*Updated March 8, 2011: 10:59pm.
The preliminary winners of Monterey Park's election are Teresa Real Sebastian, Mitchell Ing, and Anthony Wong (some votes still need to be counted). They were announced in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese, and Vietnamese at City Hall. With Sebastian in the top three, the city will not likely have an all-Asian city council, but rather four out of five members will be Asian.
March 7, 2011
When Monterey Park voters go to the polls on Tuesday, they could elect the first all Asian City Council in the continental United States. Out of a crowded field of eight candidates, five are Asian-Americans. If three of them win the at-large election, Monterey Park, recognized as the first American suburban Chinatown, would make history once again. Even if they do not — with some strong Hispanic candidates also vying for the open seats — the city offers a glimpse at transitions in ethnic politics from a city that has been a leading edge in Asian American civic participation.
In the 1980s Monterey Park became home to the first predominantly Asian population on the mainland United States and was the first to elect a Chinese mayor. But it took more than a decade for the City Council to resemble the demographics of the city of 60,000. Now, another decade later, Asian Americans dominate the council with a presence greater than their actual numbers.
Neighboring cities in the western San Gabriel Valley have also undergone a subtler, and often overlooked, transformation to increased participation. Less than a decade ago, Alhambra, San Gabriel, and Rosemead already had populations that were about 50 percent Asian, but had yet to elect an Asian American to office. But since 2003 all three cities have elected Asian-American candidates, starting with the late Chi Mui in San Gabriel. In Alhambra, two out of five City Council members are Asian: Mayor Gary Yamauchi is the child of Japanese immigrants and Councilman Stephen Sham emigrated himself from mainland China.
Rosemead and San Gabriel have one and two Asians on their ballots, respectively. “We have a maturing immigrant population, especially here in the San Gabriel Valley,” said Philip Hu, a professor of English and one of two Chinese-American candidates running in a San Gabriel field of four. He attributes the shift to “more awareness, more engagement, more direct involvement.”
But despite increased participation, cities further east in the San Gabriel Valley, where Asian residents are more likely to be foreign-born and is generally less settled, are still playing catch up to Monterey Park. Hu, the candidate for the San Gabriel City Council, said that their remains for many the “first-generation immigrant mentality” in which residents “focus on work, making a living, and being able to provide the necessities for their children.” Running for political office, or even voting, is not a priority.
Language is also a barrier. “If you want to run, you need to speak English fluently,” said Brian Lee, president of the Vietnamese Hai-Ninh Community Association on Main Street Alhambra. "People want you to talk like an American. If you have an accent, the local will look at you – not with an unfriendly look, but it’s a weird look."
Initially in Monterey Park a key driving factor behind Asian political participation, ironically, was an effort to make the city less Asian. In the 1980s, the English-only movement sought to eliminate foreign languages from commercial signs. The affront brought the Asian community out to the City Council meetings. They got their voices heard, and in defeating the campaign, Asian residents found that local politics had tangible implications for their hometown. According to Min Zhou, a sociologist and professor of Asian Studies at UCLA, victories such as these had a snowball effect: “The success nurtured a political spirit that is inspiring and set up role models.”
Another advantage has been the small size of the cities, in which Asian Americans are a large proportion of the electorate. In contrast, while San Francisco and Oakland have larger and more historic Asian populations, they are also much bigger cities, which contributed to why they only elected their first Asian American mayors this year. “One of the things that makes the San Gabriel Valley important for Asian American and Latino political activity, is that the collection of small and medium sized cities offer a large number of opportunities for residents to get involved in the political process,” according to Leland Saito, a professor of sociology at USC who wrote a book on political participation in Monterey Park.
Saito also points to the multicultural nature of the cities as fostering coalitions that have helped put additional minority candidates into office. In Monterey Park, Asian-Americans remain roughly 50 percent of the electorate. If the city elects an all Asian city council, Hispanic and white residents will also have to back those candidates. This has happened in the past. “The multiracial character of the neighborhoods, and the longstanding relations among Latinos, Asian Americans, and whites have created a political climate in which cross over voting is common,” Saito wrote in an e-mail.
As an example, he pointed to Congresswoman Judy Chu, the first Chinese American Congresswoman; and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, the first Hispanic woman to serve in the U.S. Cabinet. Both represent Monterey Park, and both depended upon support from other minority groups to be elected for national office. At the same time, state Assemblyman Mike Eng (who is also Chu's husband) said that not only are Asian-American residents running for office, they are also learning how to demand more as an electorate, regardless of the ethnicity of the candidate.
As Asian-American candidates become more common in the region, they are less likely to appeal to constituents even of their own background purely on ethnic or racial lines. A recent Chinese-language World Journal article, reported on the issues the Chinese candidates running for City Council said they would solve: buisiness, balancing the budget. But while an ethnic bond is no longer at the forefront of campaign slogans, it has not disappeared. Candidates recognize voters appreciate having someone who speaks your language, or has a similar background. “Everyone wants an identity in the discussion,” said Robert Gin, president of the Alhambra Unified School District, and a candidate for the Monterey Park City Council. “They need role models. Someone who understands their traditions, someone they feel comfortable talking with.”