Community and political activist Georgette Imura dies

She may have been diminutive, and lacked a college degree like many in the halls of the California State Capitol, but Georgette Imura nonetheless fought fearlessly for Asian Pacific American representation, mentoring hundreds along the way.

In the end, only the dreaded disease of lung cancer would keep the Sansei community and political activist from Sacramento down, as she lost her battle Dec. 17, 2020 with her loving family by her side. She was 77.
Imura was remembered fondly by fellow political and community figures.

“She was an approachable, kind and supportive leader who led with a quiet strength and integrity,” John Chiang, the former elected California state treasurer and controller, told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “She inspired a generation of young government staffers to believe they could change the world.”

“Georgette was a trailblazer for API women working in the state legislature,” said current California State Controller Betty Yee. “She began her service when there was no API representation.”

To colleague Maeley Tom, who formed the other half of a dynamic duo that fought for API representation at the Capitol, Imura was “a true woman warrior when it comes to fighting for a voice for our community.”

“As legislative staffers we volunteered our time to educate our own community to become more actively engaged in politics, helping them to realize they were missing out on resources, representation and had no voice,” recalled Tom. “We recruited staff, educated groups about the legislative process and encouraged Asians to run for office. This was her passion … she used her influence to mentor hundreds of young Asians who wanted to follow her footpath.”

“She guided and mentored so may APIs who are in politics today,” said Dale Shimasaki, CEO of Strategic Education Services, a Sacramento-based government relations and policy consulting firm, who met Imura in 1980 on his first day of work at the Legislative Analyst’s Office. “The success and contributions of APIs in politics today would not have happened without her.”

Born Behind Barbed Wire
Imura, whose parents George and Dorothy Yamamoto were from Elk Grove and Florin, respectively, was born Oct. 18, 1943 inside the Manzanar concentration camp in Southern California. This deprivation of civil liberties would help shape her quest for justice.

“The (incarceration) experience affected her deeply …,” said Tom. “That experience demonstrated to her how government and politics can affect livelihoods and she saw how the lack of having a political voice can victimize an entire race as it did to the Japanese during WWII. And she used this example over and over again when she was on the campaign to get Asians more actively engaged in politics.”

“As she became more aware, she came to realize that this social injustice inflicted much harm to her grandparents and parents, both psychologically and economically,” mused son Todd. “Working around and in the legislature, she discovered real change takes place within the walls of the capitol. However, she also understood how grassroots efforts essentially push the change. This drove her to reach out to underrepresented minority Asian Pacific Islanders and either get them connected to the right people or involved in politics firsthand. It was her way to defeat our scarred history.”

Beginning in 1967, Imura would embark on a 28-year career at the State Capitol, starting as a receptionist for state Sen. Leroy Greene, before moving on as a legislative secretary to Assemblywoman Yvonne Brathwaite, a legislative assistant to Assemblymember Julian Dixon, chief of staff for state Sen. Diane Watson, staff director for the California State Senate Democratic Caucus, principal consultant for the California State Senate Elections Committee and in various roles for state Senate Pro Tempore David Roberti from 1987 to 1995.

She left the Capitol to start Liberty Consulting from 1995 to 2006.

Imura served on the boards of the California Asian & Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, Council of Asian Pacific Islanders Together for Advocacy and Leadership (CAPITAL), Asian Legal Services Outreach and co-founded the Asian Pacific Youth Leadership Project. In 2003, she was appointed by the assembly speaker to serve on the California Cultural and Historical Endowment board.

Lungren Appointment Blocked
In a show of political savvy, Imura and Tom helped to block the 1988 appointment of Rep. Dan Lungren to state treasurer by then-Gov. George Deukmejian. Imura, like many Japanese Americans, did not forget that Lungren opposed reparations for former inmates of the wartime American concentration camps.

“It was incredibly courageous of them to take on the task of rejecting a governor’s appointment,” recalled political strategist Bill Wong. “They strategized message, organized coalitions, and worked the legislative levers. They convinced enough senators to risk the ire of a governor’s veto pen to oppose a nominee that opposed redress.

“Bottom line, these two API women outmaneuvered a seasoned and popular (governor),” added Wong, who noted this campaign was his “training ground.”

Mentoring Future Leaders
While advocating for the present status of Asian Pacific Americans, Imura also had a vision for the future.

State Controller Yee first met Imura in 1989, after she had just completed a California State Senate fellowship. “We began working together in co-founding the Asian Pacific Youth Leadership Project, a program to expose high school students to the political, public policy, and public service arenas.”

“She was an amazing mentor and friend that embodied a unique and magical blend of wisdom, courage, perseverance, integrity, humility and compassion,” said Wong, who was Imura’s intern in then-Senate President Pro Tempore David Roberti’s office. “She was a fierce advocate for the community and the under-privileged. She always made time to provide thoughtful guidance and encouragement to young staff.”

“(Rep.) Patsy Mink was my political hero when I began my public service career,” said Yee. “Georgette Imura was my public and community service hero. … Her service was defined by humility and selflessness — the work was always about the community, something much bigger than herself.”

Reaching Beyond APIs
While Imura continued to work for API representation, she also came to the aid of others.

“Georgette courageously stood up for others in many communities — including the LGBTQ community and Muslim Americans,” said Andy Noguchi, co-president of the Florin chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. “Georgette helped head up the Satendar Singh Justice Coalition when Singh was murdered for ‘acting gay’ at a Folsom picnic with friends. (She also) helped CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) form the Muslim Youth Leadership Program at the Capitol.”

“She not only fought for the civil rights of Asian Americans, she fought just as hard against anti-Semitic and gay-bashing issues,” Tom said. “She was always so humble about her accomplishments that she always said ‘I am not a big shot, I am just a little shot that just keeps shooting.’

“She was only 5 feet tall, but she was feared because she had influence,” Tom added. “She never shied away from using her political clout to help the underdog. She was … one of the most beloved political and APIA community leaders of our time in Sacramento.”

High School Sweethearts
According to her husband of 55 years, the two were virtually inseparable since they started dating at Sacramento High School. And when he served in the U.S. Air Force Reserves in Wichita Falls, Texas during the summer, Georgette would write him “every day.”
When Georgette would attend community events, Roy would be by her side, patiently waiting for her to make her rounds before leaving. “I was like ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ wherever she wanted to go,” he joked.

“He stood by her regardless of the setbacks and celebrated the wins, son Todd told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “Dad has mentioned a number of times that she opened his mind to the struggles of minority immigrants, persecuted religions and the marginalized LGBTQ community. He loved her for that.”

Lasting Legacy
Yee, who was the state budget director at the time, worked with Imura on Senate Bill 307, which would recognize the contributions of California’s last three remaining Japantowns and help secure funding for the California Japantown Landmarks. “I was in awe of how Georgette adeptly and quietly behind-the-scenes organized community support for this important initiative as well as securing legislative approval for it,” Yee said.

Imura’s work will have long-term effects, her friends said.

“Her lasting legacy is the vast pipeline of API staffers, elected officials, and appointees that she helped recruit, develop, and elect,” said Wong. “She didn’t just get any APIs into these positions, she looked for APIs that were community oriented and who would give back to the community in their leadership roles in government.”

“I think that part of Georgette’s legacy was her fearless advocacy for Asian and Pacific Americans,” added Noguchi.

Lasting Memories
“Missing her will be the hardest part for the rest of my life,” said son Todd, 52, of Oakdale, Calif. “I would like people to remember her unwavering determination to promote social justice; push her boys to succeed; be a nurturing bachan and love my dad right up to her last breath.”

According to husband Roy, 77, she was a “fighter” who “opened my eyes to treat everyone fairly. Being with her so long, you take it for granted what somebody does. I don’t know if I am ever going to get over it.”

Imura is survived by her husband of 55 years, Roy; and sons Todd (Jamie) and Aaron (Doreen) Imura, as well as four grandchildren: Ava, Nate, Ivette and Max.

A private service will be held virtually on Jan. 30. A public service is tentatively planned near the end of 2021.

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