City Council District 14 candidates (from left) Monica Garcia, Cyndi Otteson, Kevin de Leon, Raquel Zamora and John Jimenez participated in a forum in February 2020 in Little Tokyo. Otteson received a majority of the Asian vote. (MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo)  

A study released on May 31 by UCLA and Loyola Marymount University found that while Asian Americans are the third-largest racial group in Los Angeles, their numbers haven’t necessarily translated into power and growth in electoral politics that the population growth would suggest.

The findings were released at a press conference at the Japanese American National Museum. Authored by Natalie Masuoka and Nathan Chan, the study examined racial diversity and representation in the 2020 and 2022 L.A. city elections. The study was funded by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and East West Bank Foundation.

Asian Americans are the third-largest racial group in the city but often are the minority voting group in a City Council district. No council district is drawn with an Asian American majority or plurality. Unless Asian Americans vote in coalition with another racial/ethnic group, their candidate of choice does not win the election.

Los Angeles City Controller Kenneth Mejia

“By splitting the Asian American population into multiple districts, they’re making up a smaller share of each of those different districts, which means that their vote doesn’t carry as much power,” said Masuoka, chair of the Asian American Studies Department at UCLA.

The report found that while the number of Asian Americans running for office is on the rise in Los Angeles, redistricting efforts are needed in order to provide Asian American voters with a greater opportunity to elect their candidates of choice.

“Until that happens … we’re going to be ignored. And being ignored has a consequence to the people who live in the city and who live in the county,” said Bill Fujioka, chairman of the JANM Board of Trustees and former CEO of L.A. County.

The 2022 city election reflected ethnic and racial diversity with the election of Karen Bass as the first Black woman mayor and Kenneth Mejia as the first Asian American controller in the city’s history.

Also Councilmembers John Lee and Nithya Raman have served on the City Council since 2019 and 2020, respectively. Raman unseated an incumbent, David Ryu, the first Asian American elected to the council since the mid-1980s.

The researchers concluded that in both the primary and general elections, Mejia was the overwhelming candidate of choice for Asian American voters, demonstrating that when Asian American candidates run for office, they are able to gain the support of Asian American voters across the city.

Bass, who ran against Rick Caruso, was the choice of a majority of Asians in the general election with 53%.

The study found that Asian American, Latino and Black voters show solid support for candidates who share their racial/ethnic background. The authors conclude that this demonstrates that when there is greater racial/ethnic diversity in city leadership, Asian American, Latino and Black voters will see their communities and their interests better represented in governance.

The study found strong support by Asian Americans for Asian candidates. One example, in the 2020 election for Council District 14,  which includes Little Tokyo, the authors found that Asian Americans overwhelmingly supported Cyndi Otteson, who is Korean American. When this district was drawn in 2011, it was a Latino-majority district (67.2%). Asian Americans in the district represented the next-largest group at 13%. 

The winner of the primary election, Kevin de León, received 53% of the vote, so there was no runoff election. Otteson placed a distant second with 19% of the vote.

One possible proposal is to expand the City Council so the districts would be smaller.

The authors highlight the growing political potential of Asian Americans in the city and suggest building a pipeline of Asian American leaders who will run for office and more voter registration efforts to tap into that potential. Asian American voter registration is historically low, under 50% for most of Los Angeles.

Ian Kamus, the community services co-director at the Pilipino Workers Center, said his organization is leading efforts to register immigrants and youth.

“There were almost 5,000 unregistered Asian American voters in Eagle Rock alone,” Kamus said.

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