Meet California’s First Majority Asian-American District

by Alice Walton

Before Assembly District 49 in Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley was redrawn, a majority Asian-American state legislative district in California had never existed

Ed Chau (Alice Walton/KPCC)

Now, it’s a busy election season in the 49th, which is just east of Los Angeles and includes the cities of Alhambra, San Gabriel and Monterey Park, sometimes referred to as “the first suburban Chinatown.” In these communities, more than half of the residents were born outside of the United States, and three-quarters speak a language other than English.

Kathay Feng, Executive Director of California Common Cause, says the Asian-American community has a long history in the region. “The area has become a gateway for a lot of Asian-American immigrants, and it has been that way for 30, 40 years now, to successive waves….” Majority representation for Asian Americans is a big change for a community that experienced an English-only movement just 25 years ago,  a backlash against the growing number of immigrants. Now the community is tied together by common concerns. Feng lists them off:

“Language issues, the need for bilingual assistance, making sure that access to schools and public services are provided in multiple languages. Protecting a fairly new immigrant population from practices like predatory lending,”

Matthew Lin (Lin campaign)

What makes this race somewhat unpredictable is that most of California’s Asian-American citizens do not identify with a political party, as a recent survey showed. In the San Gabriel Valley’s 49th District, almost a third of registered voters do not list a political preference. About a quarter of voters are Republican, and about 40 percent are Democrats.

“They’re very guarded about what their political affiliation is, perhaps because of the countries that they’ve come from and their experience in being careful about allowing their political preferences be known to the public,” Feng explains.

That attitude toward political parties may explain why Republican Matthew Lin won the June primary with 52 percent of the vote — even though he ran in a Democratic-leaning district. He beat out Democrat Edwin Chau, who finished with 35 percent. In fact, Lin won more votes than Chau and a second Democratic candidate combined. But that result doesn’t worry Chau. “As far as the primary result was concerned, it was one of the lowest voter turnout races in the history of the district, and we believe that the November electorate is going to be much different and it’s going to be pretty high,” he says.

In Ed Chau’s campaign office, phone-banking comes in a variety of languages that reflect the demographics of the district. Chau is an attorney, engineer and member of the local school board. He’s been endorsed by two prominent fellow Democrats, the district’s current Assemblyman, Mike Eng, and Congresswoman Judy Chu.

On a recent night, volunteers packed the storefront office to call voters and encourage them to support Chau. “We do have volunteers who are bilingual so when they reach out to the voters, they could speak a language of these voters,” he says. “So that way they could feel more comfortable in finding out who I am.”

Nearby, at Matthew Lin’s headquarters, a similar scene plays out. Volunteers spend their evenings making 3,000 calls in English, Spanish and Mandarin. Lin’s message to voters in the district is that he has an immigration story similar to their own. He moved to America from Taiwan in 1973, became a doctor and founded an orthopedic medical center. “They feel that, like I do, everybody should have the…same opportunity that we do to succeed at the American dream,” he says.

The San Gabriel Valley Tribune endorsed Lin in the race. Though he’s running as a Republican, the newspaper called him a “rare bird, a party moderate with some even liberal moments.” On Election Day, both Lin and Chau will find out how much labels matter in this first-of-a-kind district.