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Conn. Senate candidate only Asian in lower 48

By Susan Haigh

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Feb. 16 2012 1:41 p.m. MST

In this Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012 photo, State Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, right, talks with State Rep. Patricia Dillon, D-New Haven, left, at the State Capitol in Hartford, Conn. Tong is the only Asian-American running for the U.S. Senate this election season from the continental U.S.

Jessica Hill, Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. — As a U.S. Senate candidate from Connecticut, William Tong doesn't have major, state-wide name recognition like his two main rivals for the Democratic nomination. But the son of Chinese immigrants has picked up supporters from across the country as the only Asian-American candidate for Senate this year in the continental U.S.

With only 3.8 percent of Connecticut's population identified as Asian, it's unclear how much the degree of celebrity Tong has developed within the Asian-American community will translate into a possible victory.

The 38-year-old state representative and self-proclaimed political underdog hopes his story of growing up in his family's Chinese restaurant, working nights and weekends washing dishes, cooking and waiting tables before graduating from an Ivy League university and law school, will touch non-Asian voters as well because it is "a universal story" about living the American dream, he said.

"My story resonates with everybody," Tong said. "Everybody owns a piece of the same story."

Gautam Dutta, executive director of the Asian American Action Fund, a political action committee that contributed $1,000 to Tong's campaign, said Tong is a particularly compelling candidate for Asian supporters because he has already been elected in a legislative district that does not have a large Asian population and has successfully connected with non-Asian voters.

Dutta said there is sometimes a perception in the Asian community and within other minority groups that a minority candidate doesn't have a chance of winning without a large pool of minority voters supporting them at the polling booth.

"He's reached out to everyone and they believe in him," Dutta said of Tong.

"It's not every day that you have a viable Asian candidate running for U.S. Senate," Dutta added. "He's definitely in the trail-blazer category."

U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii is a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate. If she's elected, she'd be the first female Asian-American senator.

Tong's campaign has prompted Asian-Americans from across the country, including some living in California, Virginia, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland and Washington, D.C., as well as Connecticut, to send contributions. And during a recent conference call with mostly Connecticut media about his economic plan, a reporter from the Voice of America in Hong Kong was also on the line, peppering Tong with questions.

Meanwhile, some big names in the Asian-American community are backing Tong, including former U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee.

"Obviously, his blessing will help William get support, especially financial support that opens doors," Dutta said of Lee, the first Asian-American mayor of San Francisco. Dutta's organization, which publishes a popular Asian-American political blog, is looking at ways to mobilize the Asian-American community to help Tong turn out the vote for the Aug. 14 Democratic primary.

Tong is facing tough competition, however, for the Democratic Party's endorsement from U.S. Rep. Christopher Murphy and former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz. The two veteran state politicians have better state-wide name recognition and so far both have raised more campaign funds than Tong. While Tong has raised $873,348, Murphy has raised nearly $3.4 million and Bysiewicz $1.5 million. They are vying to fill the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent.

Tong, who, if elected would be the first Chinese-American to hold a U.S. Senate seat, has not been shy about discussing his ethnicity on the campaign trail. On Thursday, Tong linked his message of being an underdog fighting for the American dream for everyday people to the Asian-American basketball phenomenon Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks. In a fundraising e-mail to supporters, Tong points out how Lin, also the son of Chinese-American immigrants, was an underdog, with no one willing to give him a shot.

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