SAN GABRIEL, Calif. (AP) — Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton Thursday courted Asian-American voters, telling members of the nation's fastest growing racial minority that she disagrees with the "hateful rhetoric" of her Republican challengers.
"They forget a fundamental lesson about our great country," she told several hundred people gathered in a hotel ballroom in suburban Los Angeles. "Being an open and tolerant society does not make us vulnerable. It's at the core of our strength."
Clinton's campaign stop in the San Gabriel Valley, an enclave home to more than a half million Asian-Americans, marked the launch of her grassroots outreach to the growing pool of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. Those voters have trended Democratic in recent presidential elections, though they are still considered up for political grabs. Their influence is considered critical in some swing states.
California is not one of those, having voted for a Democrat for president every election since 1992.
Republicans suggested Clinton's visit is more about raising campaign cash. "The reality is Democrats have long taken the AAPI community for granted, and Hillary Clinton will be no different," said Ninio Fetalvo, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
Clinton made her appeal to Asian-American and Pacific Islander voters in a Southern California region where a number of cities are now majority Asian-American and store signs in Mandarin and Cantonese line the streets.
"Their party identity is not cast in stone," said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy and political science at the University of California, Riverside. "There's still potential for persuasion there."
In a half-hour speech, Clinton told constituents she would be the one to fix the nation's broken immigration system, improve access to higher education, and increase wages — all issues considered top priorities for the Asian American electorate. She vowed to reduce the visa backlog and help unauthorized immigrants with deep community ties that "deserve the chance to stay."
"Ultimately this is more than an economic or political issue," she said. "It's a family issue."
Nearly 4 million Asians voted in the 2012 presidential election, a 547,000 increase over 2008. According to exit polls, nearly three-quarters of Asian-American voters favored President Barack Obama in the 2012 election. They comprised about 3 percent of the total electorate.
The Asian-American community has been the subject of relatively little discussion in the Democratic and Republican primaries.
Clinton's message on immigration resonated with Alma Harrison, a 52-year-old human resources director at the Hilton hotel where Clinton delivered her remarks — though she said she still hadn't decided who she would vote for.
"Right now I'm still listening to what everybody has to say," she said.
Several others at the rally said that while they planned to back Clinton, their communities were somewhat divided.
"Some of them are strong Republicans because of religious issues," said Suzette Lopez, 60, a financial planner born in the Philippines who now lives in the San Gabriel Valley. "They think Democrats are too liberal."
James Sobredo, 55, an ethnic studies professor at Sacramento State University, traveled to the San Gabriel Valley with a busload of Filipino voters from the San Francisco area, about six hours away. He said Asian-American voters have long been perceived as outsiders, but that he believes their political relevance and critical mass in elections is finally starting to take hold.
"We're not as powerful as the Latino vote," he said, "but we have resources."