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I Thought I Knew How to Succeed as an Asian in U.S. Politics. Boy, Was I Wrong.

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I Thought I Knew How to Succeed as an Asian in U.S. Politics. Boy, Was I Wrong.

Other communities of color, other historically marginalized groups have made meaningful gains and long-lasting progress after vocally challenging the status quo. Asian Americans must do the same.

Georgia, the state where my family runs their chicken farm and calls home, has been ground zero for an AAPI awakening—one that started even before the Atlanta shootings, and which helped Biden win the state. But even so, amassing real political power has proven difficult. The political parties still don’t perceive the AAPI community as having as strong a pipeline of political talent or as much influence as other groups. That’s despite, in the last election, record AAPI turnout, record AAPI elected officials and surrogates, record fundraising and engagement. At the highest levels of government, we are still unseen—without a single executive department head.

Amassing power is risky. It involves the kind of public conflict that many of us have been taught to avoid. But it’s also the only real way to change the political and bureaucratic structures that don’t take us seriously.

In my own life, this was a long and painful realization, learned after years of trying to climb the ladders of U.S. policy and global politics. It didn’t matter what grades I got; what prestigious internships, fellowships or jobs I held; the personal and familial sacrifices I made for the team, the organization and the mission. I found myself stuck, unable to reach the leadership roles others were promoted into. I wasn’t on a ladder. I was on a treadmill, working hard but going nowhere. Like the broader AAPI community, I was hiding within structures that weren’t working for me—that didn’t take me seriously. The challenge for me—and for the wider political community I’m part of—is figuring out when, and how, to say “enough,” and to fight those structures instead.

***

My first memory of politics was watching the 1992 presidential debate between President George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot with my mom. I was enthralled. So often, I would hear talk about the future first Black, Latino or woman president. But never once had I heard chatter about an Asian president. I asked my mom if I could run for president one day. She paused and whispered to me, “Being in politics is dangerous. And they don’t think we’re American. Just focus on school.”

I assumed she was exaggerating about the danger, but I soon learned she was right about the rest. The next month I thought about running for fifth grade class president at my suburban elementary school. When I told one of my classmates, he tersely explained that “no one would vote for someone who eats dog.” Later, I found a drawing on my desk of me devouring a four-legged furry friend. Kids erupted in laughter. I cried in the bathroom by myself until someone asked me if it was because of my math scores.

I never ran for public office. But I still wanted to get involved in public service. I thought that representing our country overseas as the son of refugee chicken farmers would best capture what makes America so special—the American Dream. In 2004, I got my first big internship, at the State Department in the Bureau of Public Affairs. The weekly intern brown bag lunches were the highlight of the experience, where we got to meet senior officials and political appointees. Our speakers would go around and ask us what we did. I was often the only minority there, and when they got to me, without fail they asked what part of Asia I worked on. I got the message loud and clear: the broader reaches of foreign policy and statecraft were not for people like me.

Recent reporting about the State Department’s lack of diversity shows that progress hasn’t been made since. In fact, it’s gotten worse. Today, only 13 percent of the senior executive service comes from communities of color. For those who make it in the door, assumptions can cut both ways: Representative Andy Kim (D-NJ) recently said that when he was at State, he was banned from working on issues related to the Korean Peninsula. Can you imagine if the State Department banned its large proportion of employees with European descent from working on European affairs? Or assumed that any white employees must clearly specialize in Europe?

Personally, I came to a conclusion I know many peers reached as well: If I wanted to succeed in public service in the United States, I needed not just to distance myself from my Vietnamese American background, but to actively run away from it.

My winding career then took me to Capitol Hill, the United Nations, international aid work in Afghanistan and several global non-profits. In these jobs, I noticed three trends. First, every boss I had was white. Second, many minority peers ended up leaving because they didn’t think there was a promotion in their future. Third, there were zero mentorship opportunities for me. Being Asian American in this line of work was incredibly lonely.

Congress was particularly challenging. While 2021 has historic diversity among its elected ranks, the senior staff still lags in diversity. Asian American staffers report difficulty in securing promotions because of “perceived meekness.”

In 2014, I moved to Sacramento to work in external and cabinet affairs for California Governor Jerry Brown. Overseeing a portfolio of policy matters and departments was challenging and fulfilling work in a state that has 40 million residents and the world’s fifth largest economy. But I also took a lot of meetings with unhappy organizations and associations, ornery lobbyists, and neglected elected officials and staffers. I found early on that many parties tried to take advantage of me. Perhaps it was because I was new to state politics. Or, maybe they thought an Asian would be more likely to cave. Many times, the promises we agreed on were broken. The meetings were often hostile, and sometimes, threatening.

That might just sound like hardball politics, but it was more than that. I know because I eventually instituted a buddy system. I started taking meetings with a non-Asian colleague sitting alongside me. It paid off. The meetings became less adversarial and agreements were respected. The people I met with were usually surprised that I was of equal rank to my colleagues, or that I was the lead on the given issue. I once told a retired elected official about my rules of engagement, and she nodded in familiarity and grinned in resignation: I was doing exactly what women like her had done in the 1980s, when they recruited men to accompany them to meetings as back-up.

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‘It’s thrilling, exciting and terrifying’: NASA prepares for first helicopter flight on Mars

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'It's thrilling, exciting and terrifying': NASA prepares for first helicopter flight on Mars

Ingenuity hitched a ride to Mars nestled under the belly of the Perseverance rover, which landed on the Red Planet in February. The helicopter, which will only work for 31 days and can fly for 90 seconds max, is intended to demonstrate that flight is possible on another planet, which could open the door for uncrewed aircraft to see parts of the planet rovers can’t access or act as scouts for astronauts on future missions.

Ingenuity will be flying in an atmosphere that’s just one percent as dense as Earth’s atmosphere. That means that while the helicopter will be just 10 feet off the ground, it’s as if it was flying at 100,000 feet on Earth. For comparison, most commercial planes fly between 30,000 and 40,000 feet.

“It turns out, if you take a small dual-rotor counter rotating helicopter that weighs about four pounds and you make those carbon fiber blades fatter and spin them five-times faster than an Earth helicopter, you can get enough lift” to fly on Mars, Hogg said.

Hogg, who has worked at NASA since 1997, spoke about how his team is preparing for the historic flight and how the idea for a flying drone on another planet dates back to the 1990s.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s your role in the Perseverance mission?

I’ve been working on the Mars 2020 project since 2012. Today I’m the deputy surface mission manager for Mars 2020.

We plan what the rover is doing the following Martian sol [a day on Mars.] I’m the deputy running that team, so … we are running the mission. … It takes an army of people to pull that off in a way that it’s safe so we don’t lose our billion dollar asset but also in a productive way to get all the science done.

How is the team prepping for Ingenuity’s first flight?

On Saturday, we successfully completed a whole series of steps to deploy Ingenuity to the Martian surface. We spent 10 days on Mars doing that, which may seem like a long time, but a lot of important things need to happen.

After it’s been packaged up and safely attached to the bottom of the rover, it’s 150 million miles away. It made it all the way to Mars, survived launch, entry, descent and landing. We don’t want to fumble at the 99-yard line.

Over the last week or so … we finished assessing the flight zone with the rover’s cameras, we dropped off the debris shield outside the flight zone, then we drove to one end of the flight zone to begin deployment of Ingenuity to the surface. We went through several steps to do that. We lowered it on an arm with a little motor, powered it to vertical position, and finished deploying the legs. … Then we spent an extra day or two making sure there was enough clearance for the rover to drive away. … We needed to get the rover off and away so sunlight could hit Ingenuity’s solar cells within a day. It was critical to make that happen so Ingenuity could charge up its batteries and have enough energy to survive the Martian night.

Is there a camera on Ingenuity to get aerial shots of Mars?

Yes. There are two. One is a black and white lower resolution navigation camera that captures imagery at a high rate and uses computer vision to figure out where the helicopter is. The second color camera is like what you’d have on your phone for getting some color images as well.

Where did this idea come from?

What kicked off this whole thing is the fact that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab landed the first rover on Mars in the 1990s. … We landed this microwave-sized rover and it was the first time we roved on another planet. … There was discussion in various corners of JPL about what about a flying machine? … In 2013, they had a flying machine research lab. Our then-director at JPL Charles Elachi had gone to a conference and came back to JPL wondering if we could do a flying machine. He toured the drone lab at JPL and said let’s put together a proposal for Mars 2020. The deadline was only 2 months away. Bob Balaram [the chief Ingenuity engineer] and his team burned the midnight oil and got a proposal in.

What makes flight so difficult on Mars?

It’s flying in such a thin atmosphere. But also, if you take a step back, we’re doing something on another planet that has a one way light time of 15 minutes. That means if I bought a remote control car and got it to the Martian surface alive and well, and hit go on the joystick, it would be 15 minutes before it started moving and another 15 minutes before I knew it was moving. … So you need an autonomous capability.

This is the next level of achievement I’m describing, being able to fly something in 1 percent of Earth’s atmosphere on the surface of another planet that’s 150 million miles away. These are mind boggling engineering achievements we’re dealing with here. … It turns out, if you take a small dual-rotor counter rotating helicopter that weighs about four pounds and you make those carbon fiber blades fatter and spin them five times faster than an Earth helicopter, you can get enough lift to lift a very lightweight package.

So with the lag, it will fly and land before you even know it?

The flights are approximately 90 seconds on average. We send instructions for the day to the rover. The rover passes on instructions for the helicopter to a base station … over a radio connection after Ingenuity wakes up and gets in communication with the rover. … So sometime on Mars, … it will carry out those instructions for its first flight.

The results of that flight get sent during the flight to the base station, then relayed to the rover. Then the rover waits for a Mars orbiter to pass overhead and minutes or hours later, it relays everything that happened to the deep space network here on Earth [which takes 15 minutes.] Then we get the story of what happened on Mars and we unpack it all. Hopefully we will be celebrating.

All those steps happen with humans just waiting on Earth to see how it all plays out.

I can’t imagine how stressful that is.

I’m remembering Saturday afternoon. … We determined that the helicopter had dropped and it had turned on for the first time, so we knew it was alive. Then we allowed the rover to drive away. We were waiting for an hour and a half to see how the drive went and if we successfully uncovered helo to beat the 25-hour deadline [after which Ingenuity would not have enough battery charge to survive a night on Mars.] … There are moments where it feels like a week of your life is going by waiting to see if something is happening that you spent seven years engineering. It’s thrilling, exciting and terrifying. This is why we do what we do.

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Biden’s Quiet ‘Breakthrough’ In Talking About Race

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Biden’s Quiet ‘Breakthrough’ In Talking About Race

Since at least the mid-1980s, the pursuit of the archetypal “Reagan Democrat” suburban swing voter has been a lodestar guiding Democratic messaging. The strategy was straightforward: These socially moderate-to-conservative suburban white Americans largely were simpatico with Democrats on economic issues, but voted for the GOP in part because they believed Democrats were interested in pursuing racial justice at the expense of issues they viewed as more relevant to their own lives.

The result of that thinking was a “color-blind” approach to talking about economic policies and programs — emphasizing a “rising tide lifts all boats” message that glossed over or ignored racial disparities. But for reasons both ideological and strategic, that “color-blind” posture is no longer effective for Democrats — and, McGhee says, can actually backfire.

“Since the Obama era, the racial sorting of voters has included white voters moving to the Democratic Party because of their progressive views on race,” she says. “What holds together the progressive coalition is, yes, obviously, a sense that government can — and needs to — be a force for good and address our big crises. But also the coalition … thinks we have to talk about race, and doesn’t want to see politicians without the courage to address these obvious inequalities head-on.”

In this way, while the Biden administration’s massive investments in middle-class economic growth have been likened by some to the liberal heyday of Franklin D. Roosevelt, that comparison misses an important difference. The New Deal era was defined by policies that were “either explicitly, as in the housing subsidies, or implicitly, because of segregation in education and housing under the GI Bill, for whites only,” says McGhee. By contrast, she sees the Biden era as “a massive refilling of the pool of public goods for everyone.”

What explains that change? What shifted in American politics that prodded Democratic leadership to directly address the racial components of economic issues? And what’s the hidden history that led to the disinvestment in public goods just as Black Americans began to be included in what America saw as the “public”? To sort through it all, POLITICO Magazine spoke with McGhee. A condensed transcript of that conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.

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Cuomo’s Albany dominance takes backseat to political survival

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Cuomo’s Albany dominance takes backseat to political survival

The governor who once muscled his biggest priorities through the Capitol annually, rarely failing to come out on top, is now taking a decidedly lighter tread in negotiations with Senate Majority Leaders Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, according to half a dozen people familiar with the budget talks. Both Democratic leaders have taken a hard line against Cuomo over the past month, with Stewart-Cousins being among the first to call for his resignation and Heastie authorizing an impeachment investigation that commenced late last month.

Nearly a month after he vowed to not let his then-burgeoning sexual harassment scandal deter him from doing his job, Cuomo is now spending his days trying to reframe the now-tarnished narrative of his tenure as he faces the single greatest threat to his decades-long political career. He appears to be putting political survival ahead of his own policy priorities, playing nice with lawmakers as he zips around the state to tout progress on vaccines and announce steps to open up the state’s economy.

On Monday, Cuomo appeared deferential to legislators as he called the budget “the most complicated, the most ambitious and the hardest budget that we have done,” and applauded both chambers for working through pandemic restrictions.

“They’ve been working very hard, under very difficult circumstances,” Cuomo said. “So it’s been a complicated process on top of a complicated product. … But this budget will set the trajectory for the state for the next 10 years.”

He went on to tout the recent legalization of marijuana in New York and local police reform plans that are nearly in place across the state, neither of which were initiated through the budget. He made no mention of the deals he had cut to sign off on progressive priorities, including the agreement to temporarily raise taxes on those making more than $1 million a year, a move that will give New York City’s top earners the highest combined city and state tax rate in the country.

Cuomo‘s January budget proposal did include a similar tax hike on high earners that was worth about $1.5 billion, but he called it his “worst-case-scenario” budget. His administration backed away from the concept after the most recent federal relief package authorized about $12.5 billion in aid for New York.

The state Senate and Assembly both proposed raising more than $6.5 billion through tax increases even after they saw the federal dollars coming in, in part due to pushes from progressive members and advocates warning that a one-time influx of federal stimulus wouldn’t be enough to fix existing imbalances in the state’s financial planning.

Cuomo on Monday also made no mention of an influx of more than $4 billion in school funding that the final deal is expected to phase-in over three years through a system that progressives have long sought. Cuomo has resisted their demands, calling them political and labeling a years-old lawsuit over the issue “ghosts of the past and distractions from the present.”

Legislative leaders have said publicly that Cuomo’s scandals — both over his sexual harassment allegations and his administration’s attempt to hide the number of Covid-19 deaths tied to nursing homes — has had little effect on the budget process, which is largely driven by staff and their constitutional duty to pass a spending plan on time. But legislative sources and former Cuomo aides say it’s clear Democratic lawmakers are steering the budget negotiations this year, in contrast to the past.

“With that federal revenue and with state revenues shoring up pretty nicely, you have a budget that should not have been so hard to get done on time,“ said a former Cuomo aide, speaking on condition of anonymity to so as not to anger the governor. “So it seems pretty clear to me the lawmakers are saying, ‘we’re going to do it this way.’”

In years past, Cuomo has been able to wield considerable power in the Legislature by reaching out to rank-and-file members and their political power brokers. But that’s harder than ever with huge portions of Democrats in both chambers calling for his resignation last month.



Typically what you’d be doing is in order to get to the lawmakers you’d be working their constituency groups and their advocacy groups and that would influence the lawmakers,” the former official said. “But the progressive groups, every single one of them, wants to see them gone.”

But some say the governor — or his office at least — has been pushing hard in certain areas, such as enhanced spending authority for federal funds and stricter checks on how unemployment might be distributed to undocumented immigrants.

“I know a lot of people speculated as to whether he would be weaker this time around, but I haven’t seen any sign of that,” said Assembly Health Chair Richard Gottfried, the chamber’s longest-serving member.

Still, Cuomo has in past weeks fled to friendlier waters when he shows his face in public, fully engaged in the craft of narrative revision. Earlier Monday, he was in his native Queens to announce public service campaign to encourage vaccinations, part of a downstate tour visiting pop-up vaccination sites in communities of color he had promised months ago to prioritize in the state’s distribution program. Those events, more often than not closed to reporters, have given him the ability to solicit public praise — specifically from his supporters in the Black community who have thanked him for his follow-through.

On Monday, he received compliments from Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), who last month said Cuomo should resign if it was shown he couldn’t effectively lead the state. And Queens Assemblymember Vivian Cook, who worked on Cuomo’s father’s campaigns and has known the governor since he was young, told the borough and state to “thank this son of Queens for making sure that we are taken care of.”

“We are proud and we are proud of him. So, no matter what you say or what you do, we’re going to stick by this man — he’s staying with us,” she said.

Cuomo’s mood during these kinds of public appearances have been almost buoyant, with bits like challenging former Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia to arm wrestle during a jovial event to announce the Yankees and Mets could start their seasons with fans.

And when his chief counsel and budget czar joined a recent question-and-answer session by web cam, he teased them publicly for appearing glum.

“He’s looking very stern faced because he’s coming down to it — he only has a few days left to work on the budget,” Cuomo said of budget director Robert Mujica, who neither smiled nor responded. “You can see the stress on his face.“

“Business as usual” is an ancient ploy that has occasionally worked for embattled politicians patient enough to see a news cycle through.

“I think what you see the governor doing is trying to focus on the things that he knows the public likes and trying to ignore, to the extent possible, all the things that he doesn’t like,” said Steve Greenberg, the spokesperson for Siena College Research Institute.

Though the most recent polling from Siena found dips in his overall favorability and reelection prospects, 60 percent of voters still approved of his handling of the pandemic and a 48 percent plurality say he should continue to do his job despite the allegations.

But as the budget process wraps up in Albany, it’s likely eyes will again turn to the investigations into sexual harassment allegations, Cuomo’s handling of Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes and new reports that Cuomo recruited several members of his staff to produce his book about leadership during the pandemic.

The lawmakers and attorneys heading up the Assembly Judiciary’s impeachment probe have said it could take “months, rather than weeks” to compile any findings that would initiate the next steps. There is no timeline for the state Attorney General Tish James’ report, though Cuomo has asked the public to wait for its completion before drawing any conclusions about his behavior.

“I think the goal here is to run out the clock to the extent possible and hope that the Tish James report comes out in the middle of the summer when everyone is vaccinated and there’s all this stimulus money coming in,” said another former Cuomo aide, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

“He has in his back pocket [the] I’m-not-going-to-run-for-a-fourth-term card, and the closer we get to June [2022] primary, the more effective that is,” the official said. “But I would not underestimate his desire and intention for running for a fourth term.”

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