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Why are there so few Asian Americans in LA politics?

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Assembly Speaker John Perez endorsed former Public Works Commissioner John Choi for the Los Angeles City Council.
John Choi Campaign
Assembly Speaker John Perez endorsed former Public Works Commissioner John Choi for the Los Angeles City Council.

Why, in one of the nation's most diverse cities, is it hard for Asian-Americans to have a permanent place at LA's political table?

When L.A. voters go to the polls later this month, they could be making history. That's because, if he's elected, candidate John Choi could be the first Asian-American elected to the city council in 20 years. But even then, he'd only be the second ever to hold a seat on the council.

In a city where 1 in 8 people are Asian-American, why is it hard for them to have a permanent place at LA's political table?

"Our communities are very geographically dispersed," says An Le, director of community engagement at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. "We don't make up enough of a voting bloc in one council district to have one dominant Asian-American candidate that can win a race in the city."

Michael Woo, however, became the first and only Asian-American to overcome that barrier. He served on the council from 1985 to 1993, and his advice to future politicians is to follow his lead: rely on the diversity of your district.

"An Asian-American candidate who wouldn't have the benefit of the majority ethnic constituency in the district at least has a better chance in an area where there is no single ethnic group that dominates the local politics."

For more direction on how to gain more seats, Asians might want to look at Latinos in LA. It took them generations to attain and retain local power.

Edward Roybal was the first and only Latino on the council from the 1950s to 1964. Then, it took another two decades for another Latino to get back on: Richard Alatorre in 1985.

It wasn't until the 1990s that Latinos found a consistent place in city hall, says Lisa Garcia Bedolla, professor at UC Berkeley and author of Fluid Borders: Latino Power, Identity, and Politics in Los Angeles.

"Part of it was simple demographics. You had huge population growth from 1970 forward," says Bedolla. That includes the number of Latinos immigrants becoming naturalized, the increasing number of their children reaching the voting age, and challenges to gerrymandering which kept communities split up by district lines.

These are all challenges for Asian-Americans to consider, says Le, but there's the problem that, "we're still new at this."

For example, to get out the vote during the last election, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center organized a 13 language phone bank. And even then, they needed to be sensitive about the historical tension between the communities, such as the Japanese and Koreans.

"We don't have enough of a population to be successful in a race like [Council District 13]," says Le,  "unless you can build a multi-racial coalition that is diverse but have shared values and can win an election." 

EVENT: Tonight, we'll take a closer look at how Latinos and Asians are gaining ground, what priorities unite or divide them, and the impact Asian and Latino Southlanders may have on the regional politics scene. 

It's free tonight at 7:30p at the Crawford Family Forum. RSVP HERE.

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