Foon Rhee

Opinion: Votes should be about more than ethnic pride

A new mailer is aimed at Asian American voters.
A new mailer is aimed at Asian American voters.

While proud to be Asian American, I have to confess that in-your-face appeals to my Korean heritage make me a little uncomfortable.

So I’m not a big fan of a new campaign mailer promoting four Asian American candidates that was sent to Asian American voters. “It’s time for Asian Americans to take our rightful place in leading California,” the mailer says. “Vote for leadership because representation is not enough.”

The mailer – translated into Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese – pictures John Chiang, running for state treasurer; Betty Yee, seeking to succeed Chiang as state controller; Richard Pan, an assemblyman competing for a state Senate seat in Sacramento; and Darrell Fong, trying to move from Sacramento City Council to the state Assembly.

I don’t vote a straight party-line ticket, but I’m supposed to vote for someone because they look a little more like me? Not going to happen.

I know: Voting with your ethnic identity has a long history in American politics, and continues to this day. Yet, especially in California, the most diverse state in our nation, we should be past this. You’d hope that voters care much more about a candidate’s fitness for office and stands on the issues than any ethnic loyalty.

What makes this mailer more annoying is who is behind it – an outfit called the Golden State Leadership Fund PAC. You might think that it’s made up of Asian American advocacy groups or community organizations. Not even close.

Instead, the political action committee’s biggest funders for the fall campaign include the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians ($100,000); California Professional Firefighters ($40,000); Political Action for Classified Employees of California Schools ($25,000); the Committee for Working Families, sponsored by the California Labor Federation ($25,000); the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ($25,000); Pacific Gas & Electric Co. ($25,000); the California Medical Association ($10,000); the Medical Insurance Exchange of California ($10,000); and the Barona Band of Mission Indians ($10,000).

So you could say Indian tribes, public employee unions and a major corporation are hiding behind ethnic pride to push policies that may be in the best interests of many Asian Americans – or not.

Fong, who has spent more than $480,000 in this tough Assembly District 9 race, has been the biggest beneficiary of this PAC, by far. Already this month, it has spent more than $50,000 to support him, plus more than $54,000 against his opponent, Jim Cooper, an Elk Grove city councilman who has spent nearly $470,000 so far.

Golden State Leadership Fund is an independent expenditure committee, so Fong doesn’t control what it does, but I was curious what he makes of the mailers.

His take is similar to mine: Diversity is important, but it shouldn’t be the deciding factor in choosing a candidate.

“They’re asking Asians to vote for Asians. Is that the reason to vote for me? No,” Fong told me. “I hope people vote for me for the good things I’ve done.”

The mailer is trying to capitalize on concern among some activists that even though Asian Americans make up the nation’s fastest growing ethnic group, they’re too often overlooked by campaigns and don’t have the political power they deserve.

In California, Asian Americans make up about 14 percent of the population and about 11 percent of likely voters this election. Their numbers in Congress and the state Capitol are about in line – five Asian Americans among California’s 55 U.S. senators and representatives, 15 among the 120 state legislators. Another 200 hold local or judicial offices in the state, according to the most recent count by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

Seeking greater representation is all well and good, but there are major problems with the mailer’s broader message.

One is that you can’t lump all Asian Americans into one voting bloc. They have very different political views and allegiances depending on where their families came from, whether they were born here, where they live now and what they do for a living.

Also, the mention of “our rightful place” suggests a sense of entitlement that runs counter to what many Asians were taught growing up – that America is a land of opportunity, but also a meritocracy, where you have to work hard to earn anything meaningful.

Sure, I’d love to see an Asian American governor or U.S. senator in California sometime soon. But it’s much more important to me that the person be smart, compassionate, even inspiring.

We don’t want to end up with unqualified or unscrupulous elected officials. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan is a disappointment, squeaking into office thanks to a ridiculous voting system that rewarded her for being the second or third choice. Suspended state Sen. Leland Yee is a disgrace, accused of accepting thousands of dollars in bribes and offering to set up international arms deals.

When it comes to elected officials, I’ll take quality over quantity any day of the week.

Just as Martin Luther King Jr. wanted for his children, we should judge people on the content of their character, not the color of their skin. To me, politicians aren’t any different.

Follow Foon Rhee on Twitter @foonrhee.