PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island has never elected a state legislator who identified as Asian American, but that could change soon.
Four Asian American women are running for the state Senate, aiming to represent communities ranging from rural West Greenwich to Providence’s East Side:
- Robin Xiong is a Providence Democrat running in a Senate District 3 primary against Senator Samuel Zurier, a Providence Democrat who won a special election in November 2021.
- Linda Ujifusa is a Portsmouth Democrat running for the Senate District 11 seat that Senator James Seveney, a Portsmouth Democrat, is vacating.
- Giang “Jenny” Bui is a West Greenwich Democrat running for the Senate District 21 seat held by Senator Gordon Rogers, a Foster Republican.
- Victoria Gu is a Charlestown Democrat running for the Senate District 38 seat that Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere, a Westerly Republican, is vacating after 30 years in the Senate.
They are running as former Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung, a Republican, is leading in the polls in his bid to become the first Asian American to represent Rhode Island in Congress.
And they are running as the latest census data show that the number of Rhode Islanders identifying as Asian American grew by nearly 28 percent over the past decade — rising from 2.9 percent of the population to 3.6 percent.
“It’s exciting,” said Vimala Phongsavanh, who in 2009 became the first Asian American elected to the Woonsocket School Committee and the first Lao American to be elected to a school committee in the United States.
She said she knows of no Asian Americans who have ever served in the General Assembly, and she believes the four Senate candidates represent the most Asian Americans to ever run for the legislature at once.
It’s exciting, Phongsavanh said, because if one or more of those candidates wins, it will pave the way for others to follow and it would give young Asian American women in the state someone to look up to. Perhaps the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus could expand to include Asians in the future, she said.
Asian Americans can feel “invisibilized,” especially at the State House where there are so few, and issues of concern to that community can get left out, said Phongsavanh, who has worked at the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum and the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies.
Among other issues, she noted the nation has seen a rise in the frequency of anti-Asian incidents, from taunts to outright assaults, despite political and social activism.
Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed a law requiring that public school children study Asian American history. The House bill was introduced by Representative Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, a Cranston Republican who is married to Allan Fung.
Phongsavanh said she has advocated at the State House for disaggregating government data about Asian Americans to reflect people descended from families of different countries who may not even share a language.
She said that while some Asians came to the United States with work visas from countries such as India, many Southeast Asians arrived as refugees from war-torn countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, so those communities can have very different needs and priorities. Her parents were refugees from Laos who worked in factories in Woonsocket.
Phongsavanh said it’s important for the Asian American community to develop a pipeline of candidates, and she noted that Xaykham “Xay” Rexford Khamsyvoravong, the son of a refugee from Laos, is running for Newport City Council.
State Librarian Megan Hamlin-Black said Rhode Island does not track demographic information about Assembly members, so she can’t say for sure if the state has ever had an Asian American lawmaker. But, she said, “As far as I know, no one has self-identified that way publicly.”
Ujifusa noted that as vice president of the Portsmouth Town Council, she is the highest ranking Asian American elected official in Rhode Island. She said she’s pointing that out not to tout herself but to show that it’s a “bad situation” and that more Asian Americans are needed in elected office.
“I always feel it’s important to inspire the next generation,” Ujifusa said. “When I go to local schools and people see me as an elected official, they can say, ‘I can run for office and have a stranger name than normal.’” She said she hopes to encourage not just Asian Americans but “anyone who doesn’t fit the model of a typical politician.”
Ujifusa is a third-generation Japanese American. Her mother was placed in a US internment camp during World War II although she was a legal US citizen. Her aunt was the valedictorian of her high school class but never graduated from college because she was placed in an internment camp. Meanwhile, her father volunteered for the US Army after Pearl Harbor and served in the China Burma India Theater.
Ujifusa is a former US Environmental Protection Agency and private sector attorney who graduated from Harvard and from New York University law school.
In Senate District 11, she faces a Democratic primary against Matt Chappell. Former state Representative Kenneth J. Mendonca, a Portsmouth Republican, is also running for the seat, along with independent candidates Mario J. Teixeira and Andrew V. Kelly.
Gu is the daughter of Chinese immigrants who moved to South Kingstown 26 years ago, and she said that when her parents first arrived, they were focused on things like stable jobs and a good education. “Politics seemed quite remote to me growing up,” she said. “I didn’t know anyone affiliated with local or state politics.”
But now, Gu said, she is becoming more involved in the community, and she said she is glad to see more Asian Americans running for the Assembly.
“We are stepping up for public service,” she said. “We need a lot of different voices at the table because the legislation that we write will affect every Rhode Islander, and we need to make sure we are taking into account all the different perspectives.”
Gu graduated from Harvard University, works as a software engineer and data analyst, and chairs the Climate Resiliency Commission in Charlestown.
In Senate District 38, she faces a Democratic primary against Westerly Town Council member Sharon E. Ahern and Michael Niemeyer. Republican Westin J. Place and independent candidate Caswell Cooke Jr. also are running for the seat.
Bui is a first-generation Vietnamese American immigrant who came to the United States when she was 15. She said there has not been an Asian American in the Assembly in the past because there has not been a network based around “who you know and who can help you,” but that may be changing with the four Asian American candidates running this year.
“I think it will help create a pathway,” Bui said. “It has to start somewhere. You will see it’s possible — that it’s something that I can do.”
Bui graduated from Bryant University and worked as an interpreter for various organizations including hospitals and schools. She is now a workup specialist for The National Marrow Donor Program. She is running as part of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative’s slate of progressive candidates.
Xiong is a Hmong American who grew up in a refugee family from Laos, facing “racism, classism, and a number of other social injustices.” She has dedicated her life “to community advocacy and is determined to overhaul broken, oppressive systems and build a better community for all.”
Xiong works in environmental advocacy and is pursuing a master’s degree in energy and climate policy from Johns Hopkins University. She worked for two years in Providence public schools as an educator and restorative justice counselor. She, too, is part of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative slate of progressive candidates.
Fung, who is Chinese American, said he is glad to see other Asian Americans running for elected office in Rhode Island. “Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come,” he said.
Many members of the first generation of Asian Americans did not look to run for elected office, but successive generations are starting to see public service as a way to have a voice and bring about change, Fung said. “There is bamboo ceiling we are looking to take down,” he said.