In Garden Grove, the latest Orange County city to face threats of litigation over its at-large election system, Vietnamese Americans have done well for themselves.
Since Van Tran was the first Vietnamese American to be elected to the City Council in 2000, the field of candidates has steadily grown to the point where Vietnamese hold three City Council seats, including the office of mayor.
But while Garden Grove’s Vietnamese Americans have certainly made significant inroads, the council still isn’t an accurate reflection of the city’s population. Its residents have yet to elect a Latino to council despite the fact that Latinos make up 37 percent of the population.
This reality has the Latino advocacy group MALDEF threatening a lawsuit under the 2001 California Voting Rights Act. If filed, the suit would be one of several brought against Orange County cities and school districts in recent years, but unusual in that another protected class under the act is in the majority on the council.
Regardless of whether it is ever filed, the potential of such a suit adds fodder to the debate over why some minority groups are more successful in politics than others.
The Success of Vietnamese Voters
The rise of Vietnamese American voters in Orange County is relatively recent. The nation’s first Vietnamese American elected official, Tony Lam, was elected to the Westminster City Council in 1992, eight years before Van Tran’s election in Garden Grove.
Since Tran’s election in 2000, more than a dozen Vietnamese Americans, almost all of them Republican, have run for Garden Grove City Council, including races where Vietnamese Americans are competing for the same seat.
And the trend goes beyond city council races.
In 2007, Janet Nguyen won a special election for the First District seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors. Then, earlier this year, following Nguyen’s election to the state Senate, Andrew Do beat Latino Democrat Lou Correa in the special election for her seat. Do was able out the 43-vote win despite Correa’s significant name recognition as a former state senator.
A Los Angeles Times post-election analysis showed that higher voter turnout among Vietnamese Americans, combined with a strong get-out-the-vote effort, were the keys to Do’s victory.
But Vietnamese Americans voting behavior runs counter to trends for Asian Americans as a whole, who lean Democrat and have levels of voter turnout about on par with Hispanic voters.
While Vietnamese voters have relatively high levels of political participation — a product, say academics, of the politicized nature of their immigration — Asian Americans are less likely than the general electorate to vote, despite their high education levels.
A recent Voting Rights Act lawsuit in Fullerton on behalf of Korean American voters draws attention to the lack of elected representation among other Asian groups.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Los Angeles-based group Asian Americans Advancing Justice brought the lawsuit on behalf of Korean American resident Jonathan Paik. It argued that Asian voters, who make up 23 percent of the city’s population, are largely concentrated in North Fullerton and would benefit from a system where candidates are elected by district.
Fullerton reached a settlement with civil rights groups last week, under which the city is required to start the process of drawing electoral districts for voter approval on next November’s ballot.
Korean voters have had more recent success countywide. In last November’s election, they turned out at 22 percent — twice the rate they did in the June primary — due in part to efforts by high profile Republican candidates like State Assemblywoman Young Kim and County Supervisor Michelle Park Steel.
Strong Community Ties Matter
Beyond voter turnout, experts point to other systemic factors that might affect turnout and a group’s overall participation in politics.
Irene Bloemraad, a sociology professor at UC Berkeley who studies how immigrants become incorporated into politics, said strong community organizations and outreach from mainstream political institutions play a large role in helping immigrant communities
“I think that there’s a danger to viewing voting as just a matter of individual decision-making and not recognizing that people often get into politics…because they’re invited in,” said Bloemraad.
Groups that came to the United States as refugees, such as Southeast Asians, got a “leg up” in early politics because of resettlement support, which helped build strong community organizations, she said.
“From that, Vietnamese immigrants have grown and built a rich, community-based infrastructure where it was easier to mobilize and get involved in politics [than it is for] groups that come in undocumented or under family reunification,” Bloemraad said.
In Orange County, the GOP has not let its registration edge among Vietnamese Americans go to waste, making a concerted effort to recruit and groom Vietnamese candidates. Recently, encouraged by the success of candidates like Kim and Steel, some in the party have pushed for outreach to Asian communities more broadly.
Thinking Beyond the Voting Rights Act
Garden Grove Mayor Bao Nguyen doesn’t think district elections will necessarily address the problem of low turnout or participation among minority residents in city hall and local politics.
Like Bloemraad, Bao Nguyen says elected officials and government need to intentionally reach out to different constituencies.
“We need to have more good candidates that are willing to engage the community … and that are willing to be in places of discomfort and unfamiliarity in order to learn about parts of the community that are marginalized,” Bao Nguyen said. “You just can’t say, ‘we’re a diverse society and we’re proud of that.’ No, that’s not enough.”
There’s also division among some local Latino leaders over whether forcing district elections through a lawsuit is the right course of action.
While the Santa Ana chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) is a party to the MALDEF lawsuit, Benny Diaz, president of the Garden Grove chapter, has said that he doesn’t think the group should force the city to spend taxpayer dollars on the issue.
Bloemraad says opposition to district elections in cities could also point to underlying party politics.
“If Mexicans are seen as largely Democratic voters, is it really about minority politics or is that an easier way for those who support Republicans to talk about what they’re really afraid of?” Bloemraad said.
Even among Vietnamese voters, the robust political success of the last few decades could start to dim as internal politics reveal ideological and generational differences, Bloemraad said.
Republican registration has declined among Vietnamese voters in recent years, with increasing numbers registering as Democrats or Independents, a trend that could continue as second-generation Vietnamese come of voting age.
And as immigrant communities change, so do their expectations for elected representatives, Bloemraad said.
“The larger question to ask is, what kind of interest or what kind of local decisions does the Vietnamese community see as community politics,” she said. “Beyond that symbolic representation, what do I actually want…that someone who is Korean or Latino not push for?”
For example, Bao Nguyen, a registered Democrat, is something of an anomaly. During his time in office, the young mayor — alienated among his fellow Vietnamese electeds — has courted younger Vietnamese Americans who are by in large more progressive and less interested in homeland politics.
As voters start to change their priorities, they might place less emphasis on candidates who look like them or speak their language.
“And in some cases, the answer might be, they’re going to understand something about linguistic isolation. And is it maybe the flag, that’s something the councilperson can understand better,” Bloemraad said. “If it’s something about trash collection or zoning or pollution, then ethnicity or race might not be right lens to think through.”
Other immigration trends are also likely to change how immigrant politics plays out.
Increasingly, immigrants are moving away from large metropolitan areas to suburban communities.
As that trend continues, Bloemraad says suburban governments will need to find new ways to reach out to immigrant communities.
“Cities like San Francisco and San Jose provide funding to immigrant community organizations,” she said. “Suburbs are less likely to provide public funding for these groups. The infrastructure in place to do that old style of ethnic politics is harder in the suburbs than urban centers.”
Laboni Hoq, litigation director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said given differences in where different communities live and how they participate, it’s hard to generalize about the political representation of Asian Americans countywide.
She emphasizes that the Voting Rights Act is just one tool for minority communities to pursue more equitable representation and start a community dialogue.
“The law sets some standards by which a jurisdiction can think hard about the issue, and whether or not the electoral system is a barrier to communities of color,” Hoq said. “It’s a very good tool to have jurisdictions take seriously what it means to have a democratic process.”
Contact Thy Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.