Many Asian politicians in Orange County are Republican. Most voters aren’t.
As she addressed a group of mostly Asian Americans, Katie Nguyen Kalvoda spoke of the need for elected leaders who “not only look like us, but truly represent us”.
In a county where the vast majority of Asian American elected representatives are Republicans, Kalvoda was referring specifically about progressive Asian leaders.
Her audience, Thursday night in Fountain Valley, was already on board. The group was there to cheer the official launch of Asian Americans Rising, a new political action committee designed to recruit and support progressive Asian American candidates as well as non-Asians who support the community.
The new PAC is launching at a time when Asian American voters in Orange County continue a shift from being reliably Republican to an increasingly blue voting bloc.
“For too long, we have had only representation from one party. And its grip on our community has made us fearful to speak out and to speak up,” said Kalvoda, the PAC’s co-founder and president, referring to the GOP.
“So it is fitting that as we kick off Asian American heritage month, we recognize that things must change.”
The organization, with about 450 members, is looking to build on the momentum created last November, when Democrats swept six Orange County congressional contests in what was once a county synonymous with the Republican Party. With the GOP expected to mount a strong bid to retake at least some local seats, the new PAC hopes to help the Asian American community recruit and support candidates, and connect them to leadership training opportunities – and to donors.
“Our star, as high as it has risen, it is nowhere as close to the apex that it is going to reach,” John Chiang, the former California state controller and state treasurer who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year, told some 125 people gathered Thursday night.
“Don’t let all of your efforts, your sweat, your toil, your passion go with one election cycle,” Chiang added. “Make this permanent.”
Chiang also has created a PAC – ElectAAPI.org – to help Asian-American and Pacific Islander Democrats get elected at the state and national levels.
Meanwhile, the local PAC already has moved to flex its political muscles, organizing a presidential forum for Democratic candidates to be held in Orange County in September.
“Our name, Asian Americans Rising, invokes a couple of things and a certain image,” Kalvoda said in an interview. “It’s a community that is recognizing its power and potential, in many ways, to achieve parity. We want our fair share of resources and political representation. We want people who understand our community and represent our interests.”
Earlier in the evening, recently elected state Sen. Tom Umberg looked across the room and told a Southern California News Group reporter: “You’re looking at the future of Orange County right here.”
Former California State Treasurer John Chiang speaks during the official launch for Asian Americans Rising, a new progressive political action committee in Orange County, at Baker’s Parkside Grill in Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley on Thursday, May 2, 2019. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)
The Asian American community is growing faster than any other racial or ethnic group in Orange County, noted Umberg, a Democrat who last November narrowly beat out state Sen. Janet Nguyen in District 34. Umberg beat Nguyen, a Republican Vietnamese American, in a district that includes Little Saigon.
But Asian voters in Orange County are hardly limited to Little Saigon. Asians account for about 20 percent of the county’s population and roughly 15 percent of all registered voters. And registration data suggests Asian voters aren’t beholden to either major party.
The top political label for Asian voters in Orange County, at 40.9 percent, is “no party preference.” Democrats account for 29.5 percent of Asian registrations while Republicans hold 28.6 percent, according to Political Data Inc., which tracks voting information.
“There’s been a massive growth of independents, and it’s been even more dramatic in the last couple of years. A lot of that is driven through DMV voter registrations, especially among young people and among Asians and Latinos,” said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data.
Traditionally, various ethnic groups have voted for people whose names sound like theirs. But that may be changing, said UC Irvine Professor Linda Trinh Vo, who specializes in Asian American studies.
“You may have multiple Vietnamese candidates running for the same spot and it’s made the community rethink how they’re going to vote and question their policies more. Or you may have candidates who are not Asian but have worked with the community,” Vo said.
One example Vo cited: the 2016 46th Congressional race between two Democrats – Bao Nguyen, then mayor of Garden Grove and a Vietnamese American, and veteran lawmaker Lou Correa, a Latino who served in both county and state offices.
Correa “was very popular in the Vietnamese community” for his long-time outreach there, Vo said. In return, Vietnamese leaders organized and supported him, despite the ballot also including a Vietnamese American candidate.
Another more recent factor is what many are calling the “Trump effect.”
“As a community, Asians must understand that the rhetoric we hear from this administration about Mexicans is not about Mexicans… They are, in fact, trying to systematically erase communities of color, including Asian Americans, from the record,” said Kalvoda. As evidence, she pointed to, among other issues, the administration’s move to include a question about citizenship in the upcoming U.S. Census.
“We’re at a crossroads to win the hearts and minds of the API (Asian Pacific Islander) community,” Kalvoda said.
“It was so un-American. It was so egregious,” Wright said. “I never thought a president, whether a Republican or Democrat, could change the country so dramatically.”
So Wright, who arrived from Vietnam when she was 10, created the Aliso Niguel Democratic Club. The group started with residents from her hometown of Aliso Viejo and neighboring Laguna Niguel, and has grown to about 150 members, she said.
Still, when it comes to Asian Americans who also hold office in Orange County, the GOP has a strong foothold, particularly among people who sit on school boards, city councils and higher positions.
Fred Whitaker, who heads the GOP in Orange County, noted his party has been very successful in promoting Asian Americans elected leaders.
“We are amused that the Democratic Party, which leans so heavily on identity politics, is just waking up to the strength of the Asian American community in Orange County.”
Asian American Republicans who hold offices that represent at least parts of Orange County include Senator Ling Ling Chan and Assembly members Phillip Chen, Tyler Diep and Steven Choi. Also, the county board of supervisors has a GOP Asian-American majority (Andrew Do, Michelle Steel and Lisa Bartlett,) and the county’s clerk recorder is a Vietnamese American, Hugh Nguyen. Meanwhile, there are 13 Republicans of Asian descent on city councils, compared to four Asian American Democrats, while on Orange County school boards Asian American Republicans outnumber Asian American Democrats six to five.
“Good for the Democrats that they’re trying to catch up,” Whitaker said. “But they won’t.”
Janet Nguyen, the former state Senator who narrowly lost in the last election, said she found it offensive that a group would generalize about Asian Americans when, in reality, while they may share some similarities they also speak different languages and come from different cultures.
“We look at issues. What’s best for our families and children,” said Nguyen, who also served as an Orange County supervisor and Garden Grove council member.
“What I’ve seen, in my district, Vietnamese American voters are very savvy… very informed. And they participate. They will choose their candidates according to whether they view that person as the one who protects them, who will fight for them.”