Another Perspective: Passionate campaign director uncovers hidden figures in the census

“I didn’t think I could change the federal government, but I thought I could make a difference locally,” said Sarah Durant Smith, a campaign field director.|

When Sarah Durant Smith dives into U.S. Census data, they sometimes emerge with a new insight.

“I like to crunch the numbers and see if there's another angle that reveals something different,” said 34-year-old Smith, the Field Campaign Director for Blake Hooper, who is running for county supervisor in 2022, seeking to unseat Supervisor David Rabbitt. Smith’s job is to analyze the demographics, learn what voters care about, and organize volunteers to build a campaign that serves their community.

Late last month, on a hazy summer afternoon, the campaign team huddled at the edge of Petaluma City Hall Lawn. Hooper, his spouse Iliana Madrigal-Hooper, the campaign’s language access director; Josh Simmons, the campaign manager; and Christopher Neugebauer, the research director listened as Smith laid out the plan for the day. Wildfire smoke from numerous Northern California wildfires, including the massive Dixie fire in Plumas National Forest and the Caldor fire near Lake Tahoe, hung thick in the air, but people were out enjoying the daylight that lingered past dinnertime. Children were playing soccer, parents were socializing, and people were walking their dogs.

It was the team’s first day of canvassing door-to-door.

“I’m excited,” said Smith enthusiastically.

To kick off this phase of the campaign, Smith, who uses they/them pronouns, chose one of the more diverse neighborhoods on the west side of Petaluma.

“There are many renters near here,” they explained. “We’re doing what’s called ‘deep canvassing.’ It means we knock on every door to listen to what people care about so that we can better serve them.”

After the briefing, Blake and Iliana walked up to the first house and chatted with the woman who answered the door.

“Usually, the first task for a campaign field director like me is to write off entire populations or precincts,” Smith said, noting that most big-ticket candidates don’t want to invest in students or areas with lower-income households or fewer registered voters.

“I know what it’s like to be written-off,” they said, sounding exasperated. “Republicans and Democrats write off Asian Americans. Even Asians themselves do it!”

Yet, the political price of excluding Asians, or any other group, could be steep, especially in close elections. For example, reports that Asian people turned out in record numbers and played a pivotal role in the 2020 Presidential election.

“I grew up in the South Bay. My immigrant family crisscrossed the Pacific a few times in the past two generations,” said Smith, who identifies as brown and Asian, describing their pan-Asian, trans-Pacific roots. “My mother was born in Malaysia, and my Chinese father was born in Thailand. My last name is Smith because my grandfather was an American who worked in Taiwan. He met my grandmother, who fled to Taiwan after the communists took over China.”

Smith argues that the U.S. Census does not capture the complexity of Asian American demographics. As a result, Asian Americans, as a group, are perceived as wealthy and healthy, but Smith thinks that assumption is misleading and even dangerous. Indeed, Pew Research Center reported Asian Americans to have the greatest income inequalities compared to other racial groups. Nationally, they occupy the top 10% as well as the bottom 10% in terms of income level.

“And although Asian Americans make up a small portion of the population in places like Healdsburg, the number of excess deaths quadrupled among them, indicating that the COVID death rate among Asian people may have been higher than we understood,” Smith observed.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that only 55% of Asian Americans said they were likely to fill out the census form, compared to 69% of white people, 65% of Latinos, and 64% of African Americans.

“This massive undercount could impact negatively for Asian Americans because they may not be served adequately by the government, non-profits, or other services that use the census to allocate resources,” said Smith.

While living with their father’s family in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Smith became politically active. In 2016, they got involved in city activism, which led to volunteering for a Santa Cruz city council candidate.

“I didn’t think I could change the federal government, but I thought I could make a difference locally,” they said. Smith thinks that the unconventional campaign that engaged the typically “written-off” populations paid off, paving the way for the candidate to win the next election.

In 2019, Smith moved to Santa Rosa to be with their former partner and worked on a tenants rights campaign.

"Then COVID happened,“ Smith said. ”People lost their jobs and couldn’t pay rent. We immediately shifted our focus to push for a county eviction moratorium.”

County supervisors have an influential role in shaping city and county-level services, housing, public transit, food security, health care, and emergency services during wildfires, flooding, and the pandemic.

“County supervisors can be incredible problem-solvers,” says Hooper in his campaign video.

Smith emphasizes that the Hooper campaign is not just about getting more votes. It’s about transforming how people engage politically and helping to build a more resilient community to face future challenges.

“During the wildfires last year,” said Smith, “I followed the stories of people in rural communities self-organizing to defend not just their own homes, but as many houses as they could in the community. I want to know how to cultivate that culture.”

Debuting today, Lina Hoshino’s “Another Perspective” will appear on the third Thursday of the month in the Argus-Courier.

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