50 years in the making: Asian-American could join San Diego City Council

SAN DIEGO - It's an election that can be considered consequential by many standards but for one ethnic population, the stakes are pretty high.

An Asian-American will likely be elected in November to the San Diego City Council for the first time in 52 years. It's a huge feat for local Asian-Americans, who make up 16 percent of the population in the city of San Diego.

Five candidates, four of whom are Asian-American, are vying to represent District 6 when the City Council expands to nine seats in late 2014. Three candidates—Mitz Lee, Chris Cate and Carol Kim—are considered front-runners, and one will likely be the first Asian-American to serve since Chinese-American Thomas Hom was elected in 1962. Other candidates include security manager De Le and special education assistant Jane Glasson.

"The impact of having an API [Asian Pacific Islander] on the Council would be felt immediately," said Tim Nguyen, chair of the Asian Pacific American Coalition (APAC). "Once a community member is elected to a prominent position, it could inspire others with similar backgrounds to lead as well."

The newly created District 6—which includes the heavily Asian-populated areas of Mira Mesa and the Convoy District—comes after a city commission held 44 public meetings and spent months redrawing San Diego 's district boundaries in 2011. APAC rallied nearly 2,000 Asian-American volunteers to participate in the redistricting process and spent about $5,000 along the way, ultimately leading to the Commission adopting an APAC-proposed map.

District 6 is now home to the largest Asian American population with approximately one out of three residents identifying with the community. There are also more registered Asian-American voters in District 6—13,602—than any other council district in San Diego, according to a report by San Diego's Regional Planning Agency .

Lee, 58, is a Filipino-American who previously served on the San Diego Unified School District's board of education and has lived in Mira Mesa for more than 30 years. She co-founded APAC after she felt the community needed to rally around the redistricting process. Now, she is hoping to represent the same community on the City Council by year's end.

"I think it's very important that the diverse community of San Diego is represented on the City Council because that was really the purpose of the redistricting process," Lee said. "I want our Asian-American children to take pride [in their community] and know that there is a voice for their needs and their interests."

For Chris Cate, who is Filipino and is the vice president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association (SDCTA), having an Asian-American on the City Council is long overdue.

"It's extremely important," the 31-year-old who lives in Mira Mesa said. "We haven't had an API on the Council for over 50 years. It's extremely important to have a voice that speaks for the needs, wants and the desires of the community."

Cate, who participated in the redistricting process through SDCTA, said he'll guide the next generation of Asian-Americans and influence members of the community to serve on public boards and commissions.

Influencing a new generation of Asian-Americans to get involved in the public process is important to 38-year-old Korean-American Carol Kim too.

Kim, a former teacher who led after school programs and lives in Mira Mesa, said she felt the responsibility to run for office.

"I believe we need to take personal responsibility if we want to see change," Kim said. "The diversity of the city doesn't extend to the City Council."

She had a "clarifying" moment when her 4-year-old daughter asked: "What office should I run for when I grow up?"

"My doing this gives her the permission to participate," she said. "It tells the next generation to participate."

Despite their different backgrounds, the three have plans to address similar issues. They all spoke about lifting the Convoy District, which is home to nearly 200 Asian-American-owned businesses, and the need to publicize it.

"The Convoy District has been ignored," Cate said. "It's a top destination and we should be doing what we can to help bring that area to the forefront. It's a great place to eat, shop and it's thriving."

Lee said she wants to make San Diego "the gateway" for the Pacific Rim, touching on President Barack Obama's Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Kim plans to lobby for more funding in the neighborhoods if elected.

"I would really push more fairly for funding to go to the communities," Kim said. "We are family-minded and we need a greater share for our neighborhoods."

Although one of the candidates will likely be seated in December, they do face one challenge: getting Asian-Americans to vote.

Asians have the lowest voter registration rate and the lowest turnout rate of any ethnic group in the U.S., according to data compiled by Vince Vasquez of APAC. The U.S. Census estimated that 52 percent of all eligible Asian-American residents in the city of San Diego are

registered to vote. During the last presidential election in November 2008, only 47.6 percent of Asian-Americans voted.

But Lee is hopeful history will be made.

"I think history is being made and I'm especially happy to get the APA [Asian-Pacific-American] community engaged in this process," she said. "If this election cannot spark the Asian-American vote, then what will?"

The candidates will face off in the June 3 primary. If a candidate does not garner more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff election will be held on Nov. 4.

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