The Void in the Civic Voice of Asian/Pacific Islanders in L.A.

The Los Angeles City Council convenes at L.A. City Hall | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Earlier this month, it was the proverbial Dawning of a New Day as a brand new city government took hold in Los Angeles, which included six new members to the L.A. City Council.

But take a look who isn't sitting in the horseshoe (besides women, which will ultimately be addressed, albeit minimally, following next week's special election between Nury Martinez and Cindy Montañez for the 6th District): In a city that prides itself on its cultural diversity, its legislative body is currently comprised of eight whites, three Latinos, and three African Americans.

And zero of Asian/Pacific Islander ancestry.

There hasn't been one for 20 years in fact, since Mike Woo finished his second term as councilmember of the 13th District after losing the mayor's race to Richard Riordan.

If the 15-member Los Angeles City Council is intended to geographically represent its 3,857,799 residents, with each seat representing less than seven percent of the city's population, then a city with an Asian/Pacific Islander demographic totaling 11.4 percent would likely have at least one Asian/Pacific islander in the council, right?

But things don't quite work out that way.

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Though a number of the other municipalities in L.A. County have a much higher representation of Asian/Pacific Islanders in their city councils, notably Cerritos, San Gabriel, Gardena, and Monterey Park, their at-large councils represent cities with a large demographic figure (Monterey Park, for instance, is 67 percent Asian). In Los Angeles, despite being known for its designated Asian enclaves, they are all divided among various council districts: Chinatown (District 1), Little Tokyo (District 14), Koreatown (Districts 10 and 13), Little Bangladesh, Thai Town and Historic Filipinotown (District 13). Other pockets exist in other districts citywide: Vietnamese in District 1, Indians and Koreans in District 12, Thais in District 2 and Filipinos in Districts 6 and 14.

The L.A. city council district with the highest percentage of Asian/Pacific Islanders is the 13th, stretching from Hollywood to Silver Lake to Atwater Village, with an Asian population of 16 percent, of which I'm a part of.

When longtime 13th District councilmember Eric Garcetti ended his third term and set his sights on the mayor's office, a flood of 20 candidates last year declared their intent to succeed him. Four were of Asian descent. I was actually one of them.

As a native, a lifelong resident and an activist in the district with a diverse upbringing in the 13th who felt he could bring together the district's various demographic groups, I thought I had a shot -- until the harsh reality of realizing I didn't have enough resources to do this thing caused me to not qualify to be on the ballot. The other three did.

One of them, former Public Works commissioner and labor organizer John Choi, with the aid of a large financial warchest and union support, garnered enough votes in the March primary to qualify to run in the May runoff against former city council aide Mitch O'Farrell.

When all was said and done, O'Farrell beat Choi, 53 to 47 percent in the general election.

I was disappointed -- not at the results (In fact, I was quite an outspoken supporter of O'Farrell during the runoff, based on my previous experience of working with him in the community) -- but because I so wanted to see an Asian face in the city council, but not at the expense of electing someone who hadn't paid his dues in the community.

The 13th district race in 2013 was a notoriously heated one, which included voter fraud allegations from both sides centered around voters in the Armenian community, and also a campaign mailer which Choi supporters alleged was racist and xenophobic, painting their candidate as "Not from our community." But however it was construed, it was not untruthful: the Orange County-bred Choi had only lived in the district for a mere year, had not gotten directly involved in the issues of the district before his candidacy and ultimately -- to his detriment -- had not invested enough time engaging and developing relationships with the voters of the district.

The "carpetbagger" stigma, normally forgiven in districts with lower levels of empowerment and community engagement, was a big deal with many voters, especially myself, who has lived in the 13th district longer than both candidates combined. As a volunteer and activist in not just my ethnic community, but my geographical community for some two decades, there was no way I would lend my support to someone who had only claimed residence here for one year. Even the last Asian American to run for city council in Los Angeles, Warren Furutani, who had already led an esteemed career as a school board member, community college trustee, and state assemblyman, couldn't overcome the district newbie stigma enough to win the 2012 special election against 15th District native and former police officer Joe Buscaino.

And ultimately that's the root of the 20-year drought of a lack of Asian/Pacific Islander representation in Los Angeles city government. The problem wasn't Choi or Furutani themselves nor the mechanics of their campaigns, but the dearth of Asian/Pacific Islanders involved in the community and Los Angeles civic issues overall.

I know this first-hand. For years I have attended community meetings, volunteer activities, workshops, and town halls in my council district of 16 percent Asian/Pacific Islanders, and very rarely do I encounter another there. In fact, there was a time when I've attended many a community meeting where I wasn't just the only Filipino, or even Asian, but the only person of color in the room (and to top it off, the only person under 50). I was probably one of a mere handful of Angelenos of Asian heritage who were involved in establishing any one of the 95 or so neighborhood councils in the city.

It's not that Asians are not politically involved. Most Asian/Pacific Islanders around my age group and younger do vote and are politically-minded, but their interest only spans national and/or global issues exclusively. Regional and civic and issues don't register on their radar somehow, even though they impact our daily lives the most. Community engagement might be limited to their respective ethnic group, which is important and necessary. But in the big city, we also need to work actively with current local elected officials, build bridges, step outside our comfort zones, and work with others outside of our ethnicity and race.

For first-generation and newly-immigrated Asians and Pacific Islanders, language, immigration/citizenship status and long work hours are understandable reasons for not being engaged in the community, but for the rest, there's more than enough room at the table waiting, even though hardly anyone cares to show up.

Maybe it will take another generation before we can see more qualified, community- and civically- engaged Asian/Pacific Islanders run and hold local office in Los Angeles. Or maybe two generations. Or three. Or more.

Or maybe the name Michael K. Woo, elected to the L.A. City Council in 1985, will just become a footnote, an asterisk, a quirk, an aberration in this city's political history.

About the Author

Elson Trinidad is the Filipino kid who grew up listening to black music in an Armenian neighborhood where people spoke Spanish and ate Thai food.
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