Kal Penn Stumps for Obama, Supporters Look to Make Blue from Red

Fmr. senator's 'macaca' gaffe still lingers as rallying cry for Asian Americans.

Aug. 12, 2008 -- Two years to the day after a Democratic volunteer with a handheld camera captured the "macaca" on tape that rocked Virginia GOP Sen. George Allen's re-election campaign, Virginia's left-leaning Asian-Americans still hear its echo as a political rallying cry.

Allen, who once harbored dreams of a 2008 presidential campaign, would ultimately lose his re-election bid to Democrat Jim Webb, unable to recover, some say, from his caught-on-tape moment when he singled out S.R. Siddarth, a camera-toting aid to Webb at a campaign event, and said "This fellow here...macaca or whatever his name is...he's following us around everywhere."

Siddarth, then a college junior volunteering for the Webb campaign, saw his viral video harness the early power of YouTube. The slur in question was, of course, "macaca," a derogatory term meaning "monkey" and used by French colonialists to describe Africans. The online spread of the video provoked outrage.

Speaking Monday night at a South Asians for Obama house party in Northern Virginia, actor Kal Penn -- half of the pot-smoking duo from the "Harold and Kumar" movies -- looked back to the future by recognizing the anniversary of the political gaffe. "Happy Macaca Day," he called it.

The timing and location of Penn's political push was no accident. Though Virginia hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in the general election since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, the state has gained Democratic traction in recent years in its governors, senators and congressman.

Having established nearly thirty field offices in the Old Dominion State and floating the names of Virginia's Democratic political elite on his long and short vice presidential lists, Obama's campaign is determined to turn his 64 percent sweep during the state's open Democratic primary into November gold.

Penn, who endorsed Obama in December 2007, belongs to a group of celebrity surrogates for the the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee whose ranks include Oprah Winfrey, Scarlett Johannsson, Kate Walsh and Robert DeNiro.

Joe Montano, the northern Virginia Democratic political director who introduced Penn at this week's event, also referenced the macaca heard round the world, calling it an event that "roused Asian-Americans [to] help Jim Webb win the Senate."

Among Asian groups, Allen's gaffe was unquestionably roiling, but for political scientists the significance of the incident ranges from "isolated" to one whose domino effect helped change the makeup of the Senate.

"I tend to think that was an isolated incident and one that had great impact in 2006 but isn't thought of a great deal these days," says Bob Gibson of the Sorenson Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia.

Dr. Larry Sabato of UVA's Center for Politics disagrees, calling "macaca" a "political earthquake" that helped Virginia Democrats redefine themselves in the glow of the national spotlight.

More than just political parties were redefined in the aftermath, Sabato says. "Allen could have been the Republican nominee. We could have been sitting here talking Allen versus Obama had it not been for 'macaca.'"

Allen had already been battling image issues in the arena of diversity, Sabato argued, and after the "macaca" moment, "a lot of people just stood up and said enough."

But one viral video isn't enough to shift decades-old political precedent. Virginia's shifting demographics have inched it towards new political realities.

According to the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, until 1970, one in every 100 Virginians was born outside the United States. By 2006, one in every 10 was foreign-born.

For many, economic opportunity also glitters in Northern Virginia, where a third of the state's population resides.

"That economic magnet has attracted people from all over the country and world," Sabato says, "They don't share the same values that the old Virginia had. And the old Virginia would be the southern part of the state."

Gibson adds that "the new people moving in are bringing their partisan predispositions with them...many of those seem to be leaning on the blue side of the aisle."

And racial attitudes among younger generations in the new south are challenging the mindset of the generations before them observers say. After all, Virginians in their mid-thirties in this election cycle were high school students when their state elected the nation's first black governor, L. Douglas Wilder, in 1990.

"Young people believe deeply in the idea of diversity and racial tolerance," says Sabato, and though he notes that tolerance is not a given among younger generations, "it is a value system that they embrace and the Republican party missed it entirely. And if they're ever going to resurge they're going to have to get it."

Virginia leans right, he says, but cautions: "If McCain and the Republicans take Virginia for granted, they will lose it."