Woo takes action for Asian-American voters

S.B. Woo, a former University of Delaware and one-term lieutenant governor, now heads the 80-20 Initiative. (University of  Delaware photo)

S.B. Woo, a former University of Delaware and one-term lieutenant governor, now heads the 80-20 Initiative. (University of Delaware photo)

DOVER — Let’s start with a Delaware trivia question.

Who was the last lieutenant governor to not belong to the same party as the governor?

The answer: S.B. Woo.

Dr. Woo, a University of Delaware physics professor and Democrat at the time, won the office in 1984, the same year that Republican Mike Castle became governor.


The question led this editor to another: Where is Dr. Woo now?

He still lives in Newark but has retired from education and has taken on a role as president of the 80-20 Initiative — a nonpartisan, political action committee for Asian Americans.

Dr. Woo, who was born in Shanghai, China, said he launched the effort in the late 1990s after some Chinese Americans had been in the national headlines over a campaign finance scandal tied to the Clintons. It was dubbed “Asia Gate.”

From the Editor logo copy copy“Those were individuals who used the Chinese political mentality in America,” Dr. Woo said.

Dr. Woo’s first contacts in creating the 80-20 Initiative were Chang-Lin Tien, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, and Republican Anna Chennault, wife of U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Claire Lee Chennault.

“I got together the best-known Chinese Americans to start this organization,” he said. “The aim was to protect ourselves in the political arenas.”

The organization, according to its website, is “dedicated to winning equal opportunity and justice for all Asian Americans through a swing bloc vote, ideally directing 80 percent of our community’s votes and money to the presidential candidate endorsed by the 80-20.”

Nationally, Asian Americans represent about 4 percent of voters.

Dr. Woo said that new Chinese immigrants tended to vote Republican, based on a belief that Republicans were anti-communist.

This year, the 80-20 Initiative has not made an endorsement. He said there usually is an endorsement convention, but the group was lacking members willing to run as Republican delegates.

Donald Trump has not responded to an 80-20 questionnaire that calls for support of Asian Americans in areas such as judicial appointments and college admissions. Hillary Clinton has, but 80-20 wants to hear directly from her.

A note on its website reads, “To the best of our knowledge, using Hillary’s Speech Archive on her website, of the 397 speeches she gave from January to July this year, only 1 was to Asian Americans … Don’t let her belittle us. Many voters sense that she has a sense of entitlement. Donald Trump? Probably worse.”

An endorsement is on hold, but 80-20 bylaws require one.

“We may ultimately endorse in the last minute and probably endorse with reservations,” said Dr. Woo, who said he volunteers 8-10 hours a day in his role.

In its letters to candidates, the organizations points out that the Asian Americans favored the Republican candidate in 1996, two years prior to the start of the 80-20 Initiative. But, in presidential years since, the 80-20 has endorsed Democratic candidates four times and each year the vote has become stronger for the endorsed candidate. According to New York Times polling, here’s how Asian Americans voted:

•In 1996, 48 percent of Asian Americans voted for Republican Bob Dole, 43 percent for Democrat Bill Clinton;

•In 2000, 54 percent voted for Democrat Al Gore, 41 percent for Republican George Bush;

•In 2004, 56 percent voted for Democrat John Kerry, 44 for Bush;

•In 2008, 62 percent voted for Democrat Barack Obama, 35 percent for Republican John McCain;

•In 2012, 73 percent voted for Obama, 26 percent for Republican Mitt Romney.

Dr. Woo said the 80-20 pressure has shown some significant results beyond the elections.

“In 2008, there were 5.6 percent of the nation’s lawyers who were Asian Americans and 0.7 percent of judges were Asian American — all of them at the lowest level,” said Dr. Woo. “But Obama said he would take that as a priority. Today, it has increased by more than 300 percent and four are appeals court judges.

“We know we have some impact.”


This editor asked Dr. Woo if he had ever dreamed of becoming a politician while growing up in China.

“Never! Even three years before I ran for lieutenant governor, I never thought about it,” he said. “One day, my wife said I became crazy.”

The notion came to him, he said, when associates discussed an Asian American someday running. But no one ever seemed to step up.

“I thought the U.S. educational system was going down, our leading science and technology was not as much as before,” said Dr. Woo. “So as an educator and scientist, I thought I could do something.

“I always thought it was better to try, and try and fail, than not dare to try. I really didn’t expect to win.”

Dr. Woo said he did not get a positive reaction when he decided to run.

One memory was a conversation with former New Castle Democratic Party chairman Gene Reed.

“He said, ‘S.B., I like you, I think some of the things you said make sense, but don’t run. You don’t have Chinaman’s chance to win. He said, you have to get name recognition,’” Dr. Woo recalled.

Dr. Woo defeated Republican Battle Robinson, former legal counsel to Pete du Pont, by 449 votes.

After his four years as lieutenant governor, Dr. Woo decided to run for U.S. Senate. The opponent was Republican Bill Roth who already had four terms in the office. Some questioned why Dr. Woo wouldn’t just go for a second lieutenant governor term and position himself as the Democrats’ gubernatorial candidate in 1992.

It brought back a memory of when he was campaigning. Oddly enough, Dr. Woo’s campaign team included Jack Markell, Chris Coons and Matt Denn.

Dr. Woo recalls a bowling alley stop where Markell was asked to be incognito and listen in on what people said after he had made his way through the room.

Markell, the next morning, said he had something he needed to share about a conversation two men had. One said to the other, “Lieutenant governor is a good political platform but it does not have much power so I wanted to give S.B. a chance. For him to be U.S. senator, I don’t think I know him well enough.”

Dr. Woo said he realized he had made a mistake. “When I heard that, cold sweat poured down my back,” he remembered.

Looking back, he wishes he had a chance to serve, thinking specifically about the need he saw to keep U.S. manufacturing jobs from leaving our shores.

Dr. Woo ran for U.S. House of Representatives in 1992, losing to Castle.

Today, Dr. Woo makes a point of saying he is an independent — the best fit for leadership of the 80-20.

“However, once we endorse, we become very partisan in order to achieve results,” he said.

Looking back, he said he wasn’t very partisan when he was lieutenant governor. He thought Gov. Castle was the same way.

“I think it’s a great Delaware political tradition that we should be proud of,” said Dr. Woo. “The state and the nation are better served by such a frame of mind.”

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