From 1985 to 1993, Michael Woo held a seat on the L.A. City Council. (Photo Credit: Cal Poly Pomona)
I am a Filipina American born in the Silicon Valley and raised in the East Bay Area. As a kid, I never really paid attention to Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) issues, why would I? But, it was hard not to notice the lack of Asian Americans in my schools, or any of the neighborhoods I lived for that matter.
Unfortunately, because I wasn’t around many Asians, I started to distance myself from my own community. It wasn’t until after I graduated college that I started becoming more aware. I also started participating in conversations about Asian American Pacific Islander topics. In fact, I joined the Asian American Journalist Association.
According to the 2010 Census, AAPI communities were the fastest growing population in California, jumping more than 33 percent since 2000, making up over 15 percent of the state’s population, making the state the nation’s largest Asian American population.
Now a Los Angeles transplant, I am fortunate enough to be surrounded with various Asian American Pacific Islander cultures. The 2010 Census states that there were 9.8 million people living in L.A. County. Of those, 1.3 million were Asian including Chinese, Filipino, Korean and Japanese.
Today, Asian American Pacific Islanders are also the fastest growing population in the nation, not just in California. Nationwide, Asians beat out Latinos as the largest group of new immigrants, pushing the total to a record 18.2 million, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center.
Why am I spitting out all of these facts and figures? A new associate of mine, Don Nakanishi, former Director of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center, recently brought to my attention that there are three Asians running for city council in L.A. County’s district 13.
And why is this significant? If one of them makes it past the upcoming election and moves on to the and wins the general election, that person will be the first Asian American Pacific Islander on the Council in 20 years. Yup, you read that right, 20 years. There have been AAPI’s who have run for office, but none have succeeded. What’s going on?
Who better to pose that question to than Michael Woo, the first (and so far, the only) Asian American to hold a seat on the L.A City Council. From 1985 to 1993, he served district 13.
“It was exactly 20 years ago and I think there are a lot of different reasons,” said Woo. “It takes a combination of the right candidate, the right district and the right campaign and there just hasn’t been the right combination in 20 years,” he said.
“If you look back at my election, I ran in a district with a really small number of Asian Americans. I think the made up 10 percent of the population and only about five percent of the vote. In order to win in a multi-ethnic district, it’s really important for the candidate to put together a very broad coalition so Asian Americans make up part of the coalition and not all.”
If you look at other major metropolitan cities in the state like San Francisco or Oakland, candidates have clearly been successful as both have Asian American mayors. The same is true in smaller cities within Los Angeles County.
“Monterey Park, Alhambra, Gardena, Torrance, Carson have all had AAPI city council people, mayors, members of state legislature,” said Nakanishi. “There’s just a large gap for the largest city in L.A. County.”
“The big difference between San Francisco and L.A. are number one, the percentage of Asian Americans is much higher. I think they made up about a quarter of the city’s population,” said Woo. “The fact San Francisco is a smaller city than L.A. may make it easier as well.”
Nakanishi believes district lines may be another issue. “Before Mike Woo ran, organizations like the Asian Pacific American Legal Center and UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center tried to urge these different bodies in charge of redistricting to draw district lines that would encompass or keep intact communities interest. Koreatown has been fighting for three decades. The way the lines are drawn up are not favorable to Asian candidates.”
Most notably, Woo believes the L.A. Asian community isn’t that politically involved. “The Asian American community in San Francisco is much more politicized. There’s a much stronger tradition of politic clubs and Asian Americans being active in politics than here.”
“Can the ethnic community get its act together in terms of community leaders emphasizing the importance of political involvement in the coming generation?” asked Woo.
“The community itself has to cultivate the value of political involvement in the coming generations or else the community won’t have its act together.”
In the end, it’s going to depend on who gets the people out to vote. With so many candidates and most of the voters in the district not that tuned into the elections, it makes it hard to predict whether or not this will be the year of the Asian American.
“It could be this is the year the community can get its act together and support a candidate who could win,” said Woo.