainly made their mark in the 2020 elections, delivering critical votes in Pennsylvania, where Biden/Harris beat Trump/Pence by 1.2% and Georgia where the Democratic margin of victory was only .23%. APA voters are also the fasting growing electorate in key battleground states such as Arizona and Nevada. In the coming months, East Wind ezine will feature interviews with key APA organizers in states that may decide which party controls the U.S. House and U.S. Senate. As Mohan Seshadri, Co-Executive Director of Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance, points out in the following interview, the 2022 election will be an intense battle, a prelude to another epic battle in 2024 for the White House. With an open U.S. Senate seat at stake, APA voters in Pennsylvania can once again be a deciding factor.
The Republicans, solidly under the Trump banner, seek a path to victory by denying ballot access to voters of color, young voters and working people. The recent laws passed in GOP-controlled state legislatures restrict voting by mail and curtail when and where voters can drop off their ballots. Organizations that are on the ground throughout the year like API PA are our first line of defense against the GOP’s attempts to narrow the electorate. API PA is executing a robust program that involves training new organizers, developing APA candidates, and proposing a legislative agenda that will excite voters and build local power.
This interview was conducted on Aug. 18, 2021 by Eddie Wong, Editor and Publisher of East Wind ezine.
Mohan Seshadri, Co-Executive Director of API PA.
Eddie: Let’s start with 2020. How did APA voters figure into the great victory in Pennsylvania?
Mohan: The data we have shows that we did our job. The massive coalition we built from Asian Americans across the country turned out not just the highest Asian Pacific Islander vote in Pennsylvania’s history, but we doubled the Asian vote share, smashed any and all expectations for our community’s turnout. That doubling represented half of Biden’s margin of victory which means that without the Asian American vote and the Pacific Islander vote and without Asian organizations and API PA and all the folks who came together then Biden’s margin of victory gets a lot slimmer and possibly doesn’t exist. (Ed. note: API PA recruited more than 1,400 Asian American volunteers, made 1.3 million calls to voters, delivered 342,000 in-language mailers, and made 55,000 in-language persuasion and GOTV calls to low-English proficiency Asian voters.)
Eddie: Was there anything surprising to you? I know you had expected half of the Asian vote to come out of Philly and Pittsburgh, but Asians are spread out through the whole state.
Mohan: This is very much where we concentrated our deeper, especially down ballot work. So, I shouldn’t be surprised by the way that the Asian vote specifically spiked in places like the Philly suburbs and central Pennsylvania completely smashing any expectations, rising higher and being noticeably more progressive. It really shows us the necessity of actually being statewide and especially organizing where our communities are growing in the Philly suburbs, in the Harrisburg suburbs and in the Lehigh Valley.
Eddie: You mentioned central Pennsylvania and of course there’s Rep. Scott Perry whose known for his infamous vote against the federal anti-Asian hate crimes bill. Do you see Asians being a factor in 2022 in that Congressional race? (Ed. note: Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election results, falsely claiming election fraud.)
Mohan: Absolutely. I don’t want to pretend that we’re anywhere close to a majority in that district, but we’re going to be a key part of any coalition that unseats him. We have seen conservatives devote years and years of work to organizing our communities in those areas, especially Indian communities, Hindu communities, Korean communities, etc. And it’s going to take years and years of dedicated investment in on-the-ground organizing if we’re going to turn that tide and flip that seat long-term.
I think that the last couple years have shown our communities exactly where some of our elected officials stand on the issues and if these same elected officials are turning out to every single temple function, to every single India Day and to every single Korean Independence Day celebration, some folks are going to see that more than they’re going to see bad votes in DC. It’s our job to put in the time and energy to actually talk to these folks about what our values are, what these elected officials’ values are, and how it doesn’t actually align.
AAPI pop: Indian 155,887; Chinese 136,206; Vietnamese 49,306, Korean 47,480, Filipino 42,544.
Mohan: We worked with Chalo Vote last year more so through the C3 Coalition, the AAPI PA Power Caucus, which coordinates statewide Asian American civic engagement and issue organizing. They talk to leaders and gurdwara and temples about registering to vote and vote by mail. We couldn’t necessarily coordinate with them directly on the C4 side, but I really appreciate their presence last year, hoping that folks like them will be back next year and that organizations that want to do work in Pennsylvania also invest in long-term year-round organizing in our communities or work through organizations that are on the ground rather than kind of dropping in and dropping out every year.
And then with IMPACT on the C4 and PAC side, we really appreciate their funding of our work and the way their funding sustained our year-round work, especially our South Asian organizing program where we placed dedicated community organizers in our communities across the state especially in the Philly suburbs. They’re a valued partner of ours and hoping that continues long into the future.
Eddie: Is there a similar component on the Vietnamese side?
Mohan: Leaders from Viet Lead, specifically their executive Nancy Nguyen , is a founding member of API PA and my co-executive director. These are folks who come out of Asian Americans United and Viet Lead; we’re aligned politically and we consider them organizational partners.
Eddie: What’s been the focus of your work in 2021 leading into 2022?
Mohan: A lot of what we do is obviously building base and building power with a goal of going to our communities in 2022 and having a mandate to actually say “these are the folks who should vote for and these are the folks you should vote against.” We are a year-round organizing advocacy organization.
One of the big things that we are crafting is this first-of-its-kind legislative and issue survey through the Asian American Power Caucus, the statewide Asian-American C3 table. This survey asks not just all the standard things like what do you need in terms of Covid, what does language access look like in your community, what does health access and health equity look like in your community, what does anti-Asian discrimination look like in your community, and why is it happening? Is it because you look Muslim or are Muslim? Is it based on your perceived immigration status? Is it because you look Asian or East Asian or are folks targeting you for Covid inspired anti-Asian racism and then where is it happening? Is it happening in public transit, is it happening in the workplace, is it happening in school?
Where do you stand on the Green New Deal, where do you stand on moving resources from police departments to where our folks need things like mental health services and human services? Where you stand on reproductive rights and LGBQ justice? Questions like how do you feel about fairly funding Pennsylvania public schools, questions that government infrastructures frankly never really bothered to ask our people in Pennsylvania and especially they’ve never really bothered to do that in Asian languages.
So, we actually just finalized the translation of this survey into 15 different languages and we’re excited for our coalition of 13 to 15 Asian organizations across the state to publicly launch that in September. We’ll spend months getting a sample size of our communities across the state to both inform policy makers and decision-makers directly in terms of what our folks want and need of state government but also to build a first-of-its-kind legislative agenda for Harrisburg, our state capitol. We can actually start to introduce and implement some of these changes that are folks are telling us that they need whether that is in terms of language access and medical translation, whether that is in terms of intervention in healthcare systems, whether that is in terms of greater access to things like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and the children’s health insurance program and other things that Pennsylvania very broadly says that they offer to Pennsylvanians, but that access as not really seeped into our communities.
We’ve also placed year-round community organizers in target counties and districts across the state with an emphasis specifically on the Philadelphia suburbs where we saw that progressive AAPI voter turnout last year. We want to build API PA chapters and do not just electoral work but year-round issue organizing and member and leadership development to actually get our folks to step into power and take ownership of organizing their communities. To that end we’re about to launch an organizer’s school and a leadership institute, to get some of our volunteers and members trained as leaders and as organizers so that they can take ownership of the work and actually move it forward in their communities.
I’m really excited that we’re actively fundraising now to be able to pay them $15 an hour to take part in this training because this kind of organizing is not always accessible to especially our working-class members, our immigrant members, who are part of our base. That will not just get our people ready for 2022 in the massive electoral program that we’re going to need to run, but also just for the day-to-day, year- to-year work of building power in our communities.
Election rally Nov. 2020. Photo courtesy of API PA.
Eddie: How many people are you trying to involve in these leadership trainings?
Mohan: So, I’m starting with a smaller cohort of 10 to 20 people. This is the first time a pan-Asian statewide leadership training has ever been done in Pennsylvania and especially just quite frankly the budget involved in paying folks for their labor of taking in the learning as well as doing the work of organizing is going to take some fundraising. So, we want to start small with 10 to 20 leaders, specifically folks with roots in our communities. Once we go through this program, we’ll expand it further at a rate that our staff and our members can actually hold those folks. What happens with a lot of traditional organizing workshops is like a one-and-done, zoom call from 6 to 8 p.m. on a Tuesday or it’s maybe a weekend where you spend a bunch of time learning how to have organizing conversations, do story telling, and then you spend a day at the state capitol or the US capitol lobbying your elected officials. It doesn’t actually build long-term power and there’s no actual follow through in terms of keeping these folks in our network and in our ecosystem.
Eddie: Recently, the Republicans in the legislature passed a package of bills restricting access to voting that was vetoed by your Governor. Is voting rights an issue that the Asian community is becoming aware of as an active fight?
Mohan: Absolutely and I think our folks are used to disenfranchisement one way or another. The lack of language access in any polling place in Pennsylvania that’s disenfranchisement, that’s a barrier to voting. The fact that polling places are not always accessible to our communities when it comes to lack of public transport or just where it is sited geographically that is disenfranchisement. That affects our communities and I think we’re going to see as our folks grow in voting power more targeted disenfranchisement attempts focused on our people rather than the broader diffuse, very standard cookie cutter voter ID and other disenfranchisement that we’re seeing right now.
We got half of Asian voters in Pennsylvania sign up to vote by mail. Asians have the highest vote by mail rate of any community in the state and the second highest vote by mail return rate of any community which means that any attack on vote by mail access is an attack on our communities’ voting power. And if you try to redistrict our districts to not include Asian population centers, if you try to do things like a gerrymander the state supreme court so that folks who live in more rural Pennsylvania have more voting power, we’re going to stand up and fight back against that.
Our folks are not being included in the narrative around voter suppression in places like Pennsylvania. That doesn’t mean it’s not happening, but it does mean we have a lot of work to do in terms of explaining to folks that voter ID does impact our communities, that lack of language access is voter suppression, and that these are things we’ve got to fight back against and change in Harrisburg if we want our folks to get everything that they need in order to thrive.
Election rally 2020. Photo from API PA Facebook page.
Eddie: One of the challenges from 2020 was the down balloting didn’t fall in favor of great candidates like Nina Ahmad. (Ed. note: Ahmad was the Deputy Mayor of Philadelphia who ran for State Auditor). Do you have any take on how to address it in the future?
Mohan: Sure, honestly talking to folks about down ballot races takes time and money and when you have a very clear do-or-die top of the ticket race that we had with Trump or Biden, sacrifices need to be made. And especially I think our decision to not do any in-person work and therefore have less time for the longer more intentional conversations really harmed our ability to talk to our people about down ballot races and therefore harmed our people’s turn out.
That’s not a mistake we’re going to make in 2022 when we have once again an all-or-nothing governor’s race. But we also have the US Senate race, we have critical congressional races that are incredibly important for keeping the house in progressive hands and we have the first real and possibly last chance of actually taking a chamber in the state house and state senate.
We’re going to be investing from the top of the ticket to the bottom of the ticket. We’re probably going to be the only Asian Pacific Islander organization in Pennsylvania doing that which means that our mandate is all the more clear. We have to raise the money and train our staff with a goal of making that state house seat just as important as the governor’s seat. The governor is incredibly important when it comes to the agencies, when it comes to Covid response, and when it comes to vetoing bad bills, but if we actually want to make progress in Pennsylvania, if you want to pass things like driver’s licenses for all regardless of immigration status, if we want to include undocumented and H1B students in in-state tuition, if we want to have a Covid response that actually includes our small businesses that have been hit with not just the pandemic but also with anti-Asian racism, if we want to expand language access and desegregate our data – that all runs through the state legislature. If we don’t flip this now, I don’t know when we’re going to have a chance to do that again.
I will say I’m very excited for the challenge that 2022 represents and we’re going to be the organization that is doing the work down ballot and we’re going to need folks willing to throw down with us and devote capacity and resources to our program to actually make that happen.
Eddie: As you saw in 2020, Asians from all over the country volunteered in Pennsylvania. We’re so strong in numbers on the West Coast and parts of the East Coast. What would you see developing in order to gather more resources from the greater Asian American Nation so to speak?
Mohan: I mean just to be real, we always need money. The more money, the more people we can hire directly from our communities and from our base and knock on those doors and make those phone calls. And that is something our communities can do from San Francisco to DC. Similarly, I am excited to relaunch the kind of out-of-state volunteer program that we had last year, which was kind of very informal. We were drinking from a fire hose at some point with folks from Washington state and California and WDC and Florida all wanting to take part in our program.
It’s going to look different next year because we’re going to have in-person work, we’re going to be doing doors and obviously it’s a bit harder for someone from San Francisco to take part in a program like that. But we’re also going to have more time because last year we were simultaneously building this plane and flying it. We have a year-round organization and a seasoned staff. We will have had two years of building our base and refining our methodology before we get back on the doors and get back on the phone and the texts and digital and mail and all that jazz for the 2022 election cycle.
I hope that folks who were were part of our program last year once again come through and will be part of API PA. We have an opportunity to keep the governor’s mansion in Democratic hands, keep the US House in progressive control, and flip a US Senate seat which obviously affects everybody across the country. And lastly one thing we’re seeing across the board in especially battleground states is that what happens in the state legislature in Pennsylvania doesn’t stay in in Pennsylvania especially with voter suppression bills around the country. If you want Georgia to turn blue in 2024 or if you want Pennsylvania to turn blue at the top of the ticket in 2024, if you want a progressive in the White House in 2024, you need progressive state legislatures in places like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Georgia otherwise they’re going to ram through voter suppression bill after voting suppression bill. We need folks to throw down with us because what happens in Pennsylvania is going to affect their lives regardless of whether they live in Seattle or San Francisco or DC.
Eddie: You mentioned the very intense race for the U.S. Senate seat. Will API PA endorse in the primaries?
Mohan: Right now, we’re probably going to be making some endorsements in the primaries and they’re probably going to be more down ballot than the US Senate race. Quite frankly you know we’re an organization of a certain size or of a certain capacity. We’re looking at things like State House races and State Senate races where we actually have sufficient concentration of our voters or have really exciting Asian American candidates to show our mettle in the 2022 primary.
Eddie: Is there a pipeline of folks who are ready to run? Nikil Saval’s election to the State Senate was a huge victory.
Mohan: One of the things we did this year was in partnership with the in-state progressive candidates recruitment and training organization LEAD PA. We held a dedicated first-of-its-kind AAPI local candidates training program to get folks from our community who share our values to run for local races: county dog catcher, school board, sheriff, city council. In addition to the actual like nuts and bolts of being a candidate, we held an event with Senator Saval, Representative Patty Kim, and Philadelphia Councilmember Helen Gym to talk to our people about not just how to run and win but how to be an Asian American candidate rooted in our values and our communities and with a mindset of not just how do I win but how do I bring my people to the table with me when I win. These elected officials who have run on their values and won on their values talked about what it looks like to face discrimination and also the benefits of being an API candidate. We endorsed nine of them in the primary. Asians are running not just Philly and Pittsburgh anymore; it’s the suburbs and the Lehigh Valley of central Pennsylvania. It’s not just like deep blue areas where the entire fight is in the primary. We’re going to be contesting for power there too but some of these school board candidates are facing an onslaught of dark money from the right which are anti-teachers union and anti-mask mandate. We will have some Asian American candidates on the ballot next year and they’re going to be progressive. We’re especially excited for an opportunity to build a real pipeline that doesn’t just go from my state house to Governor to US Senate to President but actually from the very bottom all the way to the very top because ultimately the name of the game is getting our base and our members in power.
Eddie: Pennsylvania is slated to lose one Congressional seat. How is that going to play out in your advocacy work?
Mohan: Our emphasis is to have a just redistricting process that includes our voices. We’re at the table with other progressive organizations in the state. We’re years away from getting for example an Asian congressional district; we’re years away from getting an Asian opportunity district and I’m excited to see you that the way things are taking shape, our voters are going to matter in district after district up at the State House and State senate races. And our priority is to make sure that happens because that is the only one path to political power and political influence that will translate into a real material change our people down the road.
API PA staff photo.
Eddie: Were there any other general points you want to make about where your work is headed?
Mohan: I want to stress to everybody who is going to be reading this article that 2022 is going to be as intense as 2020 was and the stakes are just as high. We’re going to need the same level of support that we saw last year.
API PA, as Pennsylvania’s Statewide Asian American political organization, elections are not just the be-all-and-end-all of what we do. We do year-round organizing in our communities and so spinning out of Justice for Christian Hall campaign – Christian Hall was the Chinese American teenager who was murdered by Pennsylvania state police during a mental health crisis last year on the second to last day of 2020. Since then, we’ve been working with his family to fight for justice and hold people accountable.
Christian Hall with parents Fe and Gareth. Photo from Buzzfeed News courtesy of Hall family.
Our members including his parents have been hard at work to do the kind of policy and legislative research that it takes to introduce legislation to fix what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again to our community. Soon, we’ll be launching a public facing campaigns to push for nonviolent, unarmed first responders at the state level as an alternative to folks going through crises. The traditional official response of showing up with guns and just being willing to pull them and open fire isn’t actually where we’re going long term. Secondly, we’re not just dealing with these crisis when they happen but actually getting to them long before they happen by supporting culturally competent in-language mental health care. We’ll be launching campaigns around that soon and excited to be throwing down on those issues on top of everything else we got going on.
Philadelphia rally for Christian Hall. Photo courtesy of API PA.
To learn more about API PA, visit apipennsylvania.org. To donate, go to apipa.vote/donate. API PA is a 501(c)4 organization and contributions are not tax-deductible. Your financial contributions can enable groups like API PA to expand their work and improve the chances for victories in 2022 and beyond.