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Asian-Americans And Pacific Islanders Flex Their Political Muscle At Washington Summit

Will James
Performers showcase a traditional Filipino dance at the Asian-American and Pacific Islander Democracy Summit at the Tacoma Dome on Sept. 15, 2016.

Washington state has the fifth highest percentage of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in the country. But members of those communities say their full voting power isn't felt in the state.

That's why more than 1,500 people gathered at the Tacoma Dome on Thursday for a political summit organized by the statewide Asian Pacific Islander Coalition.

"We're the sleeping giant," said Lua Pritchard, chairwoman of the coalition's Pierce County chapter. 

The event was part cultural celebration, part get-out-the-vote rally. Traditional dancers and drummers from a variety of countries performed.

Monica Ng, an organizer of the event, said its purpose was to engage Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in the democratic process. 

“We are the fastest growing community of color here in Washington state, but also nationally," said Ng, civic engagement program manger for Asian Counseling and Referral Service.

Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders make up 8 percent of Washington's eligible voters, according to an analysis by the group Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote. But leaders in the community said they aren't courted as an interest group, like African-American and Latino voters.

"I think that for a lot of civic engagement conversations, political conversations, you don’t hear a lot about Asian-American Pacific Islanders," Ng added. "And then when we don’t see ourselves represented, when we don’t see events that are accessible to us, it becomes really difficult to feel really empowered to vote.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and his opponent in this year's election, Bill Bryant, appeared wearing Polynesian leis.

They answered questions for 30 minutes, with breaks every 90 seconds for translators to relay their comments to attendees in more than two dozen languages, from Korean to Khmer. 

The candidates spoke on topics including social services for immigrants and climate change's devastating effects on some Asian and Pacific nations. 

Meanwhile, in the back of the exhibition hall, organizers registered people to vote throughout the day. At one point, a video projected at the front of the room showed actors George Takei and John Cho urging attendees to go to the polls. 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.