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About Politics Within Politics

This blog will serve as a commentary that explores issues related to the intersection of American politics, race, and gender. Its focus is on the leadership of diverse women who served or currently serve in a role that contributes to shaping the outcome of political campaigns or civic engagement/voting efforts.... Read more

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Meet Bel Leong-Hong: National Political Operative and Voice for the Asian American Community

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. To commemorate this time, we honor the Asians Americans who made strides for many communities across the nation. Among them is Belkis Leong-Hong, the Democratic National Committee’s AAPI Caucus Chair. While serving in this leadership role since 2005, she has successfully created 11 Asian American state level caucuses. Ms. Leong-Hong sat down with us to share her insight on increasing Asian American political engagement.

Bel Leong-Hong, DNC AAPI Caucus Chair, with former Governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley.

What experiences as an AAPI woman influence your political engagement efforts?

Before national politics, I was involved in the AAPI community. What drove me to take action was a research paper topic that my high school daughter was writing. She wrote about the Chinese immigrants’ hard labor building the railroads in America. From her research paper I recognized that many inequities existed for our community because of this history. I began to focus on addressing those inequalities serving as an active president of the Organization for Chinese Americans’ DC chapter, advocating for civil rights, promoting broader civic participation of Asian Americans, and making sure AAPI youth get a seat at the table as advocates. My passion is to increase the AAPI voice at all levels of government and sectors.

What brought you to the Democratic National Committee?

After I retired from government, my friends who were political appointees in the Clinton Administration got me interested into Democratic politics. They pulled me into the 2000 Presidential Campaign. Shortly after, the party appointed me as a DNC at-large member in 2001. I was elected as the DNC AAPI Caucus Chair in 2005. Congressman Mike Honda persuaded me to run for the seat.

DNC AAPI Caucus Chair Bel Leong-Hong (center), with other volunteers for an early morning canvass at Virginia Beach, 2012 Obama for America Campaign.

What is your greatest accomplishment in your political leadership position?

My focus is on expanding the reach to Asian American communities by building a permanent infrastructure for this outreach. I am doing this by developing AAPI caucuses across the country at the state level. I travel to states with the highest concentration of Asian American populations.  I was surprised that states like New York and Washington do not have AAPI Caucuses. Most recently, I was able to form a caucus in Atlanta, GA. I believe my efforts will help make AAPI voices be part of a larger conversation in politics.

From your experiences, what aspect of politics makes it difficult for AAPIs to get involved?

Asian Americans are generous when they donate, but we do not ask for enough when fundraising. It is not part of the Asian culture to ask for money. Through the AAPI Leadership Council in the DNC, we’re trying to get the DNC to recognize that donations from AAPIs be recognized as contributions from a whole community, and not just as individual contributions. I want the people who contribute the money, to be part of a collective AAPI voice to make the candidate(s) understand  our community’s needs, and to emphasize that the candidate(s) cannot just take our money and ignore us.

What advice would you give to diverse young women on becoming political operatives?

I encourage women to understand that an important part of a campaign is money.  To understand the candidate, and the political process, I encourage them to go to fundraisers to get to know a candidate they like first. Then offer to do a low-dollar fundraiser by introducing the candidate to your circle. Also, volunteer at the campaign office for GOTV. And finally, let the candidate know that you were there to help, and not just their campaign staff. As AAPIs and as women, we aren’t really good at letting candidates know that we were there to help them campaign and fundraise. We have to raise our voices,  otherwise we’ll continue to fade in the background. We need to be remembered.

Do you ever want to run for office?

(Laughs) No, I am more suited for being behind the scenes as a political operative.

 Ms. Belkis Leong-Hong is the Founder, President, and CEO of Knowledge Advantage Inc. She began her career as an entry-level mathematician at the National Bureau of Standards, and after 10 years at NBS, she moved over to the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). She served DOD for 20 years, and eventually became the Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary—making her the highest ranking career civilian  AAPI woman to serve in that role at DOD. Ms. Leong-Hong is also active in her professional community, sitting on corporate, non-profit, and appointed boards. Ms. Leong-Hong holds a B.S. degree from Hunter College and a MPA in Executive Management from American University. She has also received certificates from Harvard University’s Kennedy’s School of Government and Syracuse University. Ms. Leong-Hong is a resident of Gaithersburg, MD.

This is the second article in a series highlighting diverse women of color in politics. Do you know an amazing woman leader in your community? Email Tonia at: abuoyedpath@gmail.com. Get the latest news on Twitter: @abuoyedpath #politicswithin

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Tonia Bui

About Tonia Bui

Tonia Bui is currently a strategic communications consultant. Most recently, she served as treasurer for the Hoan Dang for County Council campaign in Montgomery County. Tonia previously served as the Communications Director for the Nguyen for Delegate Campaign (VA-67) in 2013 and led the Asian American voter outreach efforts for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign (WA-08) in 2008. Her efforts to build stakeholder engagement stems from her experiences serving as the Member Outreach Assistant to Vice Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Rep. Xavier Becerra (CA-34). She also previously worked for U.S. Senator Barack Obama (IL-13) and California Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (CA-12). Her work has been published by the Harvard Asian American Policy Review and cited by scholars of the political science textbook, Campaigns on the Cutting Edge. Tonia holds a Master in Public Policy from American University and a B.A. in Mass Communications and Gender & Women’s Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. Read more of Tonia's blog Politics Within Politics.


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