Confessions of a loyal Asian Republican who converted to the ‘party of change’

leaving gopBy Bella Santos Owens

On March 13, 2013, as white smoke arose from the Vatican chimney — a sign that a new Pope has been chosen — I was literally opening the envelope with my new voting card and new party affiliation as a Democrat. I told my husband that this may be a good sign: a new Pope and a new party affiliation both at the same time.

Originally, I registered as a Republican because as a Filipina I thought my conservative values were consistent with those of the Republican party. I never thought much in what those values were, and aside from being Catholic and coming from the Philippines, it seemed natural to be a Republican.

When I entered the American workforce, as a salaried employee in advertising, I found out that in order to advance into higher positions I needed to verbalize what I wanted. I quickly learned to negotiate for raises and bonuses, to ask for regular personal and sick days and decent working hours. I realized my own capabilities and self-worth and became proactive with what was due me.

Despite my employers allowing me most of my requests, I quickly realized that I was being treated differently as a woman and as an immigrant from the Philippines. While my employers loved my brains, talent and energy; I got away with more perks because of their perception that I was a naive Filipina and treated as a novelty. I was known as the Filipina who talks with a heavy accent when upset. I was supposed to be the loyal Asian who will be indebted for life to whomever gave me a chance and would never leave. I was insulted.

I did not realize then that I was being thought of as a Democrat. I did not know that when you are vocal with your thoughts that in itself makes others assume you are a Democrat. More so when you start speaking out for others who are not treated equally.

I never thought of myself as being politically-driven, but as I got more involved and took leadership roles I learned how politics can drive issues and make a difference in someone’s life. I also realized that being at the forefront of the issues makes you a prime target for political wooing. For example, during the campaign period I was bombarded with requests and invitations to support most Democratic candidates. I was invited to almost every political function but could not attend many of them because I felt so strongly against a particular candidate who was a major front-runner in Maryland. Although I believe that the majority of other candidates would do good in their respective offices. I felt at odds with myself — am I a true Democrat?

My husband and I did “early voting,” and at the voting booth, my conscience would not allow me to vote for a particular candidate on the Democratic ticket. I felt guilty, like I betrayed the party. Did I make the wrong decision? Did I do wrong by switching political affiliations?

One evening, shortly after voting, while I was browsing Facebook, I saw my stepson had posted that he is not voting as what is expected of him due to his race and party affiliation — partly I felt relieved. After the election, I had conversations with colleagues and found that we mostly voted alike and had the same thoughts. It’s the issues that drove the results of the recent election and not party loyalty — I felt even more relieved.

Three days after the election, I attended a women’s forum at the Senate House in Annapolis. At that time, hearing again the issues such as paid sick leave, pay equity and other working family issues — I realized that my beliefs still align with my chosen party. I suddenly remembered the reason why I left corporate America over 10 years ago. There were no laws protecting a working mother like me. When the 9/11 attacks happened I was the only one in our company who left the office to be with my children who were 11 and 9 at the time. I did not go back to work for almost a week because of so much uncertainty and fear. I discovered when I returned to work that everybody stayed at work that day. They were all worried about what was happening but they would not leave because they were afraid of losing their jobs. I gave myself a year and I resigned; I never looked back again.

Now I feel vindicated. I voted based on the present issues. I did not betray the party. I am still a Democrat. Change is coming and we desperately need it. We all need to focus on what is right and work at it. I still believe that the white smoke on March 13, 2013, is that good sign of what is to come: CHANGE.

Bella Santos Owens is the current President of the Baltimore County Commission for Women. An outspoken advocate for women’s issues, she has played leadership roles in the Filipino-American community in Maryland.

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