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.
"When somebody finally gave him a chance, he took the NBA by storm. He's arrived, but he got here with a decade of hard work and confidence against the odds. He's the underdog who made it. He's living the American Dream," Tong wrote. "The dream I've lived, the dream Jeremy Lin is living, is the dream we can all live. But we have to fight for it."
Last year, Tong stood on the floor of the Connecticut House of Representatives during a debate on legislation providing reduced, in-state tuition at state colleges and universities to the children of illegal immigrants. He told the story about how his parents came to the U.S. on a tourist visa with 57 cents before he was born. They faced deportation after a rival Chinese restaurant owner likely reported them to the federal immigration service. Tong said his father reluctantly decided to leave the U.S. voluntarily, but wrote a last-ditch, six-page, handwritten letter to then-President Richard Nixon begging for the opportunity to stay in this country.
"He sent it off, thinking nothing would come of it," Tong said.
A week before his parents planned to leave, the same federal agent came to the couple's restaurant and handed them a letter from the U.S. attorney general, welcoming them to the U.S. but informing them they would have to go to the back of the line and wait their turn for citizenship.
"Because of that act of grace and compassion, I was born an American here in Connecticut," Tong said.
The in-state tuition bill wound up passing the Connecticut General Assembly and was signed into law. Tong said he plans to tell his story if he is sent to Washington.
"I want to do that in the U.S. Senate," he said. "I think it's important to speak with passion, to speak from experience about what you know."
Tong took a public stance earlier this month when he condemned a campaign ad aired by a Republican U.S. Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra in Michigan. It featured a young Asian woman talking in broken English about China taking away American jobs. Tong called the ad "deeply hurtful" and demanded Hoekstra pull the spot.
"That affects me even though I'm in Connecticut," Tong said. "It demeans the level of discourse."
Hoekstra has defended the ad, saying it is "insensitive" only to the spending philosophy of his opponent, Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, and Democratic President Barack Obama.
"We knew we were taking an aggressive approach on this. But this is a time where the people in Michigan and across the country are fed up with the spending, and we wanted to capture that frustration that they had with Washington, D.C.," Hoekstra said.
Tong said he has not experienced any anti-Chinese sentiment while on the campaign trail.
"I've been received very warmly by the people of this state and I think they understand my life, my story is an American story," he said.