A little noticed special election in Orange County, California gave the Board of Supervisors–the county’s governing body–an Asian-American majority for the first time, foreshadowing a possible political shift in California, the most populous state in the nation.
Republican Andrew Do, a Vietnamese American, narrowly defeated Lou Correa, a well known politician with Latino roots.
Do joins fellow Asian Americans, Michelle Park Steel, a Korean American and Lisa Bartlett, a Japanese American, who were elected to the five-member panel in November.
“I think it’s indicative of long-term trends but it certainly is a milestone,” said Fred Smoller, an associate professor of political science at Chapman University, who points out that the three Asian American candidates in the race garnered 60 percent of the vote. “I think it’s precedent setting for the rest of the state as well.”
Orange County has a population of 3 million people and Asian Americans make up 19.2 percent of that number. Latinos, who account for more than one-third of the county’s population, have no representation on the board.
“Latinos both register and turn out to vote in lower percentages,” said Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of California Davis’ Center for Regional Change, “and this has been a long story in Latino politics.”
Lack of engagement is not a problem in the Asian-American community which has proven to be active in local politics. Orange County’s Vietnamese-American community of Little Saigon voted in large numbers.
“They’re very literate in terms of newspaper readership and there’s a whole café society, if you will,” said Smoller. “If you go to those areas, you’re going to see people huddled around, smoking a cigarette, and drinking tea and reading a newspaper as if they were back in Saigon. It’s very much a very political community.”
Eighty percent of the vote in the special election was cast by mail. Smoller says the Asian community voted overwhelmingly by mail while Latinos were more likely to vote at the polls.
Perhaps foreseeing the impact mail-in votes could have, last summer the existing Board of Supervisors scuttled an effort to make the special election an all-mail election.
Romero believes lack of mobilization and unfamiliarity are key reasons Latinos are under-represented in state politics, but she expects that to change.
“Just by population shifts alone, even if we keep the same low turnout rates for Latinos, Latinos are going to be a bigger share of actual voters so they’re going to have a bigger voice no matter what,” she said.
In the meantime, Eliza Noh, an Asian-American studies professor at California State University Fullerton, would like to see the Asian Americans on the Orange County Board of Supervisors reach out beyond their traditional voter base to build alliances based on mutual interests, such as education.
“That’s something that perhaps the Latino population, they care about as well, and so if they can build coalitions around these matters that everybody cares about, then they can really make a difference because they need also to have critical mass,” Noh said.
Including Do, six Asian Americans, all Republicans, have been elected to political office in Orange County since November 2014, and more Asian-American politicians seem poised to rise to prominence across the United States, which could prove to be excellent news for the GOP.
“It’s very significant,” said Smoller. “It suggests that the Republican party, which is supposed to be on the outs in Orange County as demographic changes are taking place, has found a new group that’s listening to its voice and the Democratic party I think has missed the boat.”