Asian American Political Movement Matures

January 10, 2011

The "Asian Power" headline from the San Francisco Examiner  encapsulates what's happening in politics for Asian Americans, especially in San Francisco, where Ed Lee is about to become the first Asian American mayor.

Lee, the city administrator, is set to be named interim mayor Tuesday if the SF Board of Supervisors votes him in as expected after a week of political maneuvering.

David Chiu was re-elected chair of the SF Board of Supervisors on Saturday after speculation that had him at various times being named interim mayor himself or the pick to replace SF District Attorney Kamala Harris, another Asian American who took the oath as the newly elected California attorney general last week.

In addition, Carmen Chu was re-elected to the SF Board of Supervisors and Jane Kim won a seat after serving on the city's board of education. They join Chiu and Eric Mar to give four of the 10 supervisor seats to Asian Americans, who make up about a third of San Francisco's population.

Lee became the consensus candidate of the left-wing liberals and moderate liberals (this is San Francisco, after all) to be interim mayor partly because he has no desire for the job permanently. After he steps down in a year as anticipated, there's a good chance an Asian American will reclaim the SF mayor's seat, with state Senator Leland Yee and city Assessor Phil Ting already declared candidates and Chiu contemplating a run in the November election.

These are the latest turns in a political season that has seen Asian Americans across the country win elections. Some notables are Harris, Nikki Haley becoming the first Indian American and female governor of South Carolina and Jean Quan becoming the first female and Asian American mayor of Oakland, CA.

It's a sign of maturity for the political clout of Asian Americans, particularly in California, where 166 elected officials are Asian Pacific American, including 10 mayors, three members of Congress, eight state legislators and two statewide officeholders, according to the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies.

A check of the institute's Asian American Political Database shows that the roster of elected Asian American officials slants to the left, but there's a large contingent of conservatives that includes nationally recognized leaders such as Haley and Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana who's also Indian American. 

Asian Americans have grown up and moved into the mainstream of political power, with varying backgrounds and diverse political views. It's a natural progression that's been slow in coming but heartening to see for Asian Americans after years on the periphery. Hopefully this political emergence helps blow up the stereotype that Asian Americans don't make great leaders and that we can fully participate in the political and social discourse of the country.

(Full disclosure: My wife Ramie Dare went to graduate school with Chiu and Ting and was a volunteer for their election campaigns.)


Harry Mok

Editor in chief

Editor in Chief Harry Mok wrote about growing up on a Chinese vegetable farm for the second issue of Hyphen and has been a volunteer editor since 2004. As a board member of the San Francisco and New York chapters of the Asian American Journalists Association, Harry has recruited and organized events for student members. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was also a graduate student instructor in the Asian American Studies Department.