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In their own words: AAPI voters in Nevada talk economy, guns, race

NPR's Susan Davis spoke with (from left to right) MC Balicanta, Ash Mirchandani, Tina Kwan, Brian Almero, and Cecilia Winchell a week before the Nevada primary.
Saeed Rahbaran for NPR
NPR's Susan Davis spoke with (from left to right) MC Balicanta, Ash Mirchandani, Tina Kwan, Brian Almero, and Cecilia Winchell a week before the Nevada primary.

The Asian American Pacific Islander population is the fastest-growing demographic in Nevada and a rising political force in the state, which holds its primary elections on Tuesday.

The AAPI community makes up about 12% of Nevada's population and about 8% of the state's electorate.

Eric Jeng, the director of outreach for the Asian Community Development Council, says the AAPI vote historically tilts toward Democrats two-to-one, but it's not a lock for the party.

"If you ask me right now, for the midterm election, I honestly don't know who will win," he said. "I do see both sides doing a lot more events, doing outreach, and I like that. I like that no one is taking the Asian vote for granted."

That outreach included the Republican National Committee opening an Asian Pacific American Community Center in Las Vegas in May.

"We also recognize the Democrat Party has taken the Asian American vote for granted for far too long, and it's time for Republicans to show up," RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said at the opening.

The 2022 races for governor, Senate and three of the state's four House seats are all considered toss-ups, with a Democratic incumbent seeking reelection in each race.

Jeng said he's heartened that both major political parties seem to now appreciate the power this voting bloc wields.

"2020, 2018 and 2016 proved that the Asian vote, a lot of time, ended up deciding the election," he said. "I don't believe a candidate can win without winning the Asian vote."

NPR met with five AAPI voters ahead of Tuesday's primary to talk about politics, voting and culture.

Tina Kwan, who's Chinese American and a registered Democrat, cautioned against stereotyping the AAPI vote.

"I think there is a comparison between the two non-monolithic demographics of Latinx voters and AAPI voters, because within those communities is its own diversity," she said.

"It's so easy for us to say, 'Oh, brown people, yellow people, people of color should all be Democratic, right?' No, because within those experiences have been failed socialist governments, failed dictatorships, communism, people spouting utopian equality and failing miserably," Kwan added, noting many of her family members aren't politically engaged because they feel disillusioned with government.

Cecilia Winchell, who is Chinese-American and a University of Nevada Las Vegas student, agreed.

"Especially in the Chinese community, you come from a country that you can care about politics, but you'll never affect it," she said, adding, "But my mom votes when I tell her to."

Overall, the group said pocketbook issues like rising gas prices and inflation are top of mind, which aligns with national surveys of voters ahead of the midterm elections.

Read more of their conversation below. These responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Ash Mirchandani, 51, said people often confuse economic forces with the president's policy. "A president cannot get all the credit for everything that happens, and shouldn't get all the flack for anything that does not happen," he said.
/ Saeed Rahbaran for NPR
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Saeed Rahbaran for NPR
Ash Mirchandani, 51, said people often confuse economic forces with the president's policy. "A president cannot get all the credit for everything that happens, and shouldn't get all the flack for anything that does not happen," he said.

On racial identity and politics

Susan Davis, NPR: Race and identity are so intertwined with our politics. Does your racial identity factor into your political views at all? Or do you not like people talking about race in politics?

Ash Mirchandani: I'll tell you what, I came here [from India] with nothing. I am a brown man, I have a speech impediment, I stutter. I rose in government to be in a very high position. I got into business. I created seven successful startups. I founded a nonprofit that does mental health therapy for kids. I've achieved a lot of things. I think a lot of talk is made about racism. Yes, racism does exist, but I've never given it too much importance in my life. I think people should try not to make race a big issue in elections because it doesn't serve anybody.

Davis: Tina, what do you think?

Tina Kwan: I humbly disagree. I go to work every day, and I see — not crimes, necessarily — but racially motivated behavior that is unspoken. And until we see a government that represents a spectrum of all of us, then representation and the emphasis on representation still matters.

Davis: What do you think, Cecilia?

Cecilia Winchell: I do think talking about diversity is important, but I think that ... some of the things the Democratic Party does is a little performative. There's an emphasis on having things look diverse, but perhaps not including the actual perspectives.

Cecilia Winchell, 20, is a registered Democrat and said it would be a "doomsday scenario" if Joe Biden and Donald Trump have a presidential rematch in 2024.
/ Saeed Rahbaran for NPR
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Saeed Rahbaran for NPR
Cecilia Winchell, 20, is a registered Democrat and said it would be a "doomsday scenario" if Joe Biden and Donald Trump have a presidential rematch in 2024.

On President Biden

Winchell: I think Joe Biden is one of the oldest people. (laughter) He's been around for a long time, and I think there's some advantages to that. But I think perhaps being around for such a long time perpetuates some of the problems that we've seen in this country. Maybe it's time to get some younger blood in there.

Davis: Tina, you're a Democrat, what do you think about Biden?

Kwan: I think President Biden is doing the best he can with a really terrible hand.

Davis: What's the terrible hand?

Kwan: Emerging from four years of chaotic national politics, inheriting not the tail end of the pandemic — just Act II of the pandemic, an economy that was set on a path that he did not lay out, having made promises that are not entirely in his power to fulfill.

Tina Kwan is a pediatric cardiologist and a registered Democrat. She said she's disappointed that President Biden didn't follow through on promises to make voting more accessible.
/ Saeed Rahbaran for NPR
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Saeed Rahbaran for NPR
Tina Kwan is a pediatric cardiologist and a registered Democrat. She said she's disappointed that President Biden didn't follow through on promises to make voting more accessible.

Davis: Ash, we should say, full disclosure, you did some work for the Biden campaign in 2020, you worked with Asian outreach in the state of Nevada. I mean, [Biden is] about as popular as Donald Trump was. What do you attribute that to?

Mirchandani: I think we often confuse economic forces with the president's policy. I think his biggest challenge today is inflation. You know, it's very hard to be a president. It's not an easy job. You have too many priorities that you've got to juggle and come up with the best decision for the people. He's a steady hand. He's been in politics for a long time. He's a good man and he wants to do good for the country. Do I agree with him on everything? I don't. Do I think he is a huge improvement from the last president? Yes, I do.

Maria Clara "MC" Balicanta works at the Golden Nugget hotel and casino in Las Vegas. She belongs to the powerful Culinary Workers Union and canvasses for union-backed candidates.
/ Saeed Rahbaran for NPR
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Saeed Rahbaran for NPR
Maria Clara "MC" Balicanta works at the Golden Nugget hotel and casino in Las Vegas. She belongs to the powerful Culinary Workers Union and canvasses for union-backed candidates.

On the economy

MC Balicanta: Right now, all the prices [have gone] up: the rent, the gas, all the groceries. I have two children — my oldest is here with me. We're renting at my coworker's house, just a two bedroom. It's really hard to put aside money that you want to buy a house in the future.

Davis: What about you, Brian?

Brian Almero: I agree with MC. The real estate and mortgage industry — that's my field — there's rents that are going up twice because they can. Our locals here can't afford to buy or even rent a home because our wages haven't really gone up. We're struggling every day just to make ends meet.

Mirchandani: For me, the biggest thing is, how do I retain my staff? And how do I pay them what they need to be paid, or what they expect to be paid? I have a restaurant and my food costs have gone up 40%. I cannot raise my prices 30-40% — nobody's going to buy it. So how do I sustain? I think if we don't do anything quickly, there's going to be a lot of small businesses going out of business.

Brian Almero is Filipino-American and a registered Independent. He works in real estate and said housing affordability is a top issue.
/ Saeed Rahbaran for NPR
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Saeed Rahbaran for NPR
Brian Almero is Filipino-American and a registered independent. He works in real estate and said housing affordability is a top issue.

On guns

Balicanta: Some guns, I think, belong to war, not belong to the streets. They shouldn't allow 18-year-olds to have credit cards and purchase guns without background checks.

Davis: Brian, what about you?

Almero: I am a supporter of of guns. I mean, I am a gun owner myself, because we have the right to bear arms here. But I do agree with MC about having some thorough background checks.

Davis: Do you think it should be harder to buy AR-15s?

Almero: If it's assault rifles, I would say yes, to have a stricter background checks on it.

Davis: But not limit the purchase?

Almero: Exactly. Not limit the purchase of it.

Davis: What do you think, Ash?

Mirchandani: There's no reason why anybody should have a semi-automatic gun, or an AK-15 or an AK-47 — that doesn't serve any any purpose, unless you want to kill en masse. Common sense-driven gun legislation is needed — background checks is one way, a registry is another way. Taking away the guns is not the answer. By taking away guns, you're going to empower the bad guys.

Kwan: We need stricter gun laws, background checks, registrations. Nevada is an open carry state. Do I need to see people carrying guns into my office, which happens to be a pediatric office, which is basically a daycare? That happens.

Winchell: Obviously, there's something deeper with society that is wrong. You have these mental health problems, you have these disillusioned teenagers who turn to radical online sites and these places breed this kind of mindset that makes shootings so common. I think it's going to take a lot of different areas tackling this issue and one of them is going to have to be limiting the amount of guns that are in this country. I don't think that we should say that it's OK for these kids to be dead just because it's hard to find a solution.

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