The Leland Yee Effect and the 'Too-Busy' Asian American Voter

Suspended California state senator Leland Yee.
| Original photo: Tim Bartel/Flickr/Creative Commons License

In late March, Democratic state senator Leland Yee was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on charges of accepting bribes, accepting campaign contributions in exchange for political favors, and dealing firearms without a license by importing weapons from a reputed extremist group in the Philippines.

Like all individuals in this country with criminal charges brought against them, Yee is still considered innocent until proven guilty, but the charges have already brought serious damage to the reputation of one of California's most prominent Asian American politicians: His senate colleagues in Sacramento voted to suspend him, and Yee himself dropped out of his candidacy for California's Secretary of State in this year's elections.

Though most of us here in Southern California didn't vote Yee into his state senate office, which represents the San Francisco area, I couldn't help but wonder what sort of effect his charges and potential conviction would have on the Asian/Pacific Islander community at-large, particularly our community's rather limited forays into public office, and political representation in general.

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On one hand, Yee's aborted run for Secretary of State didn't really affect any new frontiers for Asian American electeds either way -- that office was already pioneered by March Fong Eu nearly 40 years ago. She served that post from 1975 to 1994.

On the other hand, Yee's alleged actions might make it that much harder for other Asian American political hopefuls aspiring for Sacramento or beyond. The fallout from Yee's arrest has already affected Chinese American community leaders in Yee's district, where an increased perception of organized crime, stemming not just from Yee, but on related charges that have also brought SF Chinatown gangster Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow to authorities, has caused leaders to cry foul at efforts to stereotype the community. It's bad enough lately that even athletes of Asian heritage have been labeled as being "deceptive."

And how would The Leland Yee Effect influence Asian American voter participation? Would it cause voters to vet candidates more carefully? Would it create a surge of cynicism to the process?

It turns out that particular aspect doesn't even matter anyway. The other week, a Pew Research Center report found that Asian American voter participation has lagged behind that of whites, blacks, and Latinos since 1998 -- despite growing demographics -- with voter apathy found among Asian Americans across all education and income levels, with many of them claiming to be "too busy" with work or school to even bother going to the polls.

If Yee's accusations are indeed true, then he, or any elected official who commits similar misdeeds, certainly felt privileged enough to believe they can get away with such things, and in turn abused their responsibility as a representative elected by the people.

Even in my own short-lived, unsuccessful foray into politics, it didn't take long to realize that the amount of money raised in campaigns -- even for local offices -- is mindblowingly sickening. The even-larger pools of funds raised in many partisan races, for either major party have even gotten me questioning my own party affiliation. The potential for corruption and abuse looms large for those who have such designs. I've met enough political hopefuls with questionable motives that were far more fundraising-savvy than I was, so suffice it to say that Yee, if proven guilty, most likely won't be the last, unfortunately.

Apathetic voters might feel they're perhaps the farthest one can get from a corrupt elected official, but there are parallels: They, too feel privileged enough to not have to exercise their right to vote, and to feel privileged enough that their vote won't make a difference, that they can get away with not having to participate in the democratic process, in turn they abuse their responsibility as citizens who are tasked with electing those who are meant to represent us.

And then there's the somewhat symbiotic relationship between the corrupt politician and the apathetic voter: The un-voter uses the actions of unscrupulous officeholders to justify their refusal to vote. They're all jerks anyway, right? The unscrupulous politician, in a way, relies the apathetic voter to justify getting away with things. If voters don't care about the process, then who really would care if a little power has been abused?

With Asians being the largest immigrating group into the U.S., these are issues we need to consider facing the future. Who will represent us? Will anyone bother to have anyone represent us in the first place? And while Yee, if convicted, might be one of the "few bad apples," will the bad apples end up being the few who will represent us?

Dunno about you, but I do take this voting thing rather seriously. Because once upon a time, people who looked like me weren't even allowed to vote. I'll never be privileged enough to forget that.

About the Author

Elson Trinidad is the Managing Editor of KCET's 50th Anniversary website and writes the "Transpacific Routes" and "Concrete and Chaparral" columns on KCET's blogs.
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