Asian-American Voters Could Become A Force In Historically Red Orange County

Jun 2, 2018
Originally published on June 5, 2018 10:00 am

As California joins seven other states in holding its primary Tuesday, one spotlight is on a handful of congressional seats in suburban Orange County, where Democrats think they can take back control of the House. That's in part due to the region's fast-changing demographics.

Once a rock-ribbed Republican stronghold, Orange County went blue in the last presidential election for the first time since 1936. Pundits credited a get-out-the-vote effort among the county's left-leaning Latino population. But this go around eyes are on Asian-Americans, the county's fastest growing minority.

Historically, Asians haven't been as politically active in the county. And among those who were, Republicans have had a sizable edge when it comes to voter registration.

But there are signs all of this may be changing. The looming question a lot of people don't yet have an answer to is who will win their support.

"In the past, because of our background, we tended to be more conservative," said Frank Chen, an engineer in Irvine. "We handled problems mostly internally, we don't like to express our disapproval."

But Chen was eager to talk politics and the California primary one afternoon while snacking on soup dumplings at a café in Irvine's hip and modern Diamond Jamboree shopping center. It's a favorite lunch spot for young Asian professionals.

Chen says the younger generation is becoming much more politically active than their parents and grandparents before them. He's planning on voting Democratic in Tuesday's primary, largely because he says he doesn't like the direction the country is going under President Trump.

"Asians are realizing, 'hey,' you can't just be silent," Chen says. "If you have a problem with something, you should talk about it, bring it up so people will know where you stand."

There was one, dramatic moment this past Spring that made it clear that Asian-Americans were becoming a political force in Orange County. Busloads of Chinese Americans from Irvine arrived at a Board of Supervisors meeting to protest plans to build a temporary homeless shelter near schools and a park. The groups organized their opposition quickly thanks to social media apps like WeChat, a favorite in the Chinese community. They held protest signs as hundreds chanted loudly "No tent city!" The county scrapped the plan.

"My theory has been that the demographics shifted so rapidly that Orange County was not ready for it," says Sylvia Kim, director of the Orange County chapter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a civil rights group.

According to Census figures, the Asian-American population in Orange County has more than doubled since 1990: now accounting for one of every five residents. The county now has the third largest population of Asian-Americans in the country, behind only the Los Angeles and San Francisco regions.

"As the fastest growing racial group in the U.S., Asian-Americans as a whole, we have not yet reached our political potential," Kim says.

She thinks this is especially the case in suburban Orange County, where she says the large Cambodian, Vietnamese, Korean and Asian Pacific Islander communities tend to live in more closed off ethnic enclaves. The county is also huge and spread out with no one, large city as a center hub. In many neighborhoods, very little English is spoken which can make get-out-the-vote efforts a challenge.

"If you think about the Latino community, I always say to service providers, you just need to speak one language," Kim says. "When you're reaching out to the Asian community you need to speak six languages."

Kim got a group of Asian-American civil leaders together recently for a forum in Santa Ana to strategize on how to mobilize more voters to the polls, or fill out their mail-in ballots, ahead of the primary. They snacked on banh mi sandwiches and egg rolls, and it was one of the first times in recent memory that some of the groups servicing the various communities had shared a stage.

Panelists like Tricia Nguyen, representing the Vietnamese community, said one barrier is that some immigrants have come from more corrupt countries and have historically not been motivated to vote because they don't think their voice matters.

"At the end of the day if you want to change, especially the midterm elections, than we have to get more people to vote and vote the right way," Nguyen said.

The forum's audience was mostly progressives. Nguyen and others concluded they aren't sure whether O.C.'s Asian-American voters are organized enough yet to be a key swing vote this year, but that they will be by 2020.

A recent report by Asian Americans Advancing Justice showed that among the county's registered Asian-American voters, 35 percent are Republican, 27 percent are Democrat, though a large number – 34 percent - are unaffiliated.

In the heavily Korean suburb of Garden Grove, the president of the Korean American Federation of Orange County, John Kim, told NPR he doesn't expect those statistics to change much, even as the county has gotten more diverse.

Korean immigrants, Kim says, are still conservative because "they don't want big change."

Political historians say some of the county's earlier Korean and Vietnamese immigrants were traditionally aligned with Republicans, due in part to the GOP's historically strong anti-communist stances.

"We do support the Republican party more than Democrats," Kim said.

The shopping center that Kim's office sits in is lined with more traditional Korean barbecue restaurants, karaoke bars and large Asian supermarkets. Most of the clientele is older, not a lot of English is spoken.

For Kim, the big issue for Korean-American voters right now is the negotiations over the Korean Peninsula, a big reason he says why many here support Donald Trump.

"We support him because we believe him, what he is saying now," Kim says.

Kim just wishes the president wouldn't be so hard on immigration. That appears to be at least one widely shared view among Orange County's diverse – and still up-and-coming – Asian voting block.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

California's primary is this coming Tuesday. Lots of attention is focused on a handful of congressional seats in Orange County, a traditional Republican stronghold that voted Democratic in the last presidential election for the first time in 82 years. The fastest-growing minority group there is Asian-Americans. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on how this demographic might affect the vote.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The hip and modern Diamond Jamboree Shopping Center in Irvine is a favorite lunch spot for young Asian professionals. At the Paper Lantern Dumpling House, Frank Chen, an engineer from Taiwan, is eager to discuss the upcoming California primary. He says talking politics out in the open is kind of new.

FRANK CHEN: I think, in the past, because of our background, we tend to be more conservative. We kind of just handle problems mostly internally. We don't like to express our disapproval.

SIEGLER: Chen says this is rightly changing, especially among young people. The Asian-American population has more than doubled in Orange County since 1990.

CHEN: Asians are realizing, hey, you can't just be silent. If you have an issue, if you have a problem with something, you should talk about it. You should bring it up so that people will know where you stand.

SIEGLER: And there was this one moment this past spring that made it clear that Asian-Americans were becoming a political force. Busloads of Chinese-Americans arrived at a Board of Supervisors meeting to protest plans to build a temporary homeless shelter in Irvine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) No tent city. No tent city.

SIEGLER: Not tent city, they chanted. The county later scrapped the plan.

SYLVIA KIM: My theory has been that the demographics shifted so rapidly that Orange County was not ready for it.

SIEGLER: Sylvia Kim heads the Orange County chapter of the civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

S. KIM: As the fastest-growing racial group in the U.S., Asian-Americans actually, as a whole, we have not yet reached our political potential.

SIEGLER: Kim thinks this is especially the case in suburban Orange County, now home to the third-largest Asian immigrant population in the U.S. She says, though, these Asians tend to live in more closed-off ethnic enclaves, and they're hard to organize.

S. KIM: I mean, if you think about the Latino community, I always say to service providers, you just need to speak one language. When you're reaching out to the Asian community, you need to speak six languages.

SIEGLER: Kim got a bunch of Asian-American civic leaders together recently to strategize on how to mobilize more voters to the polls before the June 5th primary.

S. KIM: Thank you so much for coming. Good to see you.

SIEGLER: They snacked on banh mi sandwiches and eggrolls, and was one of the first times that some of the group servicing the Cambodian, Korean and Vietnamese communities had shared a stage. Tricia Nguyen was a panelist representing the Vietnamese Community.

TRICIA NGUYEN: At the end of the day, you want to change, you know, especially mid-term elections. Then, you know, we have to get more people to vote and vote in the right way.

SIEGLER: Nguyen isn't sure this will happen as soon as this year, but she says by 2020, Asians could swing an election. This forum was mostly progressives. But traditionally, Republicans have had the edge here when it comes to Asian-American voter registration.

JOHN KIM: OK.

SIEGLER: In the heavily Korean suburb of Garden Grove, the president of the Korean American Federation, John Kim, doesn't see that changing much for now.

J. KIM: Korean immigrants - still, they are conservative. They don't want big change.

SIEGLER: Korean immigrants are conservative, Kim says, a tight-knit community. His office shares space in a shopping center lined with barbecue joints and Asian supermarkets. Most of the clientele is older, and not a lot of English is spoken.

J. KIM: (Speaking Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Korean).

SIEGLER: John Kim says the big issue for Korean-American voters right now is the negotiations over the Korean peninsula. And so Donald Trump...

J. KIM: We support him. We very support him because we believe in what he's saying now.

SIEGLER: Kim just wishes the president wouldn't be so hard on immigration. That appears to be, at least, one widely shared view among Orange County's diverse and still up-and-coming Asian voting bloc. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Santa Ana, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.