Rafu Staff Report
The race in California’s 45th Congressional District is between two Asian Americans: the Republican incumbent, Rep. Michelle Steel, and the Democratic challenger, Jay Chen.
Steel, who is serving her first term, was born in South Korea, raised in Japan, and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 19. She is one of the first Korean American women to serve in Congress along with fellow California Republican Young Kim and Washington Democrat Marilyn Strickland. She was elected to the State Board of Equalization and the Orange County Board of Supervisors, where she served as chair.
Chen, the child of immigrants from Taiwan, is a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserves, a trustee of Mt. San Antonio Community College, and a small business owner. He led an intelligence team as part of Operation Inherent Resolve and played a key role in the military’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the Middle East.
Although the district will have Asian representation regardless of the outcome, race and ethnicity have become an issue in the campaign. In an effort to appeal to voters in Little Saigon, where anti-communist sentiment is strong among Vietnamese refugees, Steel’s campaign has issued ads, mailers and signs portraying Chen as “China’s choice.” Some contain a photoshopped image of Chen holding the Communist Manifesto.
According to LAist, most of Steel’s attacks are directed at Chen’s time on the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District board in the San Gabriel Valley. In 2010, the board voted to adopt a free Chinese language and culture class at one of its middle schools. The Confucius Institute program was used in dozens of U.S. schools at the time. But some local residents objected because the program had ties to the Chinese government, and the plan was scrapped.
On Oct. 25, the Committee of 100, a group of influential Chinese American leaders, called on Steel to “remove her false and hateful attack ads meant to deceive voters about the record and patriotism of her congressional opponent, Taiwanese American veteran Jay Chen.”
“A congressional race between two candidates of Asian descent should be an opportunity to highlight the diversity and achievement of the Asian American community. Instead, one candidate is using racist attacks and advertisements to question the patriotism and loyalty of an American military veteran,” said Committee of 100 President Zhengyu Huang. “These racist attacks perpetuate the harmful and inaccurate stereotypes that foment the anti-Asian hate and violence plaguing our country. It is especially harmful when these unfounded attacks come from members of our own community.
“We will not allow this behavior to divide the Asian American community. We call on Congresswoman Steel to remove these negative ads and focus on the issues.”
“The AAPI community has had enough of Steel, who callously incites fear and hate through false attacks with zero concern for the impact on the community’s safety and well being,” said Chen. “Instead of combating anti-Asian hate, she adds fuel to the fire, and she’s doing it because she has no record to run on. I will always place the constituents of CA-45 first by focusing on the issues they care about; improving our local economy, making our communities safer, and fighting for the right for women to make their own healthcare decisions.”
In a separate statement, Chen said, “The Vietnamese community in CA-45 is tired of Steel’s manipulation and dishonesty. They are fed up with Steel’s false attacks and incitement of fear all so she can maintain power.”
In a press conference last month, local veterans joined Chen alongside House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano (D-Riverside) and Marine Corps veteran and Congressman Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) to denounce Steel’s campaign tactics.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) tweeted, “Michelle Steel’s ad shamelessly disparaging the patriotism of Jay Chen shows her desperation to get MAGA Republican support. Every single Republican should condemn this blatantly racist, red-baiting excuse for a political ad.”
The ASPIRE (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Rising and Empowering) PAC issued the following statement on Oct. 18: “Jay Chen swore an oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution when he enlisted to serve our country. He is a decorated lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserves and honorably served our country in the Middle East against ISIS as a part of Operation Inherent Resolve.
“It is absolutely shameful that Michelle Steel and national Republicans would dare to question his military service and dedication to our country. Moreover, it’s disappointing that Steel and Republicans would exploit fear and stoke tension for political gain, especially at a time when our AAPI communities are still facing anti-Asian hate.
“Michelle Steel and the NRCC (National Republican Congressional Committee) should be ashamed.”
The Asian Americans for Good Government PAC on Oct. 24 announced that it was withdrawing its endorsement of Steel. The group said in a statement: “Since 2006, AAGG-PAC has endorsed and supported candidates that run respectable election campaigns that do not maliciously defame their opponents. As such, the members of AAGG-PAC are extremely concerned and disturbed by the accusations, negative advertisement and red-baiting …
“This type of malicious campaigning: 1) Undermines the unity of the AAPI community; 2) Provokes inter-ethnic conflict; 3) Creates interracial hatred, discrimination, and violence, especially toward Chinese immigrants; 4) Promotes xenophobia and the belief that AAPIs are forever foreigners.
“Promotion of these stereotypes and false accusations could lead to an increase in AAPI hate incidents and discrimination. AAGG-PAC does not tolerate this type of campaigning.”
Prior to the primary, Steel accused Chen of discriminatory behavior when he said of her, “You kind of need an interpreter to figure out exactly what she’s saying.”
In an article for The Orange County Register, Steel responded, “Some say my English is broken, but that implies there’s something wrong with how I, and millions of other Americans, speak … My accent is a result of reading, writing and speaking in three languages, something that immigrants across our nation understand. That isn’t something we are ashamed of; it is something that makes us proud Americans.”
She chastised Chen for not apologizing, pointing out that his parents are immigrants like her.
According to Cal Matters, Chen said he was taking a dig at Steel’s convoluted talking points, not her accent. He slammed Steel for “trying to manufacture a controversy because she doesn’t have a record to run on.”
“It’s sad that she would try to paint herself as a victim when she’s never stood up for the Asian community when it was facing all this hate,” he said. “There are Asian Americans who are being hurt and killed, and she’s taking advantage of that to score cheap political points.”
Located in Los Angeles and Orange counties, the district covers Brea (partial), Placentia, Fullerton (partial), Buena Park, Artesia, Cerritos, Cypress, La Palma, Hawaiian Gardens, Los Alamitos, Rossmoor, Fountain Valley, Midway City, Westminster, Garden Grove, Lakewood (partial) and Yorba Linda (partial).
In the June primary, Steel and Chen were the top vote-getters with 65,641 (48.2 percent) and 58,721 (43.1 percent), respectively. Republican Long Pham was a distant third with 11,732 (8.6 percent) and write-in candidate Hilaire Fuji Shioura (no party preference) received 6 votes.