Despite possibly record low voter turnout, candidates of color largely achieved success in California’s June 5 primary .
Fifty-seven Democrats advanced to the November general election in California’s 53 congressional districts according to Tenoch Flores, communications director of the California Democratic Party. Twenty-six of them were candidates of color.
“Asian Americans did well. Out of our endorsed candidates, all of them went through to the second round except for one,” commented Andrew Medina, consultant to the Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus.
Medina observed that there are currently 11 Asian Americans in the state legislature, which is the most representation they have had to date. That could improve in the upcoming election.
“There is the potential in November to reach 12 Asian Americans,” he said.
Medina also noted that with two Filipino-Americans -- Jennifer Ong in Fremont and Rob Bonta in Oakland -- advancing through the primary, there is the possibility of electing the first Filipino-American to the state legislature.
Even as it is, Korean Americans are celebrating the success of Mayor Sukhee Kang in Irvine, Calif. Kang, the first Korean American to serve as mayor of a major U.S. city, received 33.3% of the vote in District 45 and will advance to the November general election.
“Asians have lagged behind the curve mainly due to generational and cultural stuff, and not being that engaged in local politics,” said Bill Wong, political director of the Asian American Small Business Political Action Committee (PAC).
“Latino and African American communities were much more engaged,” he noted. “They saw it as a direct path to civil rights and policy issues that they were concerned with. But in the last 10 years the number of Asian Americans in politics has continued to grow exponentially.”
Wong attributes the success of Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) candidates to a growing sophistication in the community, “There are more people who are political operatives. The Asian American Small Business PAC maxed out donations to Phil Ting, Rob Bonta, and Dr. Richard Pan, and gave money to Das Williams, Mariko Yamada, Al Muratsuchi, Sid Voorakkara, and Paul Fong.”
Medina and Wong also noted that there are more APIAs beginning on the pipeline to state politics through local government offices such as mayor or assessor-recorder.
“We have over 100 elected officials on the municipal level who are ready to matriculate up. They have time to build their base and get prepared to run,” said Wong.
However, one significant blow to the APIA community was in the San Joaquin Valley, where Councilman Blong Xiong ran for Congressional District 21.
“He would have been the first Hmong person to serve in Congress. He lost by about 1,000 votes,” said Medina.
Xiong was narrowly edged out in the primary by Democratic Latino candidate John Hernandez.
There was an increased number of races where candidates of color were running against each other.
In State Assembly District 18 in Oakland, for example, there was a three-way Democratic race between Joel B. Young, an African-American candidate, Abel Guillen, a Latino candidate, and Rob Bonta, a Filipino-American candidate.
Guillen and Bonta advanced through the primary to compete in the November election, making District 18 one of 17 state assembly races where the top two candidates are of the same party.
But Wong noted that California’s first top-two primary -- where the two candidates who receive the most votes advance to the general election regardless of their party preference -- did not appear to impact the election results, in terms of the success of ethnic candidates.
“In California, almost a third of API (Asian Pacific Islander) voters are no party preference, yet there was not an API candidate that would not have been expected to win in a pre-open primary scenario that won in the new open primary system,” he observed.
The effects of redistricting, however, did positively impact many candidates of color. As Efrain Escobedo, principal at Latino Research and Communications, LLC, observed: “Latino candidates were trying to maximize whatever opportunities were created by the redistricting process.
“Out in San Bernardino, you have a Latino candidate who is running in what used to be Mary Bono Mack’s district, a traditionally Republican district. And out in the Central Valley you have a race that has gotten some attention – a Latino former astronaut running in what has been more traditionally a Republican congressional district.”
Escobedo also noted that there were a number of races where Latino candidates were competing against one another.
“Awhile back we were just looking for a single Latino candidate to run. We are now having a good problem, a burden of evolving leadership where we have multiple Latino candidates with well-established leadership tracks running against each other,” he said.
Escobedo pointed to two districts in Los Angeles, State Assembly Districts 51 and 58, as having a crowded field of well-qualified Latino candidates with strong histories of community involvement.
Armando Chavez, consultant to the California Latino Legislative Caucus, noted that out of their current caucus members they only gave up one seat and have the potential to gain quite a few more in November.
Political observers and legislators believe that the success of these candidates was also due to their success building coalitions across communities.
“We’ve never been dependent on Asian votes alone; we’ve always had to build coalitions” said Wong. “Rob Bonta has built a strong coalition of Latinos, African-Americans, and Asians, and Judy Chu has built a strong Latino coalition in her district.”
African-Americans also benefitted from coalitions and cross-racial voting in the primary.
Asked about this, Sen. Curren D. Price Jr., chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, wrote via e-mail: “The Caucus is encouraged by the election results in California’s primary, where African Americans kept their seats and stand to expand its numbers in the fall. In eight of nine races, African American candidates emerged as winners; some outright and others going strongly into the general election in November.”
And, he noted: “Despite lingering racial issues in some areas, the voters showed -- in several districts that are not traditionally African American -- that they will cross racial and ethnic lines to support a qualified candidate.
This, he said, “may indeed be a new paradigm in California.”
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