CLEVELAND, Ohio – Oanh Loi-Powell came to the United States in 1975 as a refugee from Vietnam who was sponsored by a Lutheran church In Toledo, where she would settle.
Now 56 and semi-retired, Loi-Powell, who has an engineering degree from Case Western Reserve University, remains active in the community. She helped with the Vietnamese Cultural Garden and serves on a variety of business, civic and cultural boards.
And while she describes herself as a political independent, she voted for Gov. Mike DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted in 2018.
That’s part of why she was caught so off-guard when she saw a tweet from Husted last week referring to the “Wuhan virus.”
Husted’s tweet, and the ensuing defense of his use of the term to describe the coronavirus, has left many Asian Americans in Ohio feeling dismayed. Asian American organizations and citizens told cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer they didn’t feel his explanation – that he was attempting to criticize the Chinese government – sufficiently explained why he felt the need to use a term that many feel is, at the very least, unhelpful or, at worst, could lead to targeting people of Asian descent for violence.
It’s also made many feel like they don’t have a voice, with some saying it seemed like Husted – or even state government as a whole – did not care about their struggles or issues.
On March 26, Husted tweeted an article featuring former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield saying he believed the theory that the coronavirus originated in a Chinese laboratory in Wuhan, China. The claim has been discounted, with most evidence pointing to transmission from animals to humans as the source.
“So it appears it was the Wuhan Virus after all?” Husted tweeted.
The term “Wuhan virus” – and the corresponding “China virus” – have been discouraged for more than a year. Health officials said those terms should not be used so as not to cause any unwarranted hate or violence toward Asians.
Husted maintains he was trying to criticize the Chinese government, though at no point did he mention them in his original tweet. He’s consistently stated in radio, print and television interviews that he won’t apologize.
The main message coming from Husted, though, is that anyone who felt hurt by the tweet or had heightened anxiety was wrong. That includes his Upper Arlington Asian American neighbors, who penned a letter to him outlining their concerns.
Husted said he would respond to the letter “appropriately,” but in a Thursday interview with WBNS-TV in Columbus, he had a blunter assessment.
“I didn’t offend anybody,” Husted said.
The whole situation has left people in the community, such as Loi-Powell, confused. She said she doesn’t think Husted was a bad man or inherently racist.
“When I saw the tweet I thought, ‘What is driving him to do this?’” she said. “Because he knows better.”
What’s in a word?
DeWine and Husted are gearing up for re-election, and some polling has shown that some of the Republican Party base is not happy with the duo. There have been rumblings of a primary challenger, but no serious candidate has emerged.
It’s possible the primary threat played a part in Husted’s reason for using the term – a favorite of former Republican President Donald Trump’s – to try and place blame for the coronavirus on the Chinese government. Republicans especially have been angered over DeWine’s response – including shutdowns and mask mandates – while 18,643 Ohioans have died because of the disease.
The use of Husted’s personal Twitter offers some clues, since neither he nor DeWine have found the term acceptable enough to use it on camera during one of their many coronavirus briefings.
And it’s a much different tone than one from a letter sent by DeWine to organizers of an Asian anti-hate march in Columbus on March 19 in response to a mass shooting at Atlanta area massage parlors that killed eight, including six Asian women.
“Although this tragedy did not occur in Ohio, I want Ohio’s Asian American population to know that you are valued and appreciated for the numerous contributions you make to our state,” DeWine wrote. “Ohio is blessed to be home to people from numerous cultures, races and ethnicities. It’s part of what makes Ohio such a special place to live.”
Husted and DeWine both declined to answer multiple questions from cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer, including whether they understood why many felt hurt by Husted’s remarks and subsequent defense, or whether either thought the community’s concerns were valid.
Almost everyone who spoke with cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer was willing to give Husted the benefit of the doubt that he was not intentionally targeting Asian Americans with his tweet.
They didn’t see a clear motive from Husted, be it an attempt to score political points or a genuine concern about the Chinese government.
There was a general feeling that, assuming the best intentions, it was misguided. The Chinese government has been roundly criticized for a lack of transparency and cooperation during the early stages of the pandemic. That is a shared feeling among many in the Asian American community, many of whom are against the Chinese government themselves.
Loi-Powell said even if it was a deliberate attempt to criticize the Chinese government, it didn’t make much sense. Using the term “Wuhan virus,” or any other derogatory term, doesn’t harm the Chinese government, she said.
“The people it affects are the people who are in this country and have to deal with it,” she said. “The cause and effect don’t match. It’s unfortunate because that’s the effect. I think about what our people have to go through. I’m lucky in the sense that I don’t see or experience discrimination every day. I live in a very white community and it’s not prevalent. But I look at my elderly friends and parents and what they had to go through and see it so far.”
But there was an overwhelming feeling that Husted, either deliberately or not, was contributing to an environment in which they are worried for their safety.
“The general feeling from the community is disappointment,” said Lisa Wong, president of OCA Greater Cleveland, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on issues in the Asian American community in Northeast Ohio. “Disappointment in our leadership. Leadership that we trust. That we trusted. And now we’re questioning that trust. Is this the guy who we thought he was? He’s done wonderful things for Ohio, yet the words that are coming out of his mouth don’t sound very considerate of our community and our struggles.”
Hate on the rise
Tessa Xuan, a Cleveland resident who is co-director of Ohio Progressive Asian Women’s Leadership, said Husted’s words are functionally equivalent to “China Virus,” a phrase which a vandal spray-painted on a Vietnemese-Thai restaurant in the Dayton area in January.
Hate crimes have been on the rise since the coronavirus pandemic took hold. A study from the California State University, San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism found anti-Asian hate crimes increased 149% in 2020, while overall hate crimes dropped by 7%.
Xuan said official numbers are vastly undercounted, due to language and cultural barriers and distrust of police within the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. She said she and other activists are aware of incidents in which Asian-American children have been sprayed with Lysol or harassed when getting ice cream, and more.
That includes Cleveland, where six hate crimes were reported in 2020, up from two in 2019.
Anti-Asian hate crimes are rarely limited to a single ethnic group. Such was the case for Kiwi Wongpeng, the 34-year-old owner of the popular Thai Thai restaurant in Lakewood, who is Thai.
While hearing Asian slurs was nothing new to her, it’s become more frequent for her and her community. Last year, while stopped at a red light, a man pulled up and motioned for her to roll down her window.
“Get out of my country — that’s an order!” he shouted before pausing and offering a threat. “I’ll kill you.”
Like Xuan, Wongpeng said her experience is not unique and one of the few that actually comes to light.
“A lot of American Asians are still afraid of speaking out and standing up for themselves,” Wongpeng said. “It’s just the mindset that no one cares about us.”
Siu Yan Scott, a volunteer and member of OCA Greater Cleveland, said Husted’s actions can lead to anxiety in the community.
“When you have a leader speak out like that, people listen. And they don’t necessarily question,” She said. “That just creates that misrepresentation against people who look like me. So far, I’ve been safe, but I do worry about it. What if someone out on the street wants to throw something at me. I have to think twice about if I’m going somewhere alone.”
A history of violence
The strategy of politicians assigning blame to foreign governments – and foreigners being victimized because of that – isn’t new. It’s happened for years, including the targeting of Asians.
Vincent Wang, chairman of Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Ohio Chapter, a grassroots organization focusing on civil rights and participation among the AAPI population, pointed to the murder of Vincent Chin as a prime example.
In the 1980s, the Japanese automotive industry started gaining a foothold in the United States. Politicians excoriated the Japanese automakers, blaming them for the declining state of the American auto industry.
That came to a head in 1982 in Detroit. After a scuffle at a strip club, where Chin was having his bachelor party, two Chrysler employees, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, beat Chin to death with a baseball bat. Witnesses at the time recounted Ebens and Nitz blaming Chin for being out of work during the original fight, though Ebens, who was convicted of manslaughter and apologized 30 years later for the killing, said it wasn’t about race or even the automotive industry.
The same sentiments – blaming China which, in turn, leads people to target all Asians – are at the root of Husted’s and other politicians’ use of the term, Wang said. That could very well lead to violence like the kind against Chin, he said.
“That was because of the misconception and the sentiment and the economic hardship,” Wang said. “Because of the easy connection, they just connect the dots and said, ‘We’re struggling because of these people.’ They apply the same thing to calling COVID-19 the Wuhan Virus or China Virus. That will mislead a lot of people into thinking Asian people are causing all this trouble.”
Some wondered if Husted was disregarding their concerns because AAPI voters comprise a small portion of the Ohio electorate.
According to Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, a national political advocacy and engagement organization, the AAPI population in Ohio is more than 325,000, with more than 145,000 eligible to vote. The AAPI share of the electorate is 2.8%. While small, the population is rapidly expanding, having grown 97% since 2000.
With only a handful of AAPI elected officials in the state, there was a common sentiment that Asian American concerns weren’t being heard.
One remedy proposed was one as-yet-unfulfilled promise by Husted in 2018 to revive the Ohio Asian American Pacific Islander Advisory Council. Husted said in 2018 that DeWine was committed to reviving the group, which must be done through executive action.
“The administration, the governor, they have not done sufficient outreach to our community,” said Wang, the APAPA Ohio chairman. “In the past few years, we kept reaching out to them to try to elevate the advisory council. Nobody provided any solid responses to this. This is a time that we really do need to pay better attention to these needs and establish the commission as soon as possible.”
DeWine and Husted both declined to answer why they hadn’t re-established the commission.
However, a legislative fix is in the works through state Sens. Tina Maharath, a Columbus Democrat, and Niraj Antani, a Dayton Republican.
Maharath, who is of Laotian descent, said she also requested that the DeWine administration revive the council, but was told the coronavirus pandemic was the priority.
Her bill with Antani, if enacted, would create the Ohio Asian American and Pacific Islanders Affairs Commission and the Office of Asian American and Pacific Islanders Affairs. One of the benefits of doing a commission legislatively is that it is permanent, she said. Councils are formed by executive order and at the whim of individual administrations.
The commission would serve as a bridge for the AAPI community and government, including language translating services for the public and providing information about the AAPI population to the legislative and executive branches.
Maharath said she was optimistic that the commission will be rolled into the operational budget.
Ron Falconi, the Republican mayor of Brunswick, who is of Filipino descent, said he was not personally offended by Husted’s remarks. And he also questioned whether Husted should apologize for them, feeling that the situation was being blown out of proportion for Democrats to score political points.
Instead, those concerned with Husted’s remarks should focus more on concrete issues like increasing safety in Asian American communities through increased policing, or discrimination against Asian Americans in higher education, he said.
“No matter what happens, it’s a negative towards the Republicans,” Falconi said. “Technically it’s not even Husted, it’s the Republican Party. It’s a win-win for (Democrats). And that’s wrong. They should focus on trying to protect the Asian American community.”
But nobody who spoke with cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer said they wanted anything beyond Husted to recognize why they were hurt by his words and the potential dangers they pose.
“Just from a common sense standpoint, he should just acknowledge, ‘I apologize and didn’t provide full information or state the facts accurately,’” Wang said. “There’s nothing wrong with apologizing for being misinformed. There’s no perfect human being. People make mistakes and we learn from mistakes. But acknowledge it and move on and find the right information and correct it.”
Perhaps more importantly, they wanted Husted to stop using the terms.
“We know calling COVID-19 anything else but coronavirus, all these other things that associate a geographic location or ethnicity, is not OK,” said Wong, the OCA Greater Cleveland president. “So why would you keep using it? If people have spelled it out and keep using it, why would you?”
The political fallout from Husted’s decisions are too early to gauge. He may continue to not apologize. He may decide to.
But he does want to run for governor in 2026, perhaps with greater aspirations.
“I think many AAPIs and our allies will be looking closely at candidates’ records on solidarity with AAPI communities when we vote in all upcoming elections,” said Xuan of Ohio Progressive Asian Women’s Leadership. “Not just what they’ve tweeted or said, but what actions they have actually taken to stop anti-Asian hate, invest resources into our safety and healing, and support community-led solutions to prevent future violence.”
Loi-Powell said she would remember. She wasn’t sure whether she was going to vote for the DeWine-Husted ticket again. But Husted’s decisions over the past week made it less likely, she said.
“You’ve got to apologize, and time is of the essence,” she said. “You can’t apologize a year later. It’s not going to be as effective.”
Andrew Tobias contributed to this report.