For Asian-Americans in Southern California and beyond, this year’s election season has served as a demonstration of how far they have advanced in political representation.
Around the region and the state, Asian-American candidates have legitimate shots at winning several offices never held by members of their community before, from congressional seats to statewide office.
And that’s why it is all the more surprising that Los Angeles itself — which has one of the nation’s largest concentrations of Asian-Americans — continues to buck that trend. The city of Los Angeles has had exactly one Asian-American hold elected office in its history, while the county has never had an Asian-American on the Board of Supervisors.
“It’s a decent, significant showing” for Asian-American candidates this election season, said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles. “It’s not the end of the discussion, but things are moving decently in Sacramento, in a decent direction for Congress, but what sticks out like a sore thumb is L.A. city for the absence” of Asian-American representation.
State Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, who emigrated from Taiwan as a toddler and has also served as a state assemblyman, is facing Elan Carr, a Republican prosecutor, in the November race for Rep. Henry Waxman’s seat in Beverly Hills. California state Controller John Chiang, whose parents emigrated from Taiwan, is competing for the state treasurer’s office against Greg Conlon, a Republican CPA, on Nov. 4. Betty Yee, a member of the state Board of Equalization from the Bay Area, is campaigning for state controller. And in Los Angeles County, retired undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who is Japanese-American, will face Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell in the sheriff’s election.
There are more than 4,000 Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders who hold public office in nearly 40 states and U.S. territories. In California, they include five federal representatives, 15 state representatives, more than 90 council members and more than 100 judges, according to the National Asian Pacific American Political Almanac 2014-15 published by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.
Asian-Americans have not only fared well at the local level in the San Gabriel Valley, where there is heavy concentration of Chinese-Americans, they’ve also been increasingly successful at winning state offices and congressional seats representing that area, the South Bay and Los Angeles, Sonenshein said.
Los Angeles County — the nation’s largest with about 10 million people — has never had an Asian-American member of the Board of Supervisors despite the community making up 15 percent of its population. The L.A.-Long Beach-Santa Ana region has about 1.8 million Asian-Americans, the highest concentration of any metro area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
None of the candidates in the June 3 election who ran for two open L.A. supervisor seats were Asian-American. And the city of Los Angeles, which has an Asian population of about 13 percent, has had only one Asian-American serve on its City Council or in any city elected office. Michael Woo served on the council from 1985 to 1993 and lost a bid for mayor against Richard Riordan in 1993.
“It really stands out,” Sonenshein said. “Over 400,000 Asian Americans in L.A., no City Council members, no citywide elected officials and only one in the history of the entire city.... It’s phenomenal trying to figure out.”
Part of it has to do with the way that L.A. council districts are drawn and with their large size, which makes it harder for Asian-Americans to get elected, Sonenshein said. They are more scattered in Los Angeles than either African-Americans or Latinos, he said. Where they are concentrated, their voting blocs are still too small to carry the day.
“If it was a larger City Council (and thus districts were smaller) some areas like Koreatown would be in a district that would be much more likely to elect a Korean-American or Asian-American candidate,” Sonenshein said.
Increasing the number of local representatives — so more pieces of the pie could be distributed — is something large cities like Los Angeles should consider, he said. But the public has been leery about the prospect of having more politicians and any added expense. In 1999, Los Angeles voters rejected two ballot initiatives that would have expanded the City Council from 15 districts to either 21 or 25. Meanwhile, the nation’s most populous city, New York City, has 51 districts and has two Asian-American council members.
In 2012, the Los Angeles Koreatown community filed a federal lawsuit opposing new political boundaries adopted for City Council elections. The lawsuit accused the city’s Redistricting Commission and City Council of dividing Koreatown — and thus diluting the community’s voting power — to boost the African-American vote in the 10th District, to help Council President Herb Wesson win re-election in 2015. If race is used as a factor, one must meet traditional redistricting criteria as set by the Supreme Court, such as not splitting cities or regions unnecessarily and making sure the district is reasonably compact and contiguous, says redistricting expert Alan Clayton.
While not the lawsuit’s aim, a victory in this case could also increase the chances that someone from Koreatown — which is now majority Latino but also has a sizable Korean population — could be elected. The case is scheduled to go trial in early August.
African-American Councilman Bernard Parks was among those who advocated for keeping all of Koreatown as well as Thai Town and Historic Filipinotown in one district because of the Korean community’s “overwhelming input” on the issue.
“What I understand about the Voter Rights Act is that the community’s opinions and comments should be held in high regard,” Parks said. “Their voices should be listened to and taken into consideration when they participate in this (redistricting) process.”
Yet another challenge for Asian-Americans is that many of the city’s racial and ethnic groups have a long history of successful organizing. There are parts of the city where African-Americans, Latinos and Jews have marked out their territory, Sonenshein said.
“Unlike San Francisco, where Asian-Americans are the main active groups in the city, L.A. is a pretty competitive environment,” he said.
Because Asians-Americans aren’t heavily concentrated in L.A. council districts, a winning candidate must be able to put together a coalition that reaches well beyond this demographic, Woo said. As a council candidate, Woo made a special effort to secure the support of other ethnic groups, which included filming a campaign commercial in Armenian and meeting with Jewish leaders to explain his strong support for the state of Israel.
“In a big city like L.A., it’s possible for an Asian-American to win but that candidate will probably have to be a very big coalition builder,” Woo said.
Similarly, Los Angeles County has never had an Asian-American supervisor, and none of the candidates who ran in the primary fit this demographic. County voters have previously rejected efforts to expand the number of representatives on the board.
As a result of large district sizes — about 2 million people in each — winning candidates require significant name recognition and campaign dollars, said Eugene Lee, democracy project director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles. In addition, voters often cast ballots along racial lines and it can be a challenge to win support from other racial groups. Some advocacy groups are now considering the value of an independent commission that would have the authority to redraw Los Angeles city or county districts rather than an advisory board that only makes recommendations, Lee said.
Clayton, among others, is pushing for more representative redistricting. He supports two redistricting plans that would allow Latinos to have two districts in which they have a majority of eligible voters instead of one. The plans would also increase the chance that an Asian-American would be elected for the first time by concentrating more San Gabriel Valley cities with heavy Asian populations into Supervisor Michael Antonovich’s district, he said.
Asian-Americans have done particularly well in areas of the San Gabriel Valley. In Monterey Park, where more than two-thirds of the population is Asian, four out of five council members are Asian-American, and in San Marino, where more than half of the city’s population is Asian, three out of five council members have Asian surnames. But much of the San Gabriel Valley is made up of small and medium-size cities where Asians tend to be concentrated so that “the population can have an effect on political races,” said Leland Saito, an associate professor of sociology and American studies and ethnicity at USC.
“The San Gabriel Valley has dramatically increased its numbers of Asian-Americans elected to the local level since I got elected to the Monterey Park City Council” in 1988, said Rep. Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, noting that back then it was so rare that she could count that number on her fingers. “Asian-Americans are seeing that it is possible for them to run for an elected seat and win, and also the constituents of these different cities are seeing that Asian-Americans can be good representatives for all people.”
Yet even in the San Gabriel Valley, representation in many Asian-majority cities is still disproportionate. Some of that may be due to the fact that many are immigrants who are accustomed to being apolitical in their native countries, said Temple City Councilman Vince Yu, the only Asian-American on the council in a city where Asians make up about 60 percent of the population.
“Being politically active on that side of the world might be detrimental to your health — literally,” said Yu, who was born and raised in Hong Kong. “You could be put in jail. A lot of people (can) do things to you.”