Betty Valencia, candidate for Orange City Council, on the campaign trail. (Betty Valencia)
A record number of women are running for political office in 2018. KQED's series "The Long Run" focuses on a handful of candidates from California, who are gunning for seats in everything from city council to Congress.
hen Betty Valencia decided to run for Orange City Council in Southern California, she never thought being an immigrant from Mexico would make her a target.
But it has: Since late September, she said she has gotten emails and messages on social media asking about her legal status (she is a U.S. citizen) and her position on immigration enforcement, and she has been called a cancer and a poison. Some of the attacks have spilled over into real life.
At a campaign event in early October, Valencia says a woman and a man in a golf cart drove by as she was pushing her infant grandniece in a stroller. The woman pointed at her. “And then she said these words as loud as she could: ‘Trump is coming for you, Betty,’ and then they just sped away,” said Valencia, who took her words to mean deportation. “I think she was very much insinuating that I would go back to my country.”
Immigrants like Valencia are among a wave of newcomers running for political office in 2018, hoping to infuse new representation into every level of government, from city council to Congress. While they’re facing challenges common to first-timers, they’re also encountering hurdles due to their immigrant backgrounds -- now more so than ever with a charged national debate around immigration.
‘Showing Up for Ourselves’
More and more immigrant candidates are seeking political office, said Sayu Bhojwani, founder and president of New American Leaders (NAL), a nonpartisan group that trains naturalized citizens and people of color how to campaign.
At least 100 first-generation immigrants are on the ballot in 2018, and many others on it are second- and third-generation immigrants of color, NAL estimated.
“One thing that we've seen very clearly post-2016 is there's an incredible amount of energy in terms of running for office,” she said. “There's more boldness and more determination on the part of newcomer candidates.”
While not the only factor in their decision to run, “the Trump administration's policies and rhetoric have been a big motivator for candidates,” Bhojwani said. “Running for office has definitely become one element of the resistance movement among immigrant leaders.”
Bhojwani started the group in 2010 shortly after Arizona passed its controversial "Show me your papers" law or (SB1070). She had the idea for NAL before then as immigration reform continued to fail in Congress and a growing number of anti-immigrant bills moved through statehouses.
“I felt it was important we were showing up for ourselves to be the policymakers that we needed because we kept working on behalf of other candidates who were ostensibly allies but were not actually getting the job done,” she said, noting that the group’s aim was to build a pipeline of candidates “that reflect, that look like America.”
Twenty-eight of the group’s alums ran in 2016, with 68 percent winning; 54 of their graduates are running in 2018.
Many immigrants are seeking office in California, like Republican Cristina Osmeña, who is challenging House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for her San Francisco seat, and Farrah Khan who is vying for a seat on the Irvine City Council.
Barriers to Running
For NAL’s participants, the three most common barriers to running for office are: markers of immigrant identity (like race, religion, legal status, appearance), a lack of money or financial network, and no political experience or knowledge, Bhojwani said.
But the group tells would-be candidates they have what it takes. And they stress the value of their backgrounds: “That the immigrant experience is an asset rather than a deficit,” she said. “The immigrant narrative as part of the American story is a critical underpinning of our training.”
That’s the case for Young Kim, a South Korean immigrant who came to California via Guam and Hawaii. A Republican running for the (mostly) Orange County congressional seat now held by retiring GOP Rep. Ed Royce. She already served in the State Assembly and if Kim wins this time, she will become the first Korean-American woman elected to Congress.
Kim said she wants people to know she is an immigrant.
“This is a very diverse district, which I think I understand having come from all different areas,” she said. “I know how hard it is to adjust and assimilate into a new country ... I can bring all of those different perspectives.”
And, she said, her immigration policy would be shaped around what her constituents want.
“A lot of people will say because Young Kim is a Republican that I will go automatically with our Republican leadership or (what our) platform says,” she said “I am running as my own person because my district needs a representative who understands what our needs are.”
Elizabeth Alcantar, who is running for Cudahy City Council in L.A. County, talks with voters about her parents’ experiences in the U.S. as immigrants and her own as a second-generation American -- which mirror that of many in her mostly Latino community.
“I do not see myself getting into city council being the end game,” said Alcantar, 25. “It's just the beginning of getting more young immigrant women in office -- here in Cudahy, but also in all the region here in the southeast. We need more of our own folks in office.”
‘I Represent Those Caravans to People’
What happened to Betty Valencia on the campaign trail wasn’t an isolated case.
Farrah Khan, who came to the U.S. at three years-old from Pakistan with her mom in 1974, is one of five immigrants running for Irvine City Council this year after losing her first bid for a seat on it in 2016.
In both campaigns, negative attacks falsely claimed she was associated with terrorist organizations. In her first run, those attacks were made in mailers. This time, they’ve moved onto social media, said Khan, 46, executive director of a nonprofit and interfaith council.
“You're running for local office and it's something that you care about ... your neighborhoods, your neighbors,” said Khan, who is Muslim and a mother of four kids. “Race and religion has no place here. ... And so when they bring this into the picture it makes you kind of think twice like, ‘Is that really how some people see you?’ Before they even get to know you, are you already judged by the way you look or by the name that you have?”
Another immigrant candidate in Southern California has come under similar attacks: Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar who is challenging Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter. Hunter, who is under federal indictment for misusing campaign funds, has falsely claimed that Campa-Najjar is a Muslim trying to “infiltrate” Congress. In fact, he is a Christian.
Immigrant candidates in the past have faced a lot of discrimination, said Christabel Cruz, director of national education for women's leadership at the Center for American Women in Politics.
“We're seeing, I think, more and more in this particular political climate ... discriminatory practices and language -- really hate speech in terms of characterization of immigrant candidates,” she said.
As “his rhetoric increases, we are feeling it,” Valencia, 47, said of President Trump. “I represent those caravans to people.”
Cruz said the backlash against immigrant candidates may also be because more of them are running for office: “The more people fighting for their representation, the stronger the resistance to that representation is going to get.”
And that’s the reason a number of the immigrants interviewed by KQED said they were running: representation.
‘There’s No One in City Council That Looks Like Me’
Valencia said she decided to run for city council at 11:33 p.m. on April 10, 2018. That’s when the council passed a resolution saying it would seek to block enforcement of SB54 -- California’s sanctuary law -- pending a lawsuit brought by the federal government challenging it.
At that moment, Valencia looked at the councilmembers and thought: "You are in my seat." “There’s no one in city council that looks like me,” said Valencia, who also identifies as a lesbian Latina.
“I realized that unless someone like me -- with my perspective, my experience, my background -- was sitting there, that the population we have in the city of Orange -- which we have a high population of immigrants -- would not have a voice, would not have protection or would not even be counted,” said Valencia. “I wanted to make sure that at least I could use my voice to help others not feel the way I felt.”
For Jaya Badiga, a 44-year-old immigrant from India and naturalized citizen running for Folsom Cordova Unified School District near Sacramento, representation is a driving factor, too. But she’s shied away from saying that’s why people should vote for her.
“These days, with everything on the national forefront, I don't want the narrative to be a school board member wants to be known for her cultural heritage. And, because there is a growing body of Indian American or cultural ethnically Indian or South Asian students, therefore we should vote for her,” said Badiga, 44. “But that is a huge part of my identity. So there has been talk in the community from some members on the board that they're glad to see representation from the community. And I reciprocate that.”
‘All It Takes Is One Person to Win’
Two Muslim women vying for seats in Michigan and Minnesota could become the first elected to Congress -- and that is “inspiring for people even if they lost,” said Bhojwani of NAL.
“The biggest reason that we're going to continue to see a growth in the number of immigrant and newcomers candidates is because they're going to be inspired by the people who have run this year and are winning,” she said. “All it takes is one person to win to make people feel that it's possible.”
At the end of the campaign event in the park, where Valencia said the woman threatened her, a woman wearing a T-shirt reading “Be kind” approached her: “She says she came to meet me because she supported me and because she thinks it's time that we become a more inclusive community.”
That -- and other support from the community -- gave Valencia hope after the troubling incident.
“It took me a little bit to regroup, to re-energize and to refocus and say that our message continues: that we're going to stay positive, that I belong here just as anybody else and that I'm qualified."
Updated to clarify information provided by New American Leaders on Cristina Osmeña, who isn't an alumni of their program.