By RYAN MASAAKI YOKOTA
CHICAGO — “I think there is a great deal of significance for Asian Americans running for office, especially county-wide,” said Josina Morita, who recently came off of a hotly contested March 2014 election campaign for a seat on the Cook County Metropolitan Water Reclamation District board.
“We’re kind of invisible to a lot of communities. I would campaign in parts of the county where I think I was the first Asian person they had ever talked to. And even to the Democratic Party leadership it was a new concept for them to think about what it means to support an Asian American candidate.”
Morita is a 33-year-old Gosei (fifth-generation) Japanese American and sixth-generation Chinese American who represents a new face and vision for Japanese American and Asian American political leadership in the greater Chicagoland area. It is a scene where Asian American elected officials remain vastly underrepresented, but are increasingly claiming a political voice in relation to their growing population.
According to the 2010 census, despite numbering more than 360,000 residents, and representing roughly 7 percent of the total Cook County population, Asian Americans currently hold only a few judicial Cook County level seats (though some hold seats at the village and township level). In Chicago, Indian American Ameya Pawar only recently became the first Asian American alderman in city history after being elected in February 2011. At the same time, the Asian American population of Cook County grew 26 percent from 2000 to 2010, with additional growth anticipated in the decades to come.
This relatively barren political landscape was a stark contrast to the vibrant Asian American milieu that Morita grew up in. Having been raised in a largely African American community in Oakland, Calif., her parents, early stalwarts in the Asian American Movement, exposed her to political activism from an early age.
“I grew up with a distinct background that’s unusual to a lot of people of my generation, with an Asian activist background and with social justice values imbedded in the household,” she recalled. “I was that baby in the stroller at marches with pins all over me.”
Morita eventually grew into her own political identity as a high school youth engaged in student organizing. Faced with a number of California state propositions targeting immigrants and affirmative action among other issues, her experiences organizing student walk-outs in opposition to these initiatives strengthened her commitment to political activism.
Her Japanese American family’s experiences being incarcerated during World War II played an important role in informing her motivations for being involved in community issues. On her mother’s side, her family was imprisoned in the Tule Lake concentration camp in California.
Her great-grandfather was wrongfully arrested in Seattle directly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and was held in a Department of Justice internment camp in Santa Fe, N.M. until close to the war’s end. The rest of his family was incarcerated in Poston, Ariz.
“My grandfather and his siblings remember being followed by the FBI in Seattle before the bombing of Pearl Harbor,” she recalls. “There’s a story in our family that our great-grandfather buried his kendo equipment and his cameras behind the house because he knew he was being followed. We always talk about trying to dig it up.”
Her great-grandfather would eventually pass away of a stroke after being released from prison, an event that many in the family believe was exacerbated by the conditions he faced while imprisoned. For Morita, her awareness of this family history played a critical role in shaping her involvement.
“After college I worked for a race and public policy organization and always found that it was important to have an Asian American voice around on these issues, particularly as a Japanese American. Executive Order 9066, which initiated the internment, never named Japanese Americans specifically, and I don’t know if there’s any other example of a so-called ‘race-neutral’ policy which was driven by racial hysteria and had such extreme, targeted racial impacts. I think that’s a really strong example that stuck with me and has motivated my race and public policy work.”
Having moved to Chicago in 2002, Morita has spent the last 12 years of her life primarily in non-profit organizations working on policy issues such as criminal justice, immigration, and redistricting.
One of her notable redistricting successes involved helping to form Asian American “influence districts” with a roughly 20 percent Asian American population that now have the ability to increase the sway of the Asian American electorate, especially in close races.
“The more I got involved in policy, especially around issues that had to do with restructuring power, the more I really understood that policy and politics go hand in hand. In order to influence policymakers you have to build a political base and be able to wield political influence, whether it’s through building leaders and advocates, or through leveraging your population numbers and your communities’ interests.”
Though she never had any intention of running for political office, elected officials who knew her through her redistricting work encouraged her to run on the strength of her community work and background as an urban planner.
“A friend of mine, a non-Asian who was in elected office, was at a pre-slating meeting and said, ‘Look, this person just announced that they’re not running again, so you should think about it,’” she recalled.
“So I started setting benchmarks like ‘Okay, I’ll keep going if I raise X amount of money or get certain key supporters.’ I kept setting benchmarks that I didn’t think I’d reach and somehow kept getting to them.”
“I eventually got slated, raised almost $200,000, was endorsed by Gov. Pat Quinn, Sen. Dick Durbin, and most of the Congress members from the Chicagoland area and was able to build a real campaign that mobilized the broader progressive community, environmentalist community, and also the Asian American community.”
Though often overlooked as an elected county position, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District board represents a $1.2 billion agency that protects Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes, and deals with important issues of drinking water, sanitation, infrastructure equity, and water management. With Cook County covering a population of almost 5.2 million, this race affects more people than any congressional district in the U.S.
“It was an entirely new concept for a lot of the leadership in the party because this was the first time they were slating an Asian American for a policy making, budgetary office. And so it was interesting to have these conversations, in terms of what it means to include Asian Americans in this equation. Part of it was for me to get elected, but part of it was for me to fight for a place for us in the party and in the political structures.”
Morita received strong support from the Democratic Party and, unusually for a first-time candidate, a wide range of endorsements from media, labor, and political organizations. Despite these successes, running for this office held its own unique set of challenges.
Not least of these was the manner in which the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District board is low on the ballot, remains somewhat unknown to most of the electorate, and involves choosing three candidates out of a field of many. Because of the structure of the electoral process itself, name recognition and placement towards the top of the ballot are critical.
“I had the fourth position on the ballot, which is horrible because people typically vote for the first three people. I had an unusual ballot name and it was the first time for Cook County residents to make an explicit choice to vote for an Asian American. It was also the first time that a lot of political folks, elected officials, and committeemen had to figure out how to talk to their voters, whether they were black, white, or Latino, about voting for an Asian American.”
“Even though I lost, I really feel like I built something. Of course my main goal was to win the race, but I also wanted to help build the reputation and positioning of Asian Americans to run in the future.”
“On election night, Gov. Quinn, Sen. Durbin, and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle called and they all said they lost their first race too. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky and Illinois State Rep. Lou Lang also offered their support on election night. All of them said that I ran a great race and that I was a great candidate and that there is an opening for Asian Americans to continue to run in part because it was a good campaign.”
In terms of the future challenges facing the Asian American community in electoral politics, Morita notes a number of important factors that are required, including enhancing the infrastructure to run solid campaigns, increasing the electoral donor base beyond the Asian American community, and building mentoring relationships and political networks. From her point of view, the political stakes remain high.
“I remember when former Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta came to speak in Chicago one time and he said ‘You’re either at the table, or you’re on the table.’ And we’ve been on the table, because we don’t really have anybody speaking up for us, and that’s why we don’t get our fair share of public dollars for Asian American senior services, and language access, and all these other things. So I think there is a real need to talk about what it means to build these things over time.”
Morita has continued her activism by heading up the campaign for a statewide ballot initiative that seeks to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour. (The advisory referendum passed by a margin of 67 percent to 33 percent in the Nov. 4 election.)
“I love the work that I do around policy and the nonprofit sector right now. I’m able to do the best of both worlds. I’m the deputy campaign manager for the statewide minimum wage ballot initiative, so I get to do the policy work that I care about around economic and social justice. And I also get to do the political work of getting voters to the poll to support this initiative.”
That said, Morita is unsure if her role in electoral work will involve running for office again in the future.
“I don’t want to say for sure I am running again, because if you asked me a year ago if I was going to run at all, I definitely would have said no, so I realize that life changes.”
Despite the challenges of running for office, Morita noted how glad she was to have this opportunity and how proud she was of the way the community rallied around her campaign.
“For those people who watched the campaign and who supported me, it meant a lot. You never know who’s going to step up for you or how your community is going to respond. The Japanese American community in particular was really supportive, with people coming up to me and talking about me with their friends.”
“That’s part of how it starts, in creating this space and energy and discussion about Asian Americans running, and if my running helped create some of that, then that’s something that I feel I can be proud of that will last beyond this campaign.”
Note: Morita ended up placing fourth out of a field of ten candidates, garnering 14% of the total vote with a vote difference between her and the next closest winning candidate of 14,845 votes out of 403,497 total votes cast. In recent years, other Japanese American women have also run for office in both Chicago and Cook County. Most recently, Lori Yokoyama ran for but lost as a Republican for Cook County state’s attorney in November 2012. She also ran for 4th Ward alderman in February 2011, placing second out of a field of seven candidates with roughly 10% of the vote. Also in February 2011 Emily Stewart ran for 46th Ward alderman, placing third out of a field of 11 candidates with roughly 15% of the total vote cast.