Yale Daily News

Gary Locke ’72 — the 21st governor of Washington state and the former U.S. Secretary of Commerce — spoke at Yale on Asian representation in politics and embracing his heritage on March 31. 

The event, called “Raising the Glass Ceiling,” was hosted in collaboration with the Yale College Democrats and the Asian American Cultural Center. Locke appeared via Zoom, and students could ask the governor questions at the conclusion of his introduction and discussion with the moderator. 

Governor Locke is such a positive example of Asian- and Chinese-American representation in politics, and it was inspiring to hear him speak about how his identity and familial background had affected his experiences in politics,” Yale College Democrats wrote in a statement to the News. “We were especially touched to hear him reflect on how he hoped his public service had made it easier for people of color to run and win in elections in the future — and, more broadly, the encouragement he gave to Yale students to become involved in politics in whatever ways possible.”

Locke served as a governor in the state where his grandfather first arrived in as an immigrant — Washington. In exchange for English lessons, his grandfather cooked and cleaned, ultimately traveling back to China and then bringing the rest of his family to the United States, he told the crowd. Oftentimes, the older generations of his family scraped by while working at local hospitals and taking the leftovers home to eat.

Locke touched upon both the perils and honors of being a politician of color. He said he was the subject of an assassination plot by far right-wing groups who allegedly could not believe that a non-white individual had been elected fairly. He was well aware of the forthcoming pressure leading up to and after elections — that as one of the first and only Asian-American politicians at the time, he was not only setting an example for future individuals of color, but also repainting the social landscape and perception of Asians. 

In the 1996 primary election, Locke received 21 percent of total votes out of 15 candidates for governor: eight Republicans, six Democrats and one from the Socialist Workers Party. Together, two non-white candidates — Locke and then-mayor of Seattle Norm Rice, who is Black — secured 41 percent of the votes.

“[It] was quite remarkable when you think about it. That in 1996 two candidates of color received that level of popular support,” Locke said in his keynote address at the Oct. 18, 2021 Eradicate Hate Conference. “I felt very proud of our state.”

During his governorship, efficiency took center stage. He explained that his team was able to cut down the grant distribution process for businesses, from 20 months to 18 days. For Locke, a strong government is one that is responsive, “surgical,” creative and catered to its people. He then provided another example of his work with important documentation, stating that he was able to shorten the time to get a visa and speed up the driver’s license process for citizens. 

Some of Locke’s fondest and most emotional memories as governor were trips back to China, his ancestral motherland. During a 1997 trade mission, he visited the villages that some of his family members had grown up in, feeling overwhelmed by the simplicity of the way that the villagers lived. He and his family were overrun with support by the Chinese people, who expressed immense pride for their new representative in the American political scene. Nevertheless, he mentioned that his inability to speak Mandarin Chinese — only Cantonese — was a subtle reminder to both himself and others that while he would always hold close his roots, he was an American citizen. 

Still, he called on the audience to avoid underestimating the benefits that come with U.S.-China collaboration, explaining that world powers have the ability to come together to tackle various existential threats including climate change, cancer research and nuclear weapon dismantling. 

The first step is changing the way America perceives foreigners, he said, in response to a question from Howard Shi ’25 on the common misunderstandings that Americans can have about China. The history of the “Asian American” label in America is often associated with political tension, economic competition and scapegoating, Locke continued, explaining that distrust and stigmatization against companies in America founded by Asian people damages all communities of color and rips apart the social fabric of American opportunity. 

A big issue with minority representation is the glass ceiling, according to Locke, who emphasized that the solution lies in not only increased recruitment from communities of color, but also the engineering of new job-training and state-endorsed education platforms that enable employees to develop the technical skills needed to advance to higher positions. 

He noted that in the current higher education landscape, courses are not addressing the specific needs of employees and companies. By seeing states as “laboratories of democracy” and asking state governments to revamp existing unemployment insurance laws, however, Locke believes that certain unemployment funds can be issued toward training people in upskilling. 

The evening ended with Locke addressing young people’s interest in politics, and the barriers that continue to confront civic engagement. 

We’ve gotten better but we still do not see that representation; navigating white-dominated environments?” Andy Zhao ’23, who is interested in pursuing a career in politics, asked. “How do we get around the stereotypes that Asian Americans are less patriotic?”

In response, Locke said that he remembered that as a Yale student, he had not always been interested in going into politics, until experience and exposure changed his mind. He urged Zhao, and the other attendees in the audience, to be proactive in their communities, to volunteer with political campaigns or even to just start with the baby steps, such as attending school board members. 

More importantly, however, Locke looks forward to seeing how the youth will continue to be open about differences and take advantage of their own life experiences to shape policy, to truly embrace that America — at its heart — is a land of foreigners. Without that mindset, democracy and diversity cannot go hand in hand, he concluded. 

Locke obtained a bachelor’s of political science from Yale University. 

Brian Zhang is Arts editor of the Yale Daily News and the third-year class president at Yale. Previously, he covered student life for the University desk. His writing can also be found in Insider Magazine, The Sacramento Bee, BrainPOP, New York Family and uInterview. Follow @briansnotebook on Instagram for more!