Tong big figure in nation’s Asian community

Washington — Democratic state Rep William Tong may not be as well-known to Connecticut voters as his rivals in the U.S. Senate race are — but he’s a big name in the nation’s Asian community.

According to filings with the Federal Election Commission, about one-third of the donations to Tong’s campaign have come from Asian donors. Many, like Tong, are Chinese American, and most live out-of-state.

Eileen Chin, who works for a family construction business in Chicago, said she donated $500 to Tong’s campaign in part out of frustration.

“Here we are in Chicago and there is no Asian (political) representation, not locally and not Congress,” said Chin, whose parents immigrated from China. “There’s a real void in our community.”

Chin, 37, said some cultural differences may have kept out older Asian Americans from participating in the rough and tumble of American politics. But she said a younger generation of Asian Americans is ready to lead.

“We’re realizing the importance of political power,” Chin said.

Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report said Tong’s support among Asian Americans isn’t unusual.

She said the political successes of another candidate supported by the Asian community, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose family immigrated from India, “proved how effective that support can be.”

Notable Asian Americans, including former U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee — both Californians — have endorsed Tong.

“(Asian Americans) are very excited about a Chinese American Senate candidate,” said Tong campaign spokesman Marc Bradley.

Still, Tong is waging an uphill primary battle in his effort to win retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman’ seat.

He’s pitted against Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, who had nearly $3 million in campaign money as of March 31, and former Connecticut Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, who had a little more than $1 million. In contrast, Tong’s campaign reported $226,848 in cash on hand on March 31.

There are only a handful of Asians who have served or are serving in the U.S. Senate. Most of them represented Hawaii, as did Hiram Fong, a Chinese American who was the first Asian U.S. senator.

If Tong were elected, he would be the first Chinese American to serve in the Senate since Fong retired in 1977.

Gautam Dutta, executive director of Asian American Action Fund, a political action committee that gave Tong’s campaign $1,000, said Asians are relatively new immigrants and haven’t had time to field a “farm team” of candidates that could run for high political office.

He said the ideal Asian candidate would have served in a state legislature or some comparable local office and appealed to a broad spectrum of voters.

“William has all of that,” Dutta said.

According to the U.S. Census, only 4.4 percent of Connecticut’s population identifies themselves as Asian or Asian and another race or ethnicity.

But news of Tong’s run for the Senate has spread to Asian communities from coast-to-coast by word of mouth and through the candidates’ media appearances, Dutta said.

He also said discussions of Tong’s campaign are widespread on the Internet because “Asian Americans are extremely wired.”

Tong has made his family background part of his run for the Senate. He says his is a campaign that began with just 57 cents, the amount of money his father had when he came to Connecticut.

He says he will never forget the long hours spent as a child washing dishes, cooking and waiting tables in his family’s restaurant.

He also says his family sacrificed to send him to the Phillips Academy in Andover and Brown University. He later completed a law degree at the University of Chicago.

The first Asian American elected to Connecticut’s General Assembly, Tong has represented a Stamford-based district since 2007.