Twenty-odd years ago, the trajectory of Roger Lau’s life changed forever when he responded to a classified ad about an internship at a United States senator’s office in Springfield. The senator was John Kerry and Lau, a struggling and adrift college student, applied on a dare from his friends.
He figured nothing would come of it. His grades were poor; his resume, unimpressive. But shockingly, Lau scored an interview. For the occasion, he bought an ill-fitting suit off a mannequin for $40 from a local shopkeeper who felt sorry for him. When he sat down with his prospective supervisor, Lau “immediately spilled [his] guts,” confessing all his worst misdeeds, fearful that lying to a federal employee would land him in prison.
His honesty seemed to impress his interviewer because he was told to start on Monday. But fate, too, played a role. Lau later discovered the ad had mistakenly been placed by a former intern; those positions are not usually advertised at all. Lau was one of just three people who applied, including a 13-year-old and middle-aged man who showed up for his interview in a clown T-shirt.
Lau, as it turned out, had a knack for politics and a long career ahead of him. In February, Lau, 43, was named deputy executive director of the Democratic National Committee, becoming the party’s highest-ranking Asian American staffer. A resident of Somerville (and soon, Washington, D.C.), he had made history two years earlier when, working for Senator Elizabeth Warren, he became the first Asian American to manage a major presidential campaign.
Now, at a time of rising anti-Asian bigotry across the country — fueled by the coronavirus pandemic and former president Donald Trump’s racist “Chinese virus” rhetoric — Lau hopes he can use his platform to increase Asian American political power and representation. For Lau, part of that means stepping far outside his comfort zone, and sharing his story more widely.
“Someone has to speak to humanize us,” Lau said. “In this moment, in this time, in this role, both for the outside world and for our communities and for younger Asian Americans who want to do the stuff, I just want to stand up — not even raise my hand — but stand up, to let people know that I am here. You can be, too.”
Lau’s quiet political workmanship has influenced almost every significant Democratic campaign in Massachusetts over the past two decades, including Kerry’s presidential bid in 2004 and Senate campaign in 2008. In 2012, Kerry recommended him to Warren as she entered the US Senate contest to unseat Republican Scott Brown. Warren hired Lau as her political director.
“Roger is one of those gifted organizers at a grass-roots level who understands people,” Kerry said. “And that’s what politics is about — it’s about people, and Roger really is a people person.”
Lau has since earned a reputation as a savvy yet self-effacing strategist who avoids the spotlight. (Reached by phone, friends, relatives, and former colleagues were surprised Lau agreed to talk for this story. “I wonder if this was an ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ moment,” Warren quipped. “He is the guy who never wants to be in the picture.”)
In today’s fractured media environment, where pundits and politicians trade barbs for clout on Twitter and cable news, Lau is the rare political fixture who stays out of the fray.
“He puts his head down, does the work, and never ever seeks the glory or the credit or the recognition,” said Nikko Mendoza, Warren’s state director, who met Lau almost 20 years ago at the start of both their careers. And as such, he’s universally well-liked, Mendoza added, even among those who disagree with him.
One of Lau’s strengths, according to Warren, is that he’s never lost sight of where he came from. “He never forgot how close he came to being one of those kids who was going to live forever at the margins,” she said.
Indeed, in the rarefied echelons of American politics, dominated by white, well-connected Ivy Leaguers, Lau’s story stands out — and not in a way he’s entirely comfortable with. The oldest son of working-class Chinese immigrants, Lau dropped out of his New York City high school and racked up a minor arrest record before earning his GED and matriculating at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he stumbled through his freshman and sophomore years.
“It just wasn’t something I was proud to tell in that world,” Lau said. “And if I’m being completely honest, I do think that some of it was also being an Asian American and being a son of Asian American immigrants. My story and my background was just not a story that’s told in our community.
“Once you run afoul,” he added, “you don’t talk about it.”
Lau grew up in the immigrant enclave of Woodside, Queens. In 1976, his parents fled China under Mao’s communist regime and settled in New York. Neither had finished school beyond third or fourth grade. They worked hard — his mother at garment factory and his father peddling tchotchkes in Chinatown, waiting tables at a restaurant, and stocking the warehouse of an Empire State Building souvenir shop. They would often leave home at 7 a.m., returning 16 hours later, and Lau, the oldest of their three sons, was left in the care of his grandparents.
An unserious student who admittedly lacked self-discipline, Lau tested well enough to earn a seat at the Bronx High School of Science, one of the city’s elite public schools. But “temptation,” as Lau put it, frequently got the best of him. Lau skipped school to shoot pool with his friends and sometimes ran into trouble with the police. From time to time, the cops would show up at the pool hall, and drag Lau and his buddies to the station to participate in a lineup.
“It was scary,” Lau said. “For all we knew, the people standing next to us were murderers.”
Lau eventually dropped out. A former girlfriend — who pointedly told Lau, “’I’m not going to date a loser’” — finally convinced him to study for the high school equivalency exam. In 1996, Lau enrolled at UMass Amherst.
With his GED and middling SAT scores, Lau doubts he would have gotten in had he applied today. But UMass “took a chance on me,” Lau said. He struggled mightily in the beginning. The first time he got an “A” was in a political science class. He loved the way his professor talked about government and the power of political organizing. He switched his major from biology to political science.
But academically, Lau had to make up for lost time after failing several classes early on. He moved off campus to reduce distractions and started taking nine courses per semester. To make ends meet, he worked three part-time jobs, including one delivering newspapers and another at a corrugated cardboard factory.
He was exhausted, and his patience with his friends who often stayed at his apartment — smoking, drinking, and hanging out — wore thin. One day, Lau bought a stack of newspapers for his pals and flung them open to the classified sections. As they perused the listings, they spotted an ad for an internship at then-Senator Kerry’s office in Springfield. His friends challenged Lau to apply, and to humor them, Lau did just that.
The internship marked the beginning of Lau’s career. Kerry’s office hired him when he graduated in 2000, and he started in constituent services. At the time, Lau was one of a just few Asian Americans working in state politics, and he’d never felt more out of place, rubbing shoulders with staffers who all came from the same towns, went to the same schools, and summered in the same places. (”This was before I even knew ‘summer’ could be used as a verb,” Lau said.)
It was a lonely position to be in. And at times, Lau questioned whether he belonged.
“We’ve all lived through microaggressions and sometimes worse,” he said. “I’ve been asked, ‘Am I an intern?’ or ‘Who’s your boss?’ even when I was a campaign manager or state director.”
For Asian Americans, Lau’s ascension feels deeply personal. Boston City Councilor and mayoral candidate Michelle Wu got to know Lau while she was working as an organizer and constituency director for Warren’s 2012 senate campaign.
Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, Wu, who is Taiwanese American, often felt invisible because Asian representation — in politics, media, entertainment, and sports — was so sparse. Before making history herself in 2013 as the first Asian American woman to serve on the Boston City Council, she was warned time and again by well-meaning advisers about her implausible candidacy.
Watching Lau’s rise has proven what’s possible, she said.
“I still get emotional,” Wu said, “thinking about how he broke a huge barrier.”
As Lau looks ahead to the 2022 midterms and beyond, he sees an opportunity to shape the future of the Democratic Party by engaging more Asian Americans, a powerful and fast-growing voting bloc that has often felt sidelined or ignored by both major parties. According to new Census data, voter turnout among Asian Americans reached a record high 59 percent in 2020 — a 10 percentage point jump from 2016.
After Congress passed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act on May 18, which aims to expedite Department of Justice reviews of pandemic-related hate crimes, the DNC launched a major multilingual advertising campaign in more than 25 states and territories to promote the American Rescue Plan and celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The campaign, which Lau had a hand in, is part of the party’s strategy of investing early in communities of color.
“This moment in time that we’re in is probably the most the Asian American community has been in the political consciousness, at least as far as I can remember,” Lau said. “I think that our power comes from building that community and embracing it as much as we can, and if we stand together and share our successes ... that’s going to give us a lot more opportunity to claim more space in this country.”