During the 2008 Presidential Election, the Huffington Post dubbed the 80-20 Initiative as the nation’s “largest Asian American PAC,” describing the group as a non-partisan organization that represents the AAPI community's “interests as a whole.”
But while members of the organization boast a political success unrivaled by other AAPI groups, critics refer to them as an exclusive organization that is out of touch with the broader AAPI community.
“Any claim of 80-20’s, that it represents the Asian American community, is ludicrous,” Paul Watanabe, Director of the Institute of Asian American Studies at UMass Boston, said. “I would say the vast majority of rank and file Asian Americans do not know a great deal about 80-20.”
As the brainchild of Dr. Shien Biau Woo, the 80-20 Initiative was established in the fall of 1998 as the unlikely spawn of the “Chinagate” campaign controversy of 1996.
A former Lt. Governor of Delaware, Woo was outraged when Justice Department investigations uncovered evidence that “agents” of China contributed direct funds to the Democratic National Committee, violating U.S. laws regarding foreign political contributions.
“I thought, this is so un-American,” Woo recalled. “The news media in the U.S. took it as if the entire Asian American community was engaging in a cabal to undermine the U.S. election system.”
Woo said he met with several AAPI academic leaders, including Dr. Larry Y. Ho, Professor at Harvard University, and the late Dr. Chang-Lin Tien, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, and decided to combat the negative media sensationalism by forming a group bent on uniting the AAPI community as a political force.
They compiled a list of 300 individuals, largely Chinese Americans, who would then donate close to $50,000 to their cause, funding the birth of 80-20.
The group, which consists of an Educational Foundation coordinated by Woo, and a PAC led by Coordinator of Collective Leadership, Ved Chaudhary, has since sought to gain “political clout” by attempting to mobilize 80 percent of the AAPI community to vote for candidates the group endorses, thereby creating a “swing bloc vote.”
The group says its purpose is to create equal opportunities for the AAPI community, and claims to have 3,600 dues-paying members and an email listserv of over 700,000 AAPI voters.
“Our strength is in our mass emails,” Chaudhary said. “It has helped us double our membership within the past year.”
While the group has the ability to reach their base of supporters with the click of a mouse, the executive director of APIA Vote, Christine Chen, said it takes more than just emails to break the glass ceiling, criticizing the group for its lack of hands-on work in the field.
“80-20 is more focused on the national level, and they don’t do too much in educating the community on the candidates,” Chen said. “They do a lot more emails then actual engagement.”
Responding to this claim, Woo said, “We get things done whether we use snail mail or email. What difference does it make? It’s the result that counts.”
The organization posts its success stories online, dedicating them to their supporters. But while these accomplishments include wins on the electoral and judiciary levels, Chen said other AAPI groups that contribute work to similar achievements are often excluded from the credit they deserve.
“A lot of the work done on getting Asian American judges appointed has been done by the Asian American Justice Center (AAJC), and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA),” Chen said. “They’re the ones who actually contacted candidates and flagged them to the White House.’
Toward the issue of giving due credit, Woo said his organization focuses on the things that they do, and not what other groups do.
“Are they waiting for us to tell them about what they do?” Woo said. “We have political clout and we’ve built it over 12 years brick by brick…People who have little influence are jealous of others that do.”
While 80-20 has a record for asserting their political pull within different levels of government, Vincent Eng, Chief lobbyist of the VENG Group, which advocates for AAPI groups in D.C., said 80-20’s influence on the Hill is non-existent.
“In none of my meetings have I heard any senator or staffer that has asked, ‘What is 80-20’s stance on this issue?’” Eng said. “People in Washington D.C., they don’t see [Dr. Woo] or 80-20 represented in the coalitions and work done on the Hill.”
Eng admits that the group’s influence may come from their fundraising, but questions how their money is spent.
80-20 Nominations Chair and former Treasurer, Jing-Li Yu, explains the group’s budget.
“Our budget is not that large,” Yu said. “Most of the money is used on internal purposes, it’s used to pay for the Internet line which is around $550/month, and the staff salary is usually more than $50,000/year.
Yu said most of their funds are from annual membership dues ranging from $35 to $5,000. The organization’s yearly budget can be found in Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings.
During off-election years a majority of expenditures go to administrative costs, salary for 1 to 2 paid staff, and consultant fees. Election years call for an increase in political contributions and electoral expenses. The PAC pays for advertisements in battleground states. In 2008, they spent close to $30,000 for Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
With average funds ranging between $100,000 and $200,000 a year, 80-20 is no Super PAC, and most likely does not gain its political influence monetarily, or through collaboration, according to Eng.
Eng said AAPI groups like NAPABA and the AAJC have worked together on various AAPI issues, and have never worked with 80-20, which comes off as a group distant and unwilling to collaborate, a claim that Chaudhary said is completely false.
“No organization has come to us and said let’s work together,” Chaudhary said. “We very much want to work with other Asian American organizations. We don’t want to set ourselves apart unless we have to.”
Setting themselves apart during the 2008 presidential primary, the group’s PAC created waves within the AAPI community for running attack ads against Obama for supposedly refusing to answer their candidate questionnaire.
After consulting their bylaws and endorsement committee, the PAC eventually endorsed Clinton, who was the only candidate to complete the questionnaire. The group then ran a campaign to defeat Obama, who was only one of several candidates who did not complete the group’s questionnaire.
While Obama would eventually answer the questionnaire, and the group would also endorse the future president during the general election, critics in the AAPI community flooded online message boards, distancing themselves from the group that claimed to represent them.
One vocal critic of the group was an AsianWeek reader who went by the name of “Mai Kou Xiong.”
Don’t pretend to “represent” any of us, if you’re an organization that can’t even sense that your current actions as an organization might actually be hurting so many Asian Americans.
While Woo has proclaimed 80-20 as “the most powerful organization” in the AAPI community, boasting that the group could reach “55 percent of Asian Americans in eight hours,” other AAPI’s find the group’s objective to be “ludicrous.”
“In the U.S. there are about 14 million people that call themselves Asian American,” Watanabe said. “Without any systematic discussion, effort, or survey of a representative sample of those 14 million Asian Americans, it would be ludicrous for any group, including 80-20, to represent that group of people.”
Woo denies ever claiming the group represented 80 percent of the AAPI community. But currently their Educational Foundation is working on the Fisher v. University of Texas Supreme Court case, and will file an amicus curiae legal brief with the Supreme Court on May 29, asserting their representation of the AAPI community.
Classified as a 501c3, the foundation does not endorse or oppose any political candidates, but has taken a controversial stance, siding with Fisher. The foundation essentially favors the overturning of Grutter v. Bollinger, which could end affirmative action policy admissions at U.S. public universities.
Woo said the foundation’s decision was influenced by a survey completed by over 45,000 AAPIs who were asked whether they were for or against Fisher.
“The ultimate result was about 98 percent of all Asian Americans were for a race neutral merit based admissions system,” Woo said.
It has not yet been determined if the survey was pan-generational, but 80-20 board member Alice Huang admits that the members of the organization “are obviously pretty old.”
Huang was one of the 2 percent who voted against Fisher.
“I worked at a university and I saw that if we had a class that is 80 percent Asian, it was not going to be a great experience for a large amount of students attending,” Huang said.
For those AAPIs opposing 80-20’s stance on the case, Woo has some choice words.
“We are fighting for a race neutral policy and [Stewart Kwoh] in the past has supported several Supreme Court cases for a race conscious admissions policy, which I think grossly discriminates Asian American college applicants,” Woo said.
Kwoh is the President of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), and is an AAPI civil rights leader who plans to submit a second brief in support of the University of Texas. The 80-20 foundation has included Kwoh in their May 14 BlogSpot, pressing him to “be accountable” to the AAPI community.
“We ask him to not file it this time. He can file it as an individual, but don’t claim to represent the Asian American community,” Woo said.
Kwoh says the APALC is committed to diversity and anti-discriminatory programs in higher education, and that they are for a holistic approach to college admissions policies.
“When we look at the education system it isn’t a balanced playing field when so many schools in minority communities have poor access to college bound programs,” Kwoh said. “Most presidents would not have gone to their schools if you just looked at test scores and grades. So we think it is important to look at the whole student, when educating the best minds and leaders in our country.”
Referring to 80-20’s stance on the case, Kwoh and the APALC respectfully disagrees, but hopes for future collaboration with any AAPI group that is willing to work with them.
“Although we may disagree with 80-20 on this case, I do think they have a reach into different parts of the Asian American community, so I respect S.B [Woo] and their group,” Kwoh said. “I am not as familiar with what they claim to have accomplished, but we are always welcome to working with other Asian Americans on issues we agree or disagree on.”
While criticisms of the 80-20 initiative are valid, it is hard to know if their critics have actually taken the time to talk with the group.
Although 80-20 may come off to some as enigmatic and retrograde, the organization as a whole has accomplished a lot throughout the years, and Woo seems to have a knack for controversy that gives 80-20 an edge, that other groups lack.
“We gotta work together past the differences,” Woo said. “... But you can’t make a positive contribution unless you’re willing to risk your neck a little.”
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