158: Evan Low on Being an Uber #YangGang, Identity Politics, and Bridging Tech and Policy

February 16, 2020

Evan Low (@evan_low) California Assemblymember and national co-chair of Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign talks with Kevin Xu (@kevinsxu) about what it means to be a national co-chair, why he entered electoral politics at a young age, how to navigate identity politics and intersectionality, and the importance of bridging the divide between technology innovators and policymakers.

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Transcript (note: this is machine generated and lightly edited. Please check with audio to confirm accuracy.)

Kevin: Evan, welcome to the Model Majority Podcast today. 

Evan: Great to chat with you, Kevin. 

Kevin: All right, so to get things started, I want to begin our conversation with your involvement with Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign. Even though he has already dropped out, I think the experience is very much worth talking about.

Could you just share with our audience what was the backstory? How did you get involved in his campaign and eventually becoming its national co-chair? 

Evan: Well, as you can imagine. This is quite the excitement with respect to history being made with Andrew’s candidacy and what he has built for not only the present, but for the future.

And so by way of background,  I was, I’m fourth generation Chinese American, born and raised in Silicon Valley.  but I always had a commitment to our community. And in fact, I was in a master’s program in Asian American studies, hoping to teach Asian American studies. So this sense of  engagement for the community is of course, very important to me.

And so I had served on a city council in the city of Campbell and as mayor for eight years, and then now currently serving in the state legislature,  in the state assembly representing Silicon Valley. So, when we talk about the notion of Asian Pacific Islanders contributing to the fabric of American society.

Certainly you can see the excitement and energy in which you see someone like Andrew on the national stage,  representing our community well and transcending, so many different communities, which brings us great excitement. And so I too was energized by that opportunity to which, you know, growing up, Kevin, I remember many a times in which I would watch TV.

And if even if I saw an Asian face on TV , it’s that one commercial, I would sort of pause or say like, Oh, is that an Asian face? Who is that? Someone that looks like me! And so has seen someone that has laid the foundation and said, well, they too can run for president and become president of these United States.

That’s inspiring to me. And so,  how could I not be part of this movement, continuously to make sure that we also are part of the conversation at the national stage.  

Kevin: What was your first contact or first exposure to his campaign? Was it on a podcast or did you happen to meet him at an event? What was that first contact point? 

Evan: Well, I had been involved in a number of Asian Pacific Islanders, Asian Pacific Islander organizations nationwide, as well as currently now. And so, through some of our circles, I recall hearing that there was a gentleman by the name of Andrew Yang who is interested in running for president of the United States, and he was hosting various meet and greets throughout the country.

So I recall seeing that and that’s where I first became aware of Andrew’s candidacy. And of course as time went on, there was greater momentum and greater support for not only him as a candidate, but specifically the issues that he would champion,  where a breath of fresh air and very much resonated with the everyday American experience.

So that’s where I think it really excited people again, now just for me in terms of identity politics of who he is as an individual, but what he also stood for and what issues he would promote. 

Kevin: One more point about your involvement with the campaign, and this is very much like an educational kind of informative type question.

And we spent a lot of time on this podcast trying to demystify how a campaign works with the goal of getting more people involved, whether it’s Asian Americans or other marginalized communities in some sense. We’ve worked on multiple campaigns, my cohost and I on various functions, but we never had the privilege to be a co-chair of a presidential campaign. It was way above our pay grade. So for my own curiosity, what is a national co-chair of a presidential campaign? Like what do you do? 

Evan: Well, let me just add, before I get into that, let me just make mention of it, to demystify this notion of politics, and I hope Andrew candidacy helps show that . You do not need to be independently wealthy.

You do not need to have a famous last name. You do not have to have years of experience in the political world. And in fact, Andrew has shown that he got involved and ran for office. And with no previous experience and not really part of any political apparatus in the traditional sense, he saw the election of Donald Trump and said, what is my moral obligation as an active citizen to participate in this country and to continue to give back?

And that’s why he did it. And look how far  he took the candidacy and his campaign. That is where it goes. Again, reaffirm that. Anyone can do this. We are in our DNA. Of course, it’s well known that Asian Pacific Islanders tend to be more focused,  in terms of the cultural and traditions of focused on being a doctor, lawyer, engineer, accountant.

Those types of things, whereas politics is seen as dirty, dirty word. And yet you, you see today on a wide variety of issues that government and politics affects us on any aspect of our lives. It is a daily part of our everyday being. And so anyone can do this. So the title of national campaign co-chair is just that, frankly.

I mean, first of all  I’m extraordinary honored to be in that position, but it is one that requires you to just do what you can. And I, I felt that I answered that call to participate.  so that role specifically entails helping to be on a number of conference calls with donors to help give updates, to help assist in getting more active on the campaign finance front, it would be to act as a surrogate , to talk to various media outlets or to other constituency groups.  I walked in, marched in the lunar new year parade in Las Vegas, along with the wonderful yang gang team. I met with local veterans groups and represented the campaign and Andrew’s platform.

I also met with a number of elected officials to encourage their support for Andrew,  and all of the, basically duties as assigned as what it was introducing him at other campaign events, helping with some policy advocacy.  but it was a real pleasure and a great opportunity to do that. But again, one does not need a title to do any of these things.

One could simply do what they can to participate. And again, once you demystify the notion of what it might be or the optics or the belief in what this is really is, you’ll find that we are just everyday people just like everyone else.  

Kevin: So a national co-chair, and not to undersell this title, which I think is still very important, but you’re like an uber, uber, uber volunteer, who’s a lot of stuff.

Evan: You know, I think, I like that Kevin. Yes. I am an uber volunteer, absolutely.  I am part of the Yang Gang. 

Kevin: There you go. ‘Cause you know, I started out my career as a field organizer and we always call our best volunteers who go above and beyond the call of duty our super volunteer.

And I feel like you are the uber volunteer. So feel free to use that phrase however you like. So I want to turn the conversation to you specifically. So you mentioned how you just now were thinking even early in your life to teach Asian Americans studies, teach the Asian American  experience. but you ran for office at a pretty young age. You were the youngest open gay mayor and the youngest Asian American mayor in our country at the age of 26, as the mayor of the city of Campbell here in Northern California. What got you started in politics, like what got you bitten by the political bug?

Evan: Well,  I tell this story frequently.  it was a class that I took in Asian American studies that had got me on this path. The instructor also happened to be the first Asian American mayor for the city of Cupertino at the time. His name was Michael Chang. And that instilled in me the notion that  I also had an obligation to contribute and then Asian Pacific Islanders were underrepresented and that we had an obligation to also participate in our democracy.

And so by default,  the mayor at the time, Michael Chang of Cupertino, would take me to various functions, to which that’s how I met then a gentleman, by the name of Paul Fong, who is also an assembly member from this region in Silicon Valley. And then of course, through then meeting Mike Honda and Norm Mineta.

So I’m a direct product of the work of and the commitment of the Norman Mineta’s of the world, the Mike Honda’s of the world and the Paul Fong’s and Michael Chang’s.  that’s why I feel so strongly about this, that it’s also incumbent upon myself to help lay the foundation for those coming behind me.

Because again, I’m a beneficiary and product of the blood, sweat, and tears of so many before us that we must continue to advance the interests of the community. And we must not be complacent and we must participate in our democratic process.  so that’s sort of the fire in the belly, if you will.

The fire in the belly was such that I came from the social justice movement within the Asian Pacific Islander community.  and then of course you mentioned that my identity also as a member of the LGBTQ community , and there was an issue in California called Proposition 8. It was a statewide measure that would eliminate the rights of same sex couples to marry.

Verbatim that was the ballot title on the proposition and it passed. And I felt devastated that why, why would my fellow Californians vote to eliminate my rights? What, what did I do wrong? Why, why am I a second class citizen? And of course, understanding my identity and the challenges of  racism towards the Asian Pacific Islander community. I can also make some significant parallels that of the LGBTQ community. So there in lies, uh, again, the key foundation for me, which is that of social justice , and how we apply that then not just to my own communities that I identify with, but to all communities.

And that’s what I think we must continue to do. 

Kevin: So turning to community and also the subject of identity politics, which you alluded to a little bit before, and this is something I have struggled with quite a bit personally,  from time to time and somewhat even magnified by Andrew’s candidacy for president on the national stage sometimes I think is a perfectly legit way to choose to vote for someone just because you have a shared identity. Whether that’s race, sexual orientation, gender, or however you want to define your identity. And then sometimes I feel like, Hm, maybe that’s not really the right way to go about choosing this. You’ve got to look at policy and all those sort of stuff. And I think a lot of yang gang members have a struggle with that a little bit too.

Particularly Asian American supporters. And you’ve had your name on a ballot box many times. I’m sure you’ll be many more times in the future. How do you see the proper role or the proper mix of identity politics in our personal choice-making when it comes to deciding who to vote for who to support?

Evan: Well, I think, I mean, everyone has their own decision making process as to why they would draw a conclusion to support a candidate. And it could be as simplistic as their gender. It could be specific as their sexual orientation, or it could be geography. It could be how they dress, a wide variety of factors.

But what I oftentimes talk about is the intersectionality that exists while also looking at the policies of the individual that might be up for office. And so for me, the identity is just one of the factors of consideration for determining whether or not to support candidate or not.

And that’s just for me personally, but do they share the same type of values? The values are very important. the values, I think, speak to what policies are in place and what that individual can do to help understand the importance by the way of all of us so that we are not siloed and that we see the importance of collaboration and helping those of similar backgrounds in similar issues. Again, when you think about then the issues of social justice that comes to mind.  how do we apply the issue of social justice with respect to institutions of corrections within prisons?

How do we apply justice in criminal justice reform, in education, in housing, and in healthcare. That’s what I think is important to think about. and I think the recognition of maturity for community is to see that, uh, how do we, yes, of course , recognize the importance of representation, but not get to the focused point of empty tokenism. We don’t want to have our people just there just because of the check off the box but we want real meaningful value. And that’s what I think we should aspire to.  

Kevin: That’s something that I’m in a sense afraid of when I do question myself, when I do want to support someone just because he looks like me, or has some similar life experiences. And I’m like, am I supporting tokenism subconsciously just because I wanted to see that representation so bad? Or is this just part of the journey of building that foundation of power within certain communities?

And you kind of have to start with that to get there. Do you have any thoughts on that? Because you’re very much in a way, a part of that force as well for our community. 

Evan: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think it’s binary and I don’t think it’s black and white. you know, for our community , there’s so much excitement you can clearly understand.

Because Andrew Yang was the first really of our modern times  to make it this far for president. So certainly I can see a number of  members of our community wanting to support him solely because he comes from the community. I understand that. but I think should our community mature, then that will just be an additional contributing factor. So that’s actually a good point, which is to say that I do hope that, we will get to be on the point to which we can say, Oh, it’s wonderful that they’re Asian Pacific Islander. That’s great, but what also do they stand for? And again, I think that’s level of maturity. But, but let’s also just recognize why it’s important for us to break ground. And we see the first and after the first, it will then allow for the future and the pathway for those to follow in the footsteps. But again, we stand on the shoulders of individuals of different experiences.

And when I see living civil rights icons from our community, like Norman Mineta and Mike Honda, individuals who were the first and who were in the internment camps to which I think younger generations tend to forget and get complacent as to, well, what does that mean? Why is it important that we have representation?

Well what does it mean? What do they deliver for us and what is our community lacking? I think these are difficult conversations to have, certainly it’s nuanced. So I don’t think there’s a clear answer one way or another, but which is to say that though, what is our role and how do we contribute to a community. And how do we make sure that, that Andrew might be the first, but he won’t be the last. 

Kevin: I want to chat with you about some policy stuff as well. one in particular is this intersection of technology and politics, which is obviously a very big topic in our national discussion now, even globally, if you will.

And you’ve had a unique vantage point of being an elected official in a region that is heavy, heavy with tech companies, and you’re also the co-chair of the  California Legislative Tech Caucus. What do you think is the one or two things that’s missing between technology people and political people that needs to be bridged for these two sectors or industries to really work better together.

Evan: I think you hit it right on the head, Kevin. they’re not talking enough. And the fundamental nature of tech and innovation, specifically in Silicon Valley too, is that of more: let us innovate and be disruptive, that might not fit within the parameters of the regulatory framework that currently exist.

So by default, when you come up with new technologies,  the laws and regulations don’t necessarily keep up. So how does government, how does those that are in the space of innovation  attempts to anticipate some of the regulatory challenges and have conversations much earlier with a regulatory and the legislative branch to best understand what’s going on.

So that if you are the Uber’s and the Lyft’s of the world that, okay, maybe, maybe the regulatory framework of transportation doesn’t necessarily make sense. Or when you talk about autonomous vehicles,  how do we make sure that the department of motor vehicles is also in conversation to see what we might need to do to help provide the framework so that the technology is implemented successfully, while also making sure that we can effectuate the lives in a positive way while also minimizing the negative impacts accordingly. And, and frankly, those conversations  aren’t happening. And you can then see, if you talk about the displacement of workers, our friends and leaders in tech do not necessarily have a good response to that of the displacement of workers, but rather the notion is just simply, let’s just focus and keep our heads down and focus on the R&D and the marketing of it, and then we can worry about these other associated issues later. In other words,  let’s ask for forgiveness then for permission.

And that has been the notion of the tech community,  but I’m hopeful that there they are learning. But we need to make sure that we hold them to account for the best consumer protection that we expect.  

Kevin: ‘Cause the conventional wisdom is that the law and the regulators respond 10, 15 years later to something that’s been in the market or being invented for quite some time.

And there’s no kind of meeting in the middle between these two communities. At least based on what I’m seeing. Is that part of what the Tech Caucus that you’ve cofounded in the legislative body in California do? tell our users what is kind of the mandate of that caucus? 

Evan: Yeah. The caucus, the emphasis of it is to help educate, to help educate legislators in a fashion to which they are able to dive deeper into the policy discussions that they have access to those within,  the tech world, who are the engineers themselves, who are the features themselves to be able to have these conversations. The legislative process does not necessarily allow itself to having legislators best understand in a productive way, a back and forth way, but rather  the structures are such that we are time limited in a committee room.

It doesn’t allow for easy facilitation of the back and forth and to really have a deep dive on these issues and to see the technology. So time does not allow, the structure does not allow for that to happen. And therefore the Tech Caucus helps to allow for that facilitation and bringing legislators to the companies to see the technology themselves, to not talk to the lobbyists necessarily, or the legal counsel, but actually talk to the engineer themselves, talk to the person that is actually making the applications function. And that’s what I think is very helpful. But again you already hit the nail on the head, which is to say that if you think about Uber and Lyft or Airbnb, that technology in the platform was already unraveled. 

And the consumer has already chosen. But by the time the government tries to step in and the consumer’s already chosen and said, well we don’t want this technology to go away. The market has decided. And yet though, we’re saying, well, we need to make some necessary corrections. And therein lies the conflict.

Are Uber and Lyft paying the necessary fees similar to that of Airbnb for the hotel occupancy tax that the cities are losing. And so then the city thinks, well, we’re losing significant revenues and yet you’re still utilizing public resources. So how do we make sure we hold you to account? So these are those types of things that I genuinely believe can be ironed out prior to that of conflict.

But therein lies the intentionality of the  advanced dialogue and the continuous dialogue,  since inception of the technology. 

Kevin: So, Evan, you’re known for being a very prolific, productive legislator in the California Assembly, you’ve passed or sponsored or initiated, many, many laws or bills rather than now became law.

What is one piece of law that you helped pass or initiate that you’re most proud of at this very moment in time in the sense that when you go home and you hang out with your parents and your family and you just can’t wait to talk about it, and it kind of even a show off a little bit. 

Evan: Well, I think the notion of consumer protection is of utmost important to me. And, right now, again, this is a space that I’m trying to carve out. there are a number of technologies in the world of telehealth to which then, companies are figuring out ways to disrupt the normal modes of how we receive our healthcare.

So there are a number of companies looking to bypass doctors, whether it be optometrists or dentists or orthodontists, to either give you a screenings to which you can use an app and just get an expedited eye exam on the application, on your phone or getting  trace sent to you that will be mailed to you, that you could just, then mold your teeth and then they’ll send back a mold to you, and you can strain your teeth.

Part of the challenge that exists here is, yes, we need to support innovation.  but the app for example, the application for an eye exam is not a comprehensive eye exam. When you go to an optometrist and get an eye exam, they test for your eye health as well as other things that they can test for blood pressures and associated health issues.

So we want to make sure that we can support the efficiencies of the technologies that exist, but also make sure that there are protections in place. And so we’ve heard a number of complaints of individuals who have had their teeth move incorrectly or had some bad oral health that they felt was going to be addressed by going to these other so-called tele medicine applications.

So we want to make sure that we help identify,  to maintain the consumer protection while also utilizing the technology that exists. And that’s a very difficult needle to thread. But it is one that I think is of utmost importance, again, the marriage to our conversation, the marriage of technology, while also looking at the efficiency that exist.

Kevin: So I want to kind of step back a bit to a macro level. You’ve been in politics for quite some time now, even though you’re still very, very young. certainly in a political age, but you know, in general as well. And I’m sure the memories of your first or second run for office, it’s pretty fresh in your head.

What are some advice that you would like to give to Asian-Americans out there who want to participate in our civic life somehow, but don’t really know how to get started? 

Evan: Well, I say it’s not terribly daunting, but the question that they should ask is, what are you doing to advance the community that you are a part of, that we are interconnected as a fabric of society?

And how are we equally invested in each other’s shared success? that’s the key point. And so the notion of politics, you don’t need to all run for office, but you can also participate. Maybe you identify and follow who your mayor is, who your council member is. Maybe you can serve on a commission that focuses on transportation or in housing or in parks, or maybe you go even as simple as you see a table at a farmer’s market and you see the government official there. Go say hi to them and engage with them. Sign up for the mailing list. write to them, write letters to the editor, some issue that you care about. if you see the issue of homelessness, write to you state legislator and, or to the local paper and say, I saw this and what is our government doing about this,  be part of it and offer solutions rather than just simply complaints. It’s one thing to just offer a complaint but rather I think to be productive offering solutions. So again, to answer your question, not everyone needs to, I think it’s daunting because people say, well, I don’t know what to do and I don’t want to run for office.

Well, not everyone needs to do that. You can also volunteer or participate or go to, like the League of Women Voters and find out who your elected officials are. I guarantee you a vast majority of members of our community, do not know who their local city council member is or their supervisor or their Senator, or the distinction frankly between a state Senator and United States Senator.

So I think just the basic fundamentals of civics and education will go a long way. 

Kevin: That’s right. Guilty as charged. I am one of them and I even consider myself somewhat politically engaged yet I don’t really know who my city council members are. So I’m going to go home and research that after this conversation.

So, Evan, I want to wrap up with one fun, but perhaps not necessarily easy question. and it asks us to all of our guests who have run for office, who are currently serving in elected positions because part of getting to that point is you’ve got to hit the campaign trail. You gotta be campaigning for yourself.

You could run for something, and these are long, long days in your life, and when days are long, your healthy habit slips and you want to revert to that favorite junk food in your childhood or that comfort food that gets you through the day. What is your campaign trail comfort food? 

Evan: So funny. Um, you know, right now,  it’s Acai bowls.

So I’ll often times go on Yelp or Google and try to find the nearest nearest destination for that is, frankly, it’s a big sugar rush. I have a sweet tooth, so that’s my go to campaign trail delight. 

Kevin: Okay. Isn’t that supposed to be a really healthy or is marketed as such?

Evan: You know, it’s marketed as such, but I think there’s a ton of sugar in it. Of course, what’s really bad. Is if there’s a Boba shop and an Acai bowl place. Uh huh. Yeah, the same place at the same shopping center, because usually I’ll get both, get the Acai bowl and the Boba to go. so it can be dangerous.

Kevin: Yeah. Wow. Okay.  I asked the same question to Andrew Yang like almost two years ago when I interviewed him on this pod and he said kind bars. So you guys definitely share that healthy snack thing in common and  no Snickers or Skittles in the campaign trail operation. Evan, thank you so much again for joining me today.

Really appreciate a conversation and the inspiration. Where can people find you and follow what you are up to? Do you do social media, all those good stuff. 

Evan: Yes. Yes. So thanks so much, Kevin. they can find me on Instagram. It’s @aimhighgetlow on Instagram or on Twitter at @Evan_Low, uh, and then similarly on Facebook, Evan Low, but finally

Let me just say thanks. It’s a great opportunity, but I appreciate you also doing this too because we need to make sure that we help amplify the message and demystify those of us that are part of the community and doing the everyday work, but I appreciate it and hope that you now are demystified with this notion of what it means to be in government and hopefully maybe we’ll see you on the ballot someday.

Kevin: Absolutely. Thank you so much again for that. Everybody. Go check out Evan Low’s various social media handles to follow what he is going to do and is doing right now. Evan, thank you again for being a show. We look forward to having you back in the future.

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