Mariko Yamada
Mariko Yamada

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Former Assemblymember Mariko Yamada’s (D-Davis) campaign for State Senate, launched a year ago, is now in high gear as the June 7 primary approaches.

Yamada, 65, is well-known in the Sacramento area, having served six years in the State Assembly and on the Yolo County Board of Supervisors prior to that. But her political experience started in Los Angeles more than 40 years ago.

Born in Denver after her parents’ release from Manzanar, she was the first in her family to earn a college degree — a B.A. in psychology from University of Colorado-Boulder, followed by a master’s in social work from USC.

“Besides voting for the first time — you had to be 21 then — my first political experience was in 1972 when I was a first-year graduate student at the USC School of Social Work,” Yamada recalled in an email interview. “I had negotiated a field placement in the district office of Los Angeles-area Assemblymember Alex P. Garcia. The following year, I worked on George Takei’s 1973 campaign for Los Angeles City Council.

“By then, I had met local architect Kazuo Umemoto, who was a Democratic National committeeman. He became my political mentor. I worked on a campaign for Los Angeles County Supervisor candidate Ed Edelman, and was later hired as a member of his first-term staff. I never thought I would run for office myself.”

Yamada spent a decade in Washington, D.C., working on undercount reduction for the 1980 Census and as the only female investigator for the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office for Civil Rights. She also co-produced and co-hosted “Gold Mountain, D.C.,” a jazz and information show on WPFW, a Pacifica Foundation radio affiliate.

From 1989 to 1994, she was an equal employment/affirmative action officer for the San Diego County Department of Social Services. After moving to Northern California, she served as chair of the Yolo County Democratic Party and of the California Democratic Party’s 8th Assembly District Committee, then as district director for the Yolo County Board of Supervisors, District 4, for four years.

With the support of her husband, Janlee Wong, and their two daughters, Yamada then decided to take the plunge and run for supervisor herself in 2003. After five years on the Board of Supervisors, she ran for and won the 8th Assembly District seat. She served three terms, the maximum allowed.

“My legislative priorities were in aging and long-term care, agriculture and water, veterans’ affairs, and employment rights,” she said. “My district office mitigated over 1,600 constituent cases over six years, and we also focused on the Earned Income Tax Credit program, increasing annual returns from $200,000 per year to a high of $2.1 million. Overall, our program brought back nearly $7 million to hard-working families in our district.

Asked about term limits, which prevented her from seeking a fourth term, Yamada responded, “I voted ‘no’ on the 1990 Proposition 140, which established the six-year Assembly and eight-year State Senate term limits. However, without term limits, I might not have ever had an opportunity to serve in the Assembly, because seats would not have ‘opened’ as frequently. So, there are mixed blessings with term limits.

“Most analysts agree that the constant ‘merry-go-round’ of the 1990 term limits was harmful to the Legislature; thus, in 2012, Proposition 28 ushered in the next great experiment in California governance, the advent of serving 12 years in one house. We shall see how this next iteration of term limits actually plays out.”

During its 40th anniversary celebration in 2014, the California Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers released this photo of Mariko Yamada, the chapter’s newly elected District 11 representative, and Ruth McClellan, a member of the chapter’s Nominating Committee, receiving a Social Work Month proclamation from Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in March 1976.
During its 40th anniversary celebration in 2014, the California Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers released this photo of Mariko Yamada, the chapter’s newly elected District 11 representative, and Ruth McClellan, a member of the chapter’s Nominating Committee, receiving a Social Work Month proclamation from Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in March 1976.

The Decision to Run

Yamada is now seeking the Democratic nomination in the 3rd Senate District, which consists of Solano and Napa counties and portions of Contra Costa, Sacramento, Sonoma and Yolo counties. It is currently represented by Sen. Lois Wolk.

“Serving in the California State Assembly was a great honor and I enjoyed serving the constituents of our district very much,” she said in explaining her decision to run. “There are many problems and policy areas requiring attention and I believe my background, experience, and expertise will strengthen the State Senate in addressing those needs.

“If elected, I want to establish the first standing State Senate Committee on Aging; continue the fight to protect the (Sacramento-San Joaquin) Delta; and advance civil rights for all Californians.”

Since announcing her candidacy on March 14, 2015, “we have been running a strong, grassroots campaign throughout the 22 cities and six counties in the district,” Yamada said. “We gathered over 3,000 signatures to secure a place on the June 7, 2016 ballot, and have been privileged to have earned endorsements from a diverse set of elected officials as well as community leaders and organizations. We have hundreds of small donors in our ‘people-powered’ campaign.”

For the most part, district residents’ concerns are those of all Californians, according to Yamada. “People are worried about the future: about the cost of housing and healthcare; about the high costs of education and mounting student debt; and about our crumbling transportation infrastructure and gridlock.

“People are worried about retirement and how to survive not just years, but decades after leaving the paid workforce. Caregiving is a major issue — both the cost and quality of care. Water and the integrity of our food supply are also important issues in the 3rd State Senate District, home to some of the most important farmland in California. And certainly, public safety is a prime concern.”

Yamada’s main opponent for the Democratic nomination is Bill Dodd, current representative of the 4th Assembly District, former Napa County supervisor and former chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Yamada said her background and experience are in “stark contrast” to those of her opponent. “I’m a lifelong Democrat and professional social worker, now in my 42nd year of public service. I’ve worked … at the city, county, regional, special district, state and federal levels of government, as well as in the private, nonprofit sector.

“I served my full six years in the California Assembly, representing all or parts of Colusa, Lake, Napa, Solano, Sonoma and Yolo counties before terming out in November 2014. My opponent served seven months in my former Assembly seat before deciding to run against me for the State Senate.

“My opponent was a registered Republican until just about the time he decided to run for my old Assembly seat in 2013. He was a businessman in Napa for 25 years before running for Napa County supervisor and serving there for 14 years.”

Yamada, a Sansei, also suggested that growing up in poverty and being raised by parents who had just gotten out of camp give her insight into issues facing the underprivileged and the disenfranchised.

Betty Yee speaks on Mariko Yamada's behalf at the California Democratic Party Convention in San Jose.
State Controller Betty Yee speaks on Mariko Yamada’s behalf at the California Democratic Party Convention in San Jose.

Battle at the Convention

At the California Democratic Party’s convention in San Jose last month, Yamada’s campaign mobilized to nullify the party’s endorsement of Dodd.

“The process authorized under the state party rules isn’t easy, but with the help of dozens of supporters, we gathered nearly 500 delegate signatures in only hours Saturday evening — well above the 300 needed — to take the endorsement vote in our race to the full convention floor during the Sunday general session,” Yamada told her supporters at the time.

“Thank you to our volunteer army and Controller Betty Yee, CDP Secretary Daraka Larimore-Hall, CDP Chicano Latino Caucus Chairman Carlos Alcala and others who spoke on our behalf to over 2,000 delegates on the convention floor. Sacramento insiders didn’t think it could be done, but together with you, we did it.”

As a result, the CDP’s official position in the 3rd Senate District race is “no endorsement.”

Yamada’s other endorsers include Rep. John Garamendi, State Treasurer John Chiang, State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, State Sens. Hannah-Beth Jackson and Holly Mitchell, and Assemblymembers Luis Alejo, Cheryl Brown, Matt Dababneh, Cristina Garcia and Lorena Gonzalez.

Dodd’s endorsers include Sen. Dianne Feinstein; Reps. Mike Thompson, Jared Huffman and Mark DeSaulnier; Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom; Secretary of State Alex Padilla; Attorney General Kamala Harris; Board of Equalization member Fiona Ma; 11 state senators, including incumbent Wolk and Richard Pan, a member of the Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus; and 25 assemblymembers, including Speaker Anthony Rendon, Majority Leader Chris Holden and Legislative Black Caucus Chair Reggie Jones-Sawyer.

It’s possible that Yamada and a fellow Democrat will face off in the fall. “Since the 2010 enactment of Proposition 14, the ‘top-two primary,’ we won’t know who the two candidates in the 3rd State Senate District race will be until after the June 7 primary results are in,” she explained. “With one Republican, Greg Coppes, and three Democrats — Bill Dodd, Gabe Griess, and me — in the race, there could be any combination of two candidates who will advance to the Tuesday, Nov. 8, general election.”

JAs in the Legislature

Asian Americans of both parties now have a significant presence in the Assembly and Senate. The API Legislative Caucus consists of Assemblymembers Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara), Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), David Chiu (D-San Francisco), Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), Kansen Chu (D-San Jose), Evan Low (D-Cupertino), Ling-Ling Chang (R-Diamond Bar), Ed Chau (D-Monterey Park) and Young Kim (R-Fullerton); and State Sens. Pan (D-Sacramento), Janet Nguyen (R-Garden Grove) and Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge).

Since Yamada termed out, Assemblymember Warren Furutani (D-Carson) left office to run for Los Angeles City Council, and Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) lost to his Republican challenger, there have been no Japanese Americans in the Legislature.

“It is important to have representative voices in the political process,” Yamada commented. “Not just Japanese American voices, but voices that are conversant with the entirely and the diversity of the California experience. There has never been a Japanese American in the California State Senate. We have two Japanese American candidates in 2016 — Warren Furutani and me. So, we could see history made this year.

“Not having a Japanese American in the State Legislature right now affects the conversations and discussions that take place in that environment. Communities can cultivate allies and friends who can carry the messages forward when a specific group isn’t represented. We as Japanese Americans should strive to have both — representation and allies who can speak for us when we’re not there.”

As Muratsuchi is running to regain his Assembly seat, there could be three Nikkei in the Legislature next year.

Asked if being Japanese American has been a help or a hindrance in her political career, Yamada answered, “I have always been proud of my heritage, and am grateful for the unique history and sacrifices made by the generations that have come before me. I also take seriously my responsibilities and obligations to uphold the strong cultural and family values that are distinctly Japanese and Japanese American.

“But while these values are a part of who I am, they are not the extent of who I am. Each of us is MORE than what we appear to be on the outside. I have been privileged to have grown up with experiences rich in diversity that have contributed to my world view, and upon which I rely daily to make life better every day that I can.”

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