COSTA MESA, Calif. – On Sept. 8, entrepreneur Andrew Yang crowd surfed, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard enjoyed some exuberant Hawaiian style greetings, and billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer basked in becoming newly eligible for the upcoming television Democratic debate. The three candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination were center stage here at the first-ever AAPI Democratic Presidential Forum, taking turns to answer questions posed to them by a panel and also a few from the audience.

Organized by the Super Pac AAPI Victory Fund, which is focused on mobilizing and getting Asian American and Pacific Islanders to vote, and the Asian Americans Rising Pac, the event drew a fair-sized turnout.

Among them was a sprinkling of Indian Americans but their voices were heard loud and clear. Among others, there was Shweta Ashokraja’s striking moment with Yang (see separate story), and Anupama Desai of Irvine, who wanted Steyer to talk about cyber security. There were also a couple of groups of youth, from college and school, who seemed engrossed in the proceedings.

Indian American congressional candidate from Texas Sri Preston Kulkarni and California state Assemblyman Ash Kalra were in the audience. Kulkarni took a quick moment at the microphone to announce that he was the “front runner in a Republican gerrymandered district,” drawing loud applause.

Richard Lee, Esther Lee and MSNBC anchor Richard Lui, who comprised the panel, were wide ranging in their questions and unpacked the essential policy positions of the candidates and some personal stuff, too. 

Knowing they were facing a demographic that the new AAPI Victory Fund polling showed opposes Donald Trump by 93%, they had lines that brought quick approval. Yang: ‘Make America Think Harder’; the opposite of Trump is an Asian man who likes math; I will keep my sharpies in my desk.

Steyer: Donald Trump is a fake and a fraud. The candidate also wanted term limits and called for the acceptance of the “full humanity” of every American.

On policy matters, Gabbard said she would hold talks with the Taliban to avoid war.

There were also personal touches with Yang speaking of how his wife asked him what he was going to do about healthcare when he told her, while standing in their kitchen, that he was planning a run for the presidency. Gabbard said she had been incredibly shy as a child and even now was essentially an introvert.

Nothing the candidates said was particularly new. But, as AAPI Victory Fund’s Indian American chairman Shekar Narasimhan, explained to India-West, “It’s possible that upcoming debate stages won’t show AAPI faces. It was important to have them come and address us. It builds relationships.”

In what was touted as a “first in a lifetime event,” candidates on stage and, across the country got to hear how Asian Americans could swing elections. Rep. Judy Chu, at the top of the program, said, “We have gone from being marginalized to becoming the margin of victory.” This point was stressed over and over again by several speakers in an effort to getting the crowd to understand the value of their vote.

“The momentum is building,” Narasimhan said. “If we want to get the AAPI voter to the ballot box, it really had to start now, not in June next year.”

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