|Boston Globe: The DNC’s Roger Lau made history. Can he grow Asian American political power, too?
By: Deanna Pan
June 1, 2021
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.”
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.”