At White House, Asian American Liaison Juggles Celebrations and Crises

WASHINGTON — Erika Moritsugu was two days in to a visit to Park City, Utah, to celebrate the first community space for Asian Americans at the Sundance Film Festival when she was called away to Monterey Park, Calif., where a mass shooting on the eve of Lunar New Year ultimately left 11 people dead.

Overdressed in the wool layers and puffer coat she had packed for her original trip, Ms. Moritsugu, 51, the first White House senior liaison to Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities, was forced to switch gears quickly: from cheerleading mode in ski country to caretaker in the suburbs of Los Angeles.

“I can’t imagine how excruciating it must be, how painful and how hurtful this must be for those of you who have lost friends and neighbors and aunties and uncles and grandmas,” she said at a Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting two days after the shooting in January, pausing to regain her composure. “I share my grief with you as we mourn the tragic death of our brothers and sisters.”

Ms. Moritsugu will return to Monterey Park with President Biden on Tuesday when he makes his first visit there since the shooting. It is the kind of assignment that comes with the territory of representing the Asian American community at the White House at a time when concerns are rising about racism and hate crimes as tensions with China escalate and the coronavirus pandemic grinds on.

At the height of the pandemic, whose cause former President Donald J. Trump called the “Chinese virus,” more than 6,600 incidents of hate against Asian Americans were reported, according to a report published by Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit coalition that tracks and responds to such incidents. By 2022, the number of incidents rose to nearly 11,500.

“This work is so hard because it’s really, really important,” Ms. Moritsugu, the child of fourth-generation Japanese and fifth-generation Chinese immigrant parents, said in an interview last month. “People warned me when I was appointed that I would need to be very attentive and careful because this isn’t something that you can analyze with a clinical distance.”

That was clear the day after she was appointed, when a gunman killed eight people, half of them Sikh, in a mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis. Ms. Moritsugu swung into action, calling city council members and others in the community to ask how the White House could assist.

She did the same after hearing about the Monterey Park attack in January, rushing to the area to attend public meetings, translate Mr. Biden’s remarks into Chinese and Vietnamese, and join three vigils, one in front of the ballroom where the shooting occurred.

She also spoke privately with family members of the victims at the Langley Senior Center, alongside Vice President Kamala Harris, who visited three days after the carnage.

“I think it was very important for people to see her and to know that the White House had a presence among our A.A.P.I. community,” Hilda Solis, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, said of Ms. Moritsugu.

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Born in Oahu, Hawaii, Ms. Moritsugu spent time as a civil rights activist, congressional aide and administration official before Mr. Biden appointed her to her current post in April 2021, amid pressure from Democratic lawmakers who were concerned about the lack of Asian American representation among his cabinet nominees.

Senators Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois led the resistance, warning that they would not support Mr. Biden’s nominees until their concerns were addressed; they agreed to do so after he committed to appointing a senior official focused on the Asian American community.

“Diversity in the executive branch and representation matters,” Ms. Hirono said, adding that Ms. Moritsugu’s “very presence at the White House, at the level that she’s in, is really important to the community.”

Ms. Moritsugu, who reports to the White House chief of staff, previously served in the Obama administration as an assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. She also served for about six years as a senior Democratic aide on Capitol Hill, including for the late Senator Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii and as legal counsel to Ms. Duckworth.

Between her time on Capitol Hill and her appointment to the White House, she worked for the Anti-Defamation League and the National Partnership for Women & Families.

These days, she spends her time jetting to speaking engagements in cities across the country, between her office and the East and West Wings, and occasionally to Capitol Hill to chat with lawmakers and attend meetings of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

She sits in on meetings in the West Wing to find opportunities to bring Asian American perspectives into the conversation, reviews memos and letters from other offices within the White House and ensures A.A.P.I. representation among the holidays and celebrations that take place in the White House. She spearheaded the first White House Lunar New Year celebration earlier this year.

Katherine Tai, the U.S. trade representative, said Ms. Moritsugu has brought an important voice on A.A.P.I. issues to the White House, calling her the “political brain that speaks to the community.”

Ms. Moritsugu has also established a strong presence on Capitol Hill, where she worked with lawmakers to craft legislation enacted in 2021 to crack down on hate crimes against Asian Americans.

“Our community is so diverse and nuanced. It’s really not easy,” said Representative Grace Meng, Democrat of New York and a lead sponsor of the measure. “She takes such ownership of every aspect that affects our community and doesn’t shy away from the challenges, which I really appreciate.”

Ms. Duckworth praised White House officials for including Ms. Moritsugu in decision-making.

“They value her input, which I think has been really powerful in her having a real influence,” Ms. Duckworth said.

Ms. Moritsugu said she hopes to focus in the future on ensuring that recently enacted federal laws, including the infrastructure measure and a major semiconductor manufacturing investment and technology research bill, benefit Asian American communities.

For too long, Asian Americans made up “an invisible story that was just swept under the rug or ignored and erased until someone needed to be scapegoated,” Ms. Moritsugu said. “It’s nearly impossible for us to be invisible anymore.”

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