EFFECTIVE OUTREACH. Maryland delegate-elect Lily Qi sits in her
North Potomac, Maryland basement, which served as her campaignís
situation room as she made her first run for public office. As a
first-generation Chinese American, Qi used her campaign to
mobilize other Asian-American voters in Montgomery County,
activating a small but increasingly energized constituency that
is generally reticent to participate in local politics. (Arelis
R. Hernandez/The Washington Post via AP)
From The Asian Reporter, V29, #01 (January 7, 2019),
How a Chinese immigrant used WeChat to win a
By Arelis R. Hernandez
The Washington Post
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) ó As a first-generation Asian American
running for a seat in the Maryland state legislature, Democrat
Lily Qi felt disconnected from the party establishment.
She had worked for years as Montgomery County executive Isiah
Leggettís chief administrator overseeing economic and workforce
development. But she lacked the political base and union
endorsements of some other delegate candidates, and she knew
that immigrants like herself were rarely sought out by
politicians in Maryland or elected to office.
So Qi turned to the large Asian-American immigrant community
in her district, writing columns about the U.S. party system in
local Chinese-language newspapers, and discussing her platform
on WeChat, a popular messaging app. She picked out Chinese names
on voter rolls to make targeted phone calls, arguing that
immigrants canít afford to be disengaged from local politics and
that in liberal Montgomery, waiting until the general election
often means missing the competitive races.
Like other Asian-American politicians, Qi had to navigate
cultural landmines on issues such as affirmative action, efforts
to diversify public school magnet programs, and protections for
undocumented immigrants, all of which have provoked tension in
the broader Asian-American community.
In November, she was elected as one of three delegates
representing legislative District 15 in the General Assembly.
She joins at least two other Asian immigrants and 10 other Asian
Americans in Annapolis, said state senator Susan Lee
(D-Montgomery), who chairs the Legislative Asian American &
Pacific Islander Caucus.
Qi says she worked to energize a group of historically
nonpartisan immigrant voters, many of whom, like her, grew up in
Communist China and were reluctant to engage in local politics.
"Democracy is the best system," the 55-year-old said inside
her North Potomac basement, which served as her campaign
headquarters, "but it favors those who participate."
Qi began her career with the county government as Leggettís
liaison to the Asian-American community. She knew that about a
third of Montgomeryís residents are foreign-born and 16 percent
In addition to microtargeting Chinese Americans, Qi persuaded
leaders of the Korean- and Vietnamese-American communities to
spread her message, registered people to vote at community
events, and arranged tea times to meet individually with
University of Maryland professor Janelle Wong, who has
studied Asian-American political engagement, followed Qiís
campaign, impressed that she drew hundreds of people to
conversations on WeChat.
She said Qi, who raised nearly $150,000, did what many
candidates donít do: contact not-registered and avowedly
nonpartisan voters directly with an appeal to change their
"She is able to communicate across multiple platforms," Wong
said. "It gave her some entree and appeal that few campaigns get
... when targeting a non-English (speaking) population."
State delegate David Moon (D-District 20), whose parents are
immigrants from Korea, said he has always focused on voters of
all ethnicities, believing that the diversity of the
Asian-American population makes microtargeting difficult.
"We donít have a common Asian language the way Hispanics do,"
Moon said. "Everything breaks down to a specific country."
Itís also expensive to try to engage voters who may not show
up in the numbers needed to win highly competitive primary
races, said state senator-elect Clarence Lam (D-Howard).
"Candidates do outreach to the community because itís the
right thing to do. But we donít have the resources to educate
and register to vote," said Lam, whose parents immigrated from
Taiwan and Hong Kong. "They just donít vote in the elections
Qi, a past chapter president of a Chinese-American
civil-rights organization, understood the reluctance of some to
choose a political party. She took out newspaper ads touting the
importance of voting, trying to persuade people such as Paul Li,
a Rockville business owner, that politicians would ignore them
if their voices were not heard at the ballot box.
"Parties have a negative connotation in Chinese-American
culture. We are very skeptical of dogmatic ideologies on either
side," said Li, who at Qiís urging changed his registration from
unaffiliated to Democratic and voted for her in the June
"We cannot mind our own business anymore," Li said. "We donít
want to be viewed as foreigners. We are Americans."
Republican Cheng Tu disagreed with Qi on certain
immigration-related issues but said he identified with her
background, pro-business platform, and moderate approach to
solving problems. He switched to the Democratic Party to vote
for her in the primary, when she placed second out of nine
candidates (the top three finishers easily defeated their
Republican rivals in November). Then he promptly switched back.
"I care more about the person and the viewpoint than the
party," said Tu, who wrote a piece in the local Chinese business
journal explaining his decision.
Some Asian immigrants were wary of Qi because they saw the
Democratic Party as pushing racial parity in school programs for
the gifted, which they believed would place high-achieving
Asian-American children at a disadvantage. Some also opposed
Democratic efforts to guarantee sanctuary for undocumented
immigrants, a controversial political issue that may be one
reason many Asian Americans in Maryland support Republican
governor Larry Hogan.
Qi said she supports diversifying schools but thinks the way
to improve student outcomes is to improve all schools, not rely
solely on gifted programs. When it comes to sanctuary policies,
Qi said she agrees that local resources should not be used to
enforce federal law. But she said that shouldnít prevent local
law enforcement from referring violent criminals to immigration
"I donít believe Maryland needs sanctuary community
designation," Qi said. "If our goal is a safe and welcoming
community, then we already have that."
Ting Mei Chau is another person Qi convinced. She emigrated
from China as an adult and became active in the PTA at her
childrenís school out of concern about racial balancing in
gifted and talented programs.
"For Asians, education is very important, and we believe
personal effort and work ethic puts you more in advanced
classes," the North Potomac mother said. "Of course, we didnít
understand institutional discrimination. We never thought about
that before. We donít really talk about the other factors that
can impact achievement."
After meeting with Qi one-on-one, Chau said she saw a
candidate who cares about the community. Then she wrote her a
Once in Annapolis, Qi said she wants to see Montgomery and
the state become more competitive about attracting biotech
entrepreneurs and fostering that industryís growth. She supports
a $15 statewide minimum wage, which she says would give
Her experience as a candidate has inspired Qi to push for
legislation to open up primaries to independent voters and give
new registrants better information about the party system.
"I want to make sure I bring a voice of reason and a unique
perspective to the legislative body, so certain communitiesí
voices are also part of the thinking process," she said.