Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) have seen many firsts in recent years. The first Chinese American woman elected to Congress, the first Chinese American mayor of Oakland, Calif. and the first Chinese American to be appointed to mayor in San Francisco. As significant as these milestones were, doubts remained whether AAPIs had truly arrived as an American political force. On Nov. 9, the day after Election Day, these doubts were shattered into a million pieces and blown away by the winds of change.
San Francisco’s mayoral election was a pure show of power by multiple AAPI candidates backed by influential AAPI power brokers. The top tier AAPI candidates included Interim Mayor Ed Lee, state Senator Leland Yee, Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting and Public Defender Jeff Adachi. Initially, the leaders in the AAPI community feared that multiple AAPI candidates would split San Francisco’s AAPI vote and open the door for a non-AAPI candidate to win the coveted mayoral seat. Undaunted and unable to ignore the unpredictable nature of San Francisco’s Ranked Choice Voting system, all of the campaigns waged an unparalleled effort to reach AAPI voters and drive them to the polls.
It was a success. Interim Mayor Ed Lee will now be Mayor Ed Lee … San Francisco’s first ELECTED Chinese American mayor. However, the more important backstory is the AAPI voter turnout. For decades, political professionals considered AAPI voters to be too hard to reach and too difficult to get out to vote. As such, campaign consultants and candidates summarily ignored AAPI voters.
San Francisco experienced a watershed moment in this last election. AAPI voter turnout eclipsed mainstream voter turnout in the city and delivered a victory for the AAPI community. In fact, the turnout was so successful that three of the top five vote getters were AAPI candidates. Lee came in first, Chiu came in fourth and Yee came in fifth. According to voter data experts at Redistricting Partners, AAPI stronghold neighborhoods like Chinatown and Visitacion Valley were outperforming the average Vote By Mail turnout by 32 percent and 18 percent, respectively. The Chinatown data indicates that 80 percent of the voters in Chinatown that requested Vote By Mail ballots had turned them in before Election Day. Judy Chu’s congressional race in 2009 produced similar high AAPI voter turnout, but was considered a phenomenon unique to Chu’s popularity in the San Gabriel Valley.
The strong showing for AAPI candidates in San Francisco shows that AAPIs vote in big numbers if they are wooed by candidates and are given a good reason to vote.
In another show of AAPI political strength, Assemblyman Warren Furutani (D-Long Beach) made the runoff for a Los Angeles City Council seat. The City of Los Angeles has not had an AAPI member on Council since Mike Woo, who served from 1985 to 1993. In Los Angeles 11.3 percent of the population is AAPI. Seven percent of Los Angeles voters are AAPI.
In a field of 11 candidates, Furutani beat the former president of the local firefighter union Pat McOsker and former Los Angeles City Councilman Rudy Svorinich for second place behind retired police officer Joe Buscaino, who came in first. Furutani’s main challenge was to overcome McOsker, who was heavily backed by hundreds of thousands of dollars in independent spending by some of the powerful local public employee unions. Furutani also had strong support from public employee unions but had to overcome the public’s disaffection with the Legislature and McOsker’s home court advantage in San Pedro, where 50 percent of the voters in the district reside.
McOsker’s supporters are likely to support Furutani in the January runoff. Even so, Furutani will have a fight ahead of him. Buscaino led Furutani in the primary election by nearly 7 points. In order to win, Furutani has less than three months to forge an alliance with McOsker and build back up his campaign war chest. If AAPIs focus their efforts to help raise campaign cash and mobilize volunteers to help canvass precincts and phone bank voters, they will help elect the first Japanese American to the Los Angeles City Council and prove that the historic elections in the San Gabriel Valley, Oakland, and San Francisco were only a preview of the new political potency of the AAPI community.
Bill Wong is a political and strategic consultant with more than 20 years of legislative and campaign experience. He currently advises candidates, political action committees and major corporations. He can be reached at Bill@billwong.net. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.