Rising Asian-American Political Star From Calif. is Romney’s Chief Policy Director

By Frank Stoltze

One of Mitt Romney’s top advisors is a rising Asian-American political star from Southern California. As Romney’s chief policy director, 34-year-old Lanhee Chen plays a key role in advising the Republican presidential nominee on foreign and domestic issues.

Lanhee Chen in 2007. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

At the GOP Convention in Tampa in August, Asian-American journalists from around the country couldn’t wait to talk to Lanhee Chen. They peppered him with questions about Mitt Romney’s immigration policy and views on Asia.

Chen responded to one of the reporters, “Well, I mean obviously there are some challenges in the region. China is becoming increasingly aggressive in the South China Sea.”

Chen, dressed in a sport coat and open collar, answered questions easily, until a reporter asked a more personal question, about his role as one of the few prominent Asian Americans inside a Republican campaign for president.

“I’m not really ever sure what to say about that, but it is interesting to look around and realize that most people don’t look quite like you do,” said Chen.

Lanhee Chen was born in Rowland Heights, just east of downtown Los Angeles, to parents who immigrated to the United States from Taiwan. He is something of the classic second-generation success story — he holds four degrees from Harvard, including a law degree and Ph.D. Chen is a policy wonk, but also a skilled Romney spokesman who has appeared on Fox News to represent the campaign.

On a recent Fox News broadcast, he said, “This is a race about two dramatically different philosophies. The president is out there saying he is going to raise taxes.”

Poll: 1 -in 3 Asian American voters undecided
Fox anchor Gregg Jarrett had asked about Romney’s tax breaks. “Mr. Chen, forgive me, you’re just not answering my question. So let me put it again…,” Jarrett said.

But Chen is cool under fire, according to Ed Chen — no relation. Ed Chen met Lanhee Chen when they worked on Steve Poizner’s campaign for governor three years ago. His first impression?

“Very clean cut, very thoughtful, very genuine,” Ed Chen said. And a tireless worker. Chen said what stood out was Lanhee’s ability to grasp and convey ideas on everything from health care to the economy.

“He really took the state by storm by his policy acumen and his ability to communicate really complex messages,” said Chen.

He said he heard the influence of Lanhee Chen in Romney’s clarity and punctuation during the first presidential debate. He may have heard Chen’s sharp tongue too — he once ridiculed Obama’s “pretty-please foreign policy” in a tweet.

Chen worked for Romney in his 2008 run for president, before landing the chief policy director job this time around. Elaine Chao, who served as labor secretary under President George W. Bush, called Chen a superstar.

“It is interesting to look around and realize that most people don’t look quite like you do.”

“He’s making history, because I don’t think any other Asian-Pacific American has ever been as close to the candidate so early and in such a pivotal position. So we are very, very proud of him,” Chao said.

Even Democrats like Sacramento-based consultant Bill Wong acknowledged Chen’s accomplishment, and said he could play a key role in helping Romney with Asian Americans.

“Absolutely. Asian-American communities who are not familiar with candidates are going to look to people that look like them to be validators,” Wong said. Wong notes the number of Asian American voters in key swing states like Nevada and Virginia has exploded over the past decade.

Chen is acutely aware of this, of course, because he is a man who practices politics as well policy.

“We believe the Asian-American community is going to be very important in this election, and in some states they may make the difference. And so we are going to be aggressively reaching out to the Asian-American community,” Chen said.

Chen said he doesn’t feel any special responsibility to represent Asian Americans to Romney — only to represent himself and the campaign “with integrity.” He said he’s a Republican in part because he believes it’s a party committed to equality of opportunity, regardless of background. Chen also followed in the footsteps of his Taiwanese parents.

“My parents, they were Republican, they were conservative. But as with many Asian-American parents, they were much more interested in home-country politics than U.S. politics. Although that’s probably changed since I’ve gotten more involved in politics here in America,” Chen said.

Their interest in American politics may grow after November’s election, when their son would likely play a prominent role in a Romney White House.