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First Asian American elected to San Diego City Council reflects on life

Tom Hom was elected in 1963.
Tom Hom
Posted at 3:34 PM, May 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-24 21:02:34-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- At the age of 94, Tom Hom lives a quieter wife with his wife, Loretta, in their Chula Vista home. He walks and does tae chi to stay active. He also plays the piano and paints, one of his passions.

But Hom's life has been anything but quiet.

He made history in San Diego as the first Asian American to be elected to San Diego City Council. At the time, in 1963, he became the first minority to be elected to local office.

Hom recounted his years growing up in San Diego to ABC 10News for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

His family is from China. His father came to San Diego at the age of 15. "He learned the story of David and Goliath, so he adopted his American name as David,” Hom said.

Hom only spoke Chinese when he was child. He lost his mother at a young age. His father eventually remarried and became a successful businessman, starting David Produce Company. It ended up becoming the largest produce wholesaler in San Diego.

It was when Hom was 12-years-old during a trip to City Hall, his father said something to him he would never forget.

"He said to me, ‘Tom in America, the laws that come out of here [are] dependent on the kind of people they put in there,’” Hom remembered his father telling him.

His father died when Hom was just 16-years-old. He and his siblings took over David Produce, which stayed in business until it closed in 1996.

Hom eventually got into real estate during a time when racial deed restrictions prevented him and other minorities from buying homes in certain neighborhoods.

In his early 30s, Hom wanted to dive into politics. The question was if politics wanted him.

“In order to run I spoke to one of the leaders in politics. I said, ‘I would like to run and how do I start?’” Hom recalled. “He said, ‘Tom, the time may not be ready. You're a minority.”

Despite doubts from others, Hom still ran for state assembly. He lost, but tried his hand at politics again. In 1963, he was victorious and became the first minority ever elected to the San Diego City Council.

It was 57 years ago,” Hom said. From city council, he became an assemblyman during Ronald Reagan’s time as governor.

His list of service to San Diego is long. He was essential in the effort to build what was then Jack Murphy Stadium. He became the founding president of the Gaslamp Quarter Association, helping to revitalize downtown.

Over the years, he faced several business setbacks. That included a large fire in 1989 that burned down a building he owned which housed the Farmer’s Bazaar.

Through the difficulties of life—including the death of his first wife Dorothy — Hom’s art became his comfort. His Chinese culture was often depicted in his work, including in two children’s books he wrote and illustrated.

After Hom, it took decades before another person of Asian descent was elected to city council. That changed with Councilmember Chris Cate and Mayor Todd Gloria.

“If I’m in the audience where [Todd Gloria’s] giving a talk, he will always point me out. The reason I’m here is because Tom over there,” Hom said.

Hom leaves others with words of peace and understanding.

“Dad always said judge people by their character… you learn this person has a good character, then you learn to like them,” Hom said. “After liking them, you can even love them.”

Hom’s book, which he wrote in 2014, is available online.