The night before the Illinois primaries, Theresa Mah’s staff is busy in her campaign office, preparing boxes, making phone calls, and clicking away at their keyboards. Meanwhile, Mah and I take a ride to Chinatown. She is on her way to speak at a family association spring banquet. Chinatown is in the district for which, if elected, Mah would serve as state representative, along with other nearby Chicago neighborhoods.
“This is very, very exciting because it’s a historic race,” says Mah, a sharply dressed woman in her mid-forties with a soft voice and a bright, easy smile. “There’s never been an Asian American in the Illinois State Legislature. So, there’s that. And then, the fact that there’s never been a campaign with so much participation from the Asian American community. Already, we’ve broken records.”
Mah's campaign has already exceeded expectations, particularly in terms of the numbers of Chinese American voters who have turned out. In the past, only 500 of Chicago’s Chinese Americans voted in primary elections on average. This year, according to Mah’s campaign manager, approximately 1,100 came out for early voting alone.
We park on a side street in Chinatown, and at the Soo Yuen Benevolent Association Lunar New Year Festival, Mah is immediately greeted with hugs and handshakes from the guests. Loud upbeat music plays as one of her supporters, Ivy Lam, guides her around the room to shake hands and take selfies with potential voters. “In Chinatown, we have so many organizations -- or associations,” Ivy explains, “And we are all coming out to support her.”
I ask a man sitting at one of the tables if he plans to vote for Mah on Tuesday, and he says that he does not live in her district, but that all of his friends in Chinatown support her. “I hope she can make it,” he says cheerfully. Finally, after taking photographs and shaking hands around the room, she stands at the podium and speaks to the crowd as the guests listen and subsequently applaud.
Mah grew up in San Francisco. She is a second-generation Asian American, a child of Chinese immigrants. She started her career as an Asian Studies professor working in Ohio and Illinois. Mah tells me that while teaching, she found that many Asian Americans didn’t know about their own history, so she enjoyed teaching them some of that history in her classes.
Mah explains: “I was inspired to become a historian and teach Asian American studies because I grew up with the story of my grandfather, who came to the United States in the '20s as a paper son. He was separated from his family like a lot of immigrants at the time. They lived in all-male environments because usually the men came as immigrants. Being a paper son meant that he came in with papers that he purchased, and so he was technically here illegally, and the laws didn’t change until the 1940s and '50s to allow them to become naturalized citizens.”
Mah's immigrant background resonates with Chicago’s 2nd district, which contains a large population of Asian and Latino immigrants. She feels this helps her relate to not only Asian Americans, but to Latino Americans as well. “If I understand the experience of growing up with parents who were brand new immigrants or small business owners, had to translate for my mom when I was a kid, write my own notes to the teacher, that’s something that’s pretty universal in the immigrant experience, and a lot of my Latino supporters relate to that.”
While Mah has the support of Latino politicians and community members, there are some voters who feel differently. During a press conference in February, when Congressman Luis Gutierrez had planned to endorse Mah, the supporters of her opponent, Alex Acevedo, allegedly intimidated her Chinese supporters, shoving and using racial slurs. I asked her how this affected her campaign. “It really galvanized a lot of my supporters and caused a lot of community leaders to come out in support of me,” says Mah. “Congressman Gutierrez doubled down on his support and so did the alderman who were there to support me and endorse me that day. And in some ways I think that it helped to build more momentum in that moment in the campaign because it made them look really bad to resort to that kind of tactic.”
After teaching at the college level for fifteen years, Mah moved on to work for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), a community-based organization focused on empowerment for the migrant community. A year later, she came to Chinatown to work for a Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, and she fought to change the district boundaries to include the Chinese population in a single state representative district.
“The population was scattered among four different state rep districts, and they had no voting power,” Mah explains. “They could never hold an elected official accountable or threaten to vote them out or put any pressure on them because they were just a tiny portion of the constituency. So, I thought it was really important to work on this redistricting project.” Mah also worked to open a bigger library in Chinatown, and if elected, she tells me that one of her most basic goals is to give the Chinese American community a voice.
The following night, during the Illinois primaries, Theresa declared victory in the 2nd state representative district, beating her opponent Alex Acevedo by approximately 500 votes. Still, the night before, she told me that whether or not she ends up as the state representative of this district, she felt that her campaign already had a tremendous impact on the Chinese American community in Chicago.
She said it better herself: “We have a Chinese American -- or Asian American -- outreach effort that’s unparalleled. It’s never been done before. It’s never been seen before. To have folks who have an active hand in developing that and making it successful, that’s already historic...It means that we’ll have more participation in the future and more engagement. Whether I win or not, people are out there, and they’re going to do their thing, and it’s going to be a new day for the Asian American community.”