A legislator in Texas abandoned his run for re-election Tuesday (Dec. 4, 2019) after igniting an onslaught of sharp criticism for saying his opponents were running because they’re “Asian.”
“During a recent interview with the Houston Chronicle I made some statements that were insensitive and inexcusable,” State Rep. Rick Miller said in a statement Tuesday to the Texas Tribune. “In trying to make a point about the campaign I used a poor choice of words that are not indicative of my character or heart.”
“I do not want to be a distraction for my party or my constituents, and therefore I have decided not to seek re-election,” he continued.
Miller, who represents District 26, was facing challenges for the 2020 Republican nomination from Leonard Chan, a 35-year-old public-sector policy researcher, and Jacey Jetton, a 36-year-old businessman and former chair of the Fort Bend GOP.
During the interview with the Chronicle, Miller, 74, had focused on his challengers’ ethnicity.
“He’s a Korean,” Miller said in reference to Jetton, who is a seventh-generation Texan, according to a campaign video. “He has decided because, because he is an Asian that my district might need an Asian to win. And that’s kind of racist in my mind, but anyway, that’s not necessary, at least not yet.”
Miller went on to say that Chan probably joined the race “for the same reason.”
“I don’t know, I never met the guy. I have no idea who he is. He has not been around Republican channels at all, but he’s an Asian,” Miller told the paper.
Several days later, Miller backed away from his remarks and offered that “people should be voting for the right candidate or the candidate most qualified to win the election, and that’s my key point. I don’t know why they’re running. If that’s why they’re running, then good.”
Requests for comment were referred to Miller’s chief of staff, who did not immediately respond with clarifications on his comments or the reactions it drew – particularly from Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican.
Abbott endorsed Miller in October, but by Tuesday, a link to the endorsement announcement on Abbott’s personal website was removed. Abbott spokesman John Wittman confirmed to The Washington Post via email that the governor was no longer endorsing Miller.
“Representative Miller’s comments are inappropriate and out of touch with the values of the Republican Party. In light of Rep. Miller’s comments, the governor is withdrawing his endorsement,” Wittman said.
Jetton did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Chan, however, said he was surprised by Miller’s comments. He said he was eating lunch last week when a reporter for the Chronicle contacted him for a response – which was the first time he had heard the remarks, Chan told The Washington Post.
“I hope it’s not a reflection of his character because I hope no one has that kind of mentality: assuming that race is the determining factor,” Chan said of how voters choose their candidates.
Before Miller’s remarks, Chan said, the two had never spoken directly despite attending the same county GOP general meeting two weeks ago. He disputed Miller’s characterization of him as not being active in GOP channels in the community.
“I’ve been building that long-term rapport” with the community, Chan said, noting that he has been involved in church groups, Habitat for Humanity and other outreach over the years. “It’s not just going to people with your same political stances.”
District 26 includes the suburbs of Houston and the city of Sugar Land and is like many parts of Texas that are growing more diverse as their population increases. Asians make up more than 20 percent of Benton County’s population, according to census data, only slightly less than blacks and Latinos. Whites make up roughly 32 percent of the county.
“That’s been an important area for Asian immigrant settlement for a few decades now; Sugar Land has had a significant Asian American population growth,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, who directs the Asian American and Pacific Island demographic data and policy research nonprofit AAPI Data.
Ramakrishnan told The Post that though the AAPI population leans Democratic “by a 2-to-1 ratio” nationally, it’s more evenly split in the South. He notes that AAPI voters are a vast bloc but hardly monolithic.
“If you look at the diversity of the Asian American community, Indians tend to be the most Democratic-leaning, while Vietnamese are the most Republican-leaning,” he said. “You have the second generation born in the U.S. who tend to be more progressive. But the bottom line is, this is a community that’s still very much in play politically.”
Chan said that in the district he’s vying for, voters have shifted to purple from reliably red over the years.
“This used to be Tom DeLay’s home turf,” he said, referring to the former House majority leader. “But in 2016, the county went for Hillary [Clinton]. And in 2018, most of the offices flipped to Democratic on the city level.”
He attributed the district’s shift to highly visible parts of the GOP platform that are “problematic for a lot of voters who are first- and second-generation immigrants,” such as immigration, trade and health care.
Notwithstanding Miller’s comments, Chan thinks voters will be paying attention to issues such as flood control, emergency management, public schools and highway congestion – not race.
“I don’t see it being an issue – unless you’re intentionally trying to alienate that population,” he said. “If you connect with people, race doesn’t matter.”