Maya Soetoro-Ng, half sister of Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, appeared at a rally last year at Kawananakoa Middle School.
Obama’s sister boosts appeal to voters of Asian ancestry
Maya Soetoro-Ng also keeps the candidate's isle ties alive
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Barack Obama's Asian-American half sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, is not only one of his strongest supporters, she's also a symbol.
A teacher at La Pietra: Hawaii School for Girls in Honolulu, Soetoro-Ng serves as a kind of link between the presumptive Democratic nominee for president and the Asian community.
"It would be the first time that the first family is comprised in part of Asian Americans -- as well as African Americans, of course," said Keith Kamisugi, a coordinator with Asian Americans for Obama.
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SAN FRANCISCO » The throng of Asian-American donors drew closer, drinks in hand, to hear Barack Obama's sister describe the wide arc of his life: beyond politics and Chicago, into his childhood in Indonesia and Hawaii.
To many in this crowd, Obama's Asian-American half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, represents yet another aspect of Obama's identity that makes him unique as a presidential candidate, although it has been underplayed amid the excitement surrounding his shot at becoming the first black president.
"It would be the first time that the first family is comprised in part of Asian Americans -- as well as African Americans, of course," said Keith Kamisugi, a coordinator with Asian Americans for Obama. In early June, he organized a fundraiser along with two other Obama events focusing on Asian-American voters in San Francisco.
Discussion of those ties has taken a back seat to the Obama campaign's efforts to win the Hispanic vote and his ability to rouse young and black voters. In spite of the drawn-out primary season, many voters have heard little about Obama's years in Jakarta -- he lived there between 1967 and 1971, while his mother was married to Soetoro-Ng's father, an Indonesian businessman -- or about his years in Hawaii, where Asian Americans are a majority.
STAR-BULLETIN / MAY 2007
Maya Soetoro-Ng and her husband, Konrad Ng, pose for the media with their daughter, Suhaila Ng, almost 3, last year at a campaign rally for Barack Obama at Kawananakoa Middle School. Soetoro-Ng is Obama's half sister.
Soetoro-Ng, who lives in Honolulu, and Obama have different fathers and the same mother. Her father is Indonesian, his is Kenyan. Her husband is Chinese Canadian.
It was with Obama that she attended her first blues concert and her first voter registration drive, she said. The two remain close: She was there when Obama's oldest daughter, Malia, 9, was born, and plans to help celebrate her 10th birthday on the Fourth of July, on the campaign trail.
"Maybe not everybody is as mixed or as hybrid as he is. But he gets Kansas, because we have Kansas," she said, referring to their mother's background. "He gets the Midwest. He gets the South Side of Chicago."
And he "has a lot of affection for Asian cultures, in all of their various forms," she said.
That cultural variety is among the reasons Asian-American and Pacific Islander voters have gotten less attention than other ethnic groups from the media -- or even from the Obama campaign -- during the primary season.
Asian-American voters represent about 5 percent of the population, or about 15.4 million people, but their communities are scattered around the country and harbor deep cultural and geopolitical differences.
Asians make up one-fourth of the foreign-born population in the United States; many are first-generation immigrants. That presents a challenge to politicians, said Gautam Dutta, executive director of the Asian American Action Fund, a political action committee whose goal is to increase Asian-American political participation.
"You can't have a one-size-fits-all approach," Dutta said.
But some analysts argue that because Asian Americans are just emerging as a political community, engaging them now will pay off.
In some key states, their weight is already considerable. Besides Hawaii, where Asian Americans are 57.5 percent of the population, and California, where they're 13.5 percent, Asians are 7.7 percent of New Jersey and Washington, and 7.2 percent of New York.