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Asian-Americans Enjoy New Political Clout in Bay Area

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Oakland mayor-elect Jean Quan meets supporters

There's a new buzz among Asian-Americans in the Bay Area over recent big-city political victories. Oakland elected its first Asian-American mayor, and some say San Francisco is poised to do the same.

"It's funny, I've been teasing my friends in SF," says Jean Quan, Oakland's Mayor-Elect. "SF has always had a much larger Chinese-American population, and I've been giving them a bad time, 'Okay so we beat you on this one!'"

Excited by Quan's victory, people in the crowd seem assured that the next mayor of San Francisco will be held by an Asian-American for the first time.

"I remember going to events seven years ago and arguing for candidates to come out to AA event," says Jane Kim, a newly elected San Francisco supervisor. "The response often being yeah, that's great, we want to do it, but Asians don't really vote and we've really got to focus on people who are coming out to vote."

There are a number of reasons some Asian-Americans have been reluctant to vote. For recent immigrants, there can be acculturation issues and language barriers. A century of policies restricting Asian immigration also made many feel unwelcome and wary of the political process. But David Lee, the head of the Chinese American Voter Education Committee, says years of targeted and persistent voter outreach are paying off.

"We're constantly registering people to vote, turning them out to vote, getting people involved, and we don't look at any one particular candidate as the answer to all the needs and concerns of the community," he says.

Lee thinks there's never been a more opportune time for an Asian-American to take the mayor's office in San Francisco. Chinese American David Chiu is president of the board of Supervisors and could be appointed mayor when Gavin Newsom leaves to become lieutenant governor.

With Korean-American Jane Kim's election, the city will also have a record four Asian-American supervisors. But Lee says that's not the only reason the city could see its first Asian-American mayor.

"I've never seen the community so interested in politics, interested in empowerment, in voter registration, in running for office than I've seen now," he says.

Within weeks of State Senator Leland Yee announcing his bid for mayor, the city's Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting also announced his candidacy.

"I'm very proud of being a Chinese-American elected official, but that's not the reason I'm running. I'm running because I think I have the best ideas and best ability to be the mayor of San Francisco," Ting said.

The move to ranked-choice voting also improves the chances of Asian-American candidates, because having more than one Asian-American candidate will not split the votes.

Oakland's mayor-elect Jean Quan used ranked-choice voting to her advantage in other ways. Quan and fellow candidate Rebecca Kaplan coalesced their voter support, which led to a come-from-way-behind victory over front runner Don Perata, the former state senator.

"She is really an example of the kind of factors that I think are contributing to this bigger picture, which is the maturation, the political maturation of the candidates," says James Lai, who teaches political science at Santa Clara University.

He says Quan didn't win with the Asian vote. Her support was multi-racial. Lai says non-Asian voters are also starting to see Asian-Americans as capable of representing them.

"Part of the Asian-American experience is being kind of seen as outsiders who are not American," Laid says. "But we're seeing clearly in the Bay Area that Asian-Americans are part of that multi-racial, kaleidoscopic face, and I think that bodes well politically for Asian-American candidates."

What's happening in the Bay Area is a blueprint for other areas with large Asian populations, like Los Angeles and Orange County. But Lai says Asian-American candidates need to be cautious as they move closer to achieving proportional political representation.

"Because as you can imagine, outgoing majorities don't want to give up power too quickly, and there's going to be resistance in the voter booth," Lai says.

There's been a backlash in some Silicon Valley suburbs with booming Asian populations. In Cupertino there was resistance to naming a community center after an Asian-American donor several years ago.

In Oakland, Asian-Americans aren't worrying about moving too far too fast though. Greg Chan, head of Alameda County's Asian Pacific American Democratic Caucus, says Quan's mayoral victory is a sign that the community is shedding its foreigner stereotype: "You are part of the fabric, you become more and more part of the fabric, and perhaps this is that time."

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