With the 2012 election heating up, I caught up with Jay Chen, a Taiwanese American Democrat running for Congress in
California’s newly drawn 39th District,
covering parts of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Orange counties.
At age 34, Chen sits as president of the board of education in the
Hacienda-La Puente school district. He owns a commercial real estate business,
and also trains with the Navy Reserves one weekend every month, where he serves
as an Intelligence Officer. Graduating with honors from Harvard University,
Chen worked for a period at the global consulting firm Bain and Company.
With a 41-33 voter registration ratio in favor of Republicans,
California’s 39th district is viewed by national party committees as “solidly
Republican.” Chen’s opponent, incumbent Rep. Ed Royce (R), has served 19 years in the House and is a member of the Tea
I asked Jay about his campaign and how he plans to win against a hard-line Republican in a historically
You used to work for Ed Royce, your opponent. Can you tell us a
little about that?
I was an intern in Ed Royce’s office right before I started my
freshman year at Harvard. I was placed there by the Taiwanese American Citizens League.
I answered the phones, took people on tours of the capitol,
typical intern stuff. His political views were not that apparent to me back
then. I even met with him a couple of years ago when I was doing a shadowing
fellowship to get to know more about Congress through APAICS (Asian Pacific American
Institute for Congressional Studies).
Has Royce ever referenced you as his former intern?
You know, I think he’s kind of embarrassed, because obviously he
didn’t do a very good job of bringing me over to the dark side, since I’m now
What are your major policy differences with Royce?
On Wall Street vs. Main Street
He [Royce] sits on the House Financial Services Committee. He
supported the deregulation of the banks which allowed them to take the big
risks they took, which eventually led to the collapse and the bailouts. He’s
going to say he voted against the bailouts… Fine, but he voted for dismantling
the regulations and getting rid of Sarbanes-Oxley [Act] so that banks could get
into a position to get bailed out. So it’s kind of a hollow statement to say,
“oh well I voted against the bailouts.”
With regard to Main Street, he’s voted against the payroll tax
cut, he’s voted against a lot of initiatives that would have helped the middle
class, the working class, and small businesses.
Royce was in favor of Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He voted against
bringing the troops home even when Obama said we were ready to end the Iraq
My view has always been against the Iraq war. I think it was a
terrible thing to do.
With that said, I joined the Navy Reserves three years ago when
we were still mired in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, because as much as I
disagree with it, I still think we need good people fighting these wars. You
break it, you buy it.
I think it’s important that the people who are making decisions
about sending the country to war have some skin in the game. Very few folks in
Congress do. You know, Ed Royce has never served. Yet, he is completely fine
with telling other peoples’ sons and daughters to go risk their lives. I think
that’s wrong. I could be called to duty at any time, and I would gladly do it.
Ed Royce is anti-immigrant. He’s voted against raising the number
of visas for skilled workers. He’s voted to end family immigration, which is
your right as an American to sponsor a family member to come to the United
States. And that’s been one of the prime ways that the Asian American community
has grown in the US.
Not only that, he wants to end birthright citizenship. The 14th
Amendment guarantees that if you’re born in the US, you’re an American
citizen, and he says “nope.” If you don’t have at least one parent that’s an
American citizen, you’re not an American. My parents came on a student visa,
and they weren’t Americans, but I was born here and my brother was, so we’re
Americans, and we’ve contributed just like other Americans have.
He also supports getting rid of multilingual federal services. He
wants English-only for Medicare and Social Security forms. He wants balloting
to be English-only. That’s an attack on the Voting Rights Act, and an attack on
minorities and their right to participate in democracy.
Given your district has such a large Asian and Latino community,
is immigration and multiculturalism going to be a key part of your campaign?
Oh absolutely, because this district is so diverse. It’s
30 percent Asian and 30 percent Latino. It’s majority-minority. It would be a
travesty if someone with these kinds of views were to represent a district as
diverse as this.
There were some articles written about how Ed Royce attended this
hate rally in Yorba Linda, and how he said multiculturalism is “paralyzing” our
He blames multiculturalism for the ills of society. That’s crazy.
Multiculturalism is what makes America great. If you take a look at some of the
hottest companies that are formed, they’re all formed by immigrants or children
of immigrants. So we’re definitely going to hit him on that.
How will you win if your district is pegged as “solidly
If you just take a look at the numbers, it’s 41 percent Republican
and 33 percent Democrat, and then maybe 25 percent Independent. So for someone
who doesn’t understand this district, they automatically assume this is a safe
But what they fail to recognize is that Asians are prototypical
swing voters. A lot of Asians are registered Republican but are not wed to the
GOP. If you put a qualified Asian Democrat in front of them, they’ll vote for
My own school board election was evidence of that. The typical
Asian share of vote in my district is about 20 percent. When I ran in 2007 and
2011, the Asian share bounced up to 42 percent. It doubled. The increase came
from Independents and Republicans.
We also did a poll of likely voters, and when
likely voters hear about my story and Ed Royce’s story, we’re in a statistical
dead heat. The increase comes from Latinos, Asians, and independent voters.
Washington DC operates very far away, and they don’t have much experience
reaching out to Asian voters. And it’s too bad, but we understand it, and we
think it’s winnable.
How will you counter Ed Royce’s sizable campaign war chest?
We’re just going to have to run a smarter campaign. He’s got tons
of money, and can probably raise tons more by calling all his friends in the
financial services industry. But we think there’s a natural ceiling in terms of
support he can get.
Our strategy is to make sure all voters know what my background
is. He’s going to label me as a tax-and-spend liberal. But the fact is, in our
school district, we have never had furloughs and layoffs in the five years I’ve
been on the board. We’ve had healthy reserves, and we’ve never operated at a
deficit, which is something he can’t say for his 19 years in Congress.
And something else that we’re going to do:
Y tambien vamos a hablar con los Latinos in espanol，y vamos a hacer advertismos in
So we’re going to go into language in a way that he will not be
able to do. We think that’s going to generate even more voter interest in ways that
has not been seen in the past.
We heard you got married this year!
I got married in Guatemala!
What’s your wife’s role in your campaign?
Karen has a huge role. She works part-time at the science center
so she can work Thursdays and Fridays on my campaign. And she’s a great
strategist. She was involved in politics before I was. She used to work for
John Chiang, the state controller. She introduced me to a lot of the Los Angeles
political scene before I ran for office.
And she agreed to postpone our honeymoon until after the election.
I mean, how many women would do that?
This post is part of Hyphen Politics, an ongoing series that looks at where Asian America and politics
intersect in the run-up to the 2012 general election.
Lin Yang is the online political editor of Hyphen magazine.