S.B. Woo: Using skills to make change BIO
Every time Shien-Biau “S.B.” Woo, former lieutenant governor of Delaware, hears about US President Barack Obama appointing an Asian American to his cabinet or federal court, he feels a deep sense of satisfaction. He knows his hard-fought efforts are paying off.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Woo, president of the 80-20 Initiative, a votermobilization organization serving Asian Americans, sent a questionnaire to all candidates, asking for their pledge to help break the glass ceiling for Asian Americans by appointing more Asian Americans to top federal offices and benches.
Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, both presidential candidates, sent in their signed pledge rather early, but not Obama. 80-20 then launched a cyber campaign, asking its 350,000 or so Asian-American supporters not to vote for Obama.
A couple of days before Super Tuesday, the day when a dozen or so US states including California held primaries, Woo got Obama’s pledge in a letter. Polls in California only days earlier showed that three out of four Asian Americans would support Clinton.
“How do you get a politician to do things for you?” Woo, 77, said during a recent interview with China Daily. “You study his interest. Find out where he wants to go. If you can, you put yourself in the way of where he has to pass. The politician cannot reach his goal without getting through you, so he will ask for your help. You are ready to give help but with a request. When a politician needs to have something from you, then you can negotiate.”
“Things like this completely change Asian Americans’ understanding of politics. They used to think that it was all about money, we had to beg, we were nobody,” he added. “Think hard, find the button, try to create a win-win situation, then push the button.”
This is at the heart of Woo’s understanding of US politics, the result of many years of participating in politics, as well as fighting for justice in it.
Woo first tasted the real battle of politics in 1984 when he ran for lieutenant governor of Delaware as a university professor and a first-generation immigrant with no name recognition.
“We often talked about having Chinese Americans run for public offices, but no one seemed to dare do anything. So, I told my wife, if no one wants to do it, then I will,” said Woo, who came to the US in 1955 after finishing high school in Hong Kong. He received PhD in Physics from the Washington University in St. Louis and later joined the University of Delaware in 1966.
Woo was active in the Chinese-American community. He helped establish Delaware’s first Chinese School and was its principal. He also was the first president of a local Chinese American Community Center. His wife, Katy Woo, was office manager of then Senator Biden’s state office and a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. The couple discussed politics at home a lot.
Woo has never shied away from controversy. He was the founding president and chief spokesman of the faculty bargaining unit at the university when it still had an anti-union mindset. His hard-fought battle earned him recognition. He became a member of the school’s board of trustees, appointed by the governor.
Woo attributes his sense of justice to his older brother. Woo accidentally read his brother’s diary in which he talked about how wrong it was to treat their sisters disrespectfully due to the traditional Chinese cultural norm of regarding girls as inferior to boys. It enlightened and inspired Woo.
Woo’s election excited the whole Chinese-American community in the US. Big names gathered behind him including Nobel laureates Chen-Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee and renowned architect I. M. Pei. Almost every Chinese-American organization rendered support in one form or another.
Against prevailing skepticism from the mainstream, Woo pulled it off, beating two veteran state senators in the primary as well as an entrenched Republican opponent and became the first Asian-American elected official at that level in US history.
The Delaware Morning News, Delaware’s only state-wide daily, ran a front page article under the banner headline: “Wow Woo Won” the next day, with news of the newly-elected Republican governor in the corner.
Four years into the job, Woo decided to run for the US Senate. He won the primary but lost in the election. In 1992, Woo ran for US Congress, winning the primary by a big margin but losing the battle to his former boss, retiring Governor Michael Castle, who joined the election rather late.
Woo said he learned much more about politics after he lost the two campaigns. In the meantime, Woo has never abandoned his civic duties in promoting the Chinese-American community. In 1991, he became president of the Organization of Chinese Americans, the leading national organization for the Chinese Americans in the US.
When the famous “Asia-Gate” scandal erupted in 1996, in which Asian Americans, eager to please top running politicians during the presidential and congressional elections, raised money to the point of illegality and were bashed by both the political parties and the media, Woo was deeply insulted and got worried about the immaturity of Asian Americans’ political knowledge and skills and lack of political clout.
Together with several likeminded prominent Asian American leaders, including Chang-Lin Tien, then chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, Woo founded the 80-20 Initiative, officially the 80-20 Political Action Committee(PAC),withthegoalof directing 80 percent of the AsianAmerican community’s votes and money to the presidential candidate endorsed by 80-20 to make their voices better heard.
Woo announced in 2000 that he would not run for public office nor accept any political appointment and became an Independent, which officially turned him into a political activist and allows him to freely use his political acumen to serve common good.
The 2008 presidential campaign, especially in the case of Obama, provided a good testament to how effective Woo’s strategy was. The network of 350,000 supporters and 3,150 paid members enabled Woo to deliver a swing bloc vote therefore induced candidates to take Asian Americans’ interests into better consideration.
According to Woo, Obama has kept his promise well, appointing an impressive number of Asian Americans to cabinet positions, including former Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and former Energy Secretary Steve Chu, and more than tripled the number of AsianAmerican Federal Judges from eight in 2008 to 25 in 2014.
“As a Chinese American, I was well aware that almost every generation of immigrants, whether Caucasian, Asian, or African, had to go through a political process to become equal. It is not because of the color of our skin. It is our weakness in political knowledge and influence,” said Woo, who retired from the University of Delaware in 2002 after serving 36 years.
“I am hurting my own political career by being a maverick, but I am willing to do it. All of us have to stand up for our rights,” he added.
Sheng Yang contributed to the story. Contact the writers at email@example.com
Shien-Biau “S.B.” Woo is president of 80-20 Educational Foundation and former lieutenant governor of Delaware.