Could a Filipino-American Finally Take a Seat in the California Legislature?

By Jason Margolis

You probably wouldn’t be surprised that Chinese-Americans are the largest group of Asian-Americans in the state. But the second largest group might be harder for you to name. It’s Filipinos.

Despite their numbers, Filipino-Americans haven’t achieved much success in the halls of political power. Filipinos have been elected in local elections throughout the state, and California’s Chief Justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, is of Filipino descent. But there’s never been a Filipino-American in the state legislature in Sacramento.

Jennifer Ong at a Buddhist Temple in Fremont. She is running for State Assembly. (Photo: Jason Margolis)

But in November, Philippine-born Californians are on the ballot in two San Francisco Bay Area districts. Jennifer Ong is one of those two, although initially she seems a surprising candidate to make history for Filipinos in California. She has worked as an optometrist for years and has never held elected office. She only decided to run for the state legislature when people in the local Asian immigrant community asked her to do it.

“So my reason for running is purely obligation,” Ong says. “Coming here from the Philippines with very little — when we came here, we actually shared one bedroom, seven of us — and being able to buy my own practice 31 years later, graduating from a very good public school, I think it’s an opportunity I wouldn’t have had — even in another state.”

I met Ong at a cookout at a Buddhist Temple in the Bay Area city of Fremont. Ong is a regular at Asian church events like this. She comes to talk to people about health problems endemic in the Asian immigrant community — problems like hepatitis B and diabetes. I asked her if she’d also be using the time here to campaign. She paused for a moment before replying.

“Our tendency for Filipino-Americans, and most other Asians, is you don’t make waves, right? That’s part of our culture. ‘Be a good girl, Jennifer. Don’t do that.’

“That’s just kind of secondary,” Ong said, “because I do very feel strange about the connection with the church and politics.”

It’s clear, campaigning is not the most comfortable fit for her.

“Our tendency for Filipino-Americans, and most other Asians, is you don’t make waves, right? That’s part of our culture. ‘Be a good girl, Jennifer. Don’t do that.’ You’re supposed to study hard, get a good education, get a good job, help your family. Other than that, don’t make waves, don’t get involved in politics,” she says.

Filipinos first came to California as far back as the 16th century. Their numbers swelled after 1965 with the end of immigration quotas.

Today there are 1.4 million people in California who claim some Filipino ancestry, according to the 2010 census. If the state legislature reflected their share of the population, there would be five Filipino-Americans serving in Sacramento.

Lillian Galedo, executive director of the Oakland group Filipino Advocates for Justice, says this is her community’s strongest chance to break through.

“In California there have been multiple attempts to try and get somebody in the state legislature,” Galedo says. “I think we’re close, partly it’s because of redistricting that created the opportunity — and term limits.”

Galedo says their strongest candidate for the State Assembly is Democrat Rob Bonta. Bonta is a Yale graduate, a lawyer and the vice mayor of the city of Alameda, in the district next door to Ong’s. Bonta’s family moved to California from the Philippines when he was less than a year old.

Both Bonta and Ong finished in the top two of their June primaries in close races. Under California’s new open primary, Bonta and Ong will each face off against one other Democrat in November.

Genevieve Jopanda, with the group KAYA: Filipino Americans for Progress, says this fall’s election could be a paradigm shift.

“We have the opportunity to do what the Latinos did in 60s and 70s,” Jopanda says. “They had one or two Assembly members in the 60s, and they brought in a couple of more, and they created the Latino Legislative Caucus, and now they’re powerful. And they’ve developed a really strong infrastructure to open doors and develop future leaders and build that pipeline.”

But how might Filipino leaders in Sacramento represent their community differently than other lawmakers who aren’t Filipinos? In other words, why do Filipino-Americans need a Filipino in Sacramento? I met with Rob Bonta at a coffee shop in Alameda and asked him what issues and challenges are specific to Filipinos in California.

“Immigration is a big component, education is something that is very important to our community, support for small businesses is important as well,” Bonta says.

I suggested that these issues aren’t unique to Filipinos here. Bonta agreed and said he’s running to represent all Californians. But he also said it’s symbolically important to have a Filipino-American in Sacramento.

“To put a stake in the ground and say, we do have Filipino-American leaders that will represent our community and represent the entire state of California in an effective way,” Bonta says.

This is quite a departure for a group that’s been dubbed “the invisible minority.” Filipinos have assimilated well into American culture, and — as Jennifer Ong points out — have not made waves. To many, those are admirable qualities. But Ong says Filipino-Americans also struggle to define their cultural identity.

“In the past, I’ve seen Filipinos who aren’t very proud of being Filipino. And I think it’s going to change. I see it changing already. So it’s time, it’s OK to be proud of it,” Ong says.

Voters in Alameda County will decide November’s election. But Filipino-Americans throughout the nation are also watching.