These Asian American GOP Women Want To Make OC Red Again
Polished in an ivory sheath dress and dangle earrings, Young Kim looks as if she's swinging through the Panera Bread in Brea on the way to work.
Except this fast-casual spot is work today. As people around her down coffee and muffin tops, Kim spends the afternoon meeting various supporters of her bid to win the 39th congressional district back for Republicans.
"Panera Breads are my satellite offices," laughed Kim, who is still searching for campaign headquarters in a district that stretches from Fullerton to Yorba Linda.
Kim is in a rematch with Democratic Congressman Gil Cisneros, who beat her in 2018 in an expensive, nail-biter contest that took more than a week to call. The Navy veteran was one of four Democrats who flipped traditionally-red congressional districts in Orange County, helping to hand control of the House back to Nancy Pelosi — and herald a seismic shift in the birthplace of Richard Nixon.
Now the GOP wants those Orange County seats back, and in three of the races, Asian American women are some of their brightest hopes.
"My candidacy, I think it would really excite the base, excite the Asian-American community," Kim said.
Aside from Kim, Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel is challenging U.S. Rep. Harley Rouda, D-Newport Beach for District 48. Peggy Huang, a Yorba Linda councilmember, is vying for the District 45 seat held by Rep. Katie Porter, D-Irvine.
Can these Asian American candidates bring their districts back into the red column?
NOT YOUR "TRADITIONAL WHITE MAN"
It's getting increasingly challenging for the GOP in Orange County. Last August, the county's number of registered Democrats for the first time surpassed Republicans. All seven of its Congressional districts voted against candidate Trump in 2016.
But the Republican National Committee is bullish on the prospects of the three women. It's anointed all of them 'Young Guns' — a designation aimed at boosting fundraising for promising candidates. (Some of Huang's fellow GOP contenders in the 45th race have been as well.)
Jodi Balma, a political scientist at Fullerton College, credited GOP leadership with creating a pipeline of Asian American leaders and said a diverse GOP ballot can only help in a county that's increasingly less white.
"Definitely, you expand your potential voting base larger than just having a traditional white man as your Republican," Balma said.
Asian Americans are California's fastest-growing electorate, and in Orange County more than 400,000 are eligible to vote.
Randall Avila, executive director of the Republican Party of Orange County, sees their votes as "up for grabs." About 60 percent are split between the Republicans and Democrats, but about 40% are not affiliated with either party, per Political Data Inc. Avila hopes will make them more receptive to candidates like Kim.
"And, you know, to be honest," Avila said, "I think a lot of the Democrats who are Asian American are in play as well."
These women's candidacies underscores a phenomenon seen little outside of Orange County: the rise of Asian American women to the top of the GOP food chain. In California's Asian American community, it's mostly men who rise to state or county office — or higher. And for those Asian American politicians at the top echelons — male or female — most are Democrats (think State Treasurer Fiona Ma and Congresswoman Judy Chu.)
Yet in Orange County, Asian American Republican women occupy two of five seats on the Board of Supervisors (aside from South Korea-born Steel, there is Japanese American Lisa Bartlett.) And it is Taiwanese American Ling Ling Chan whom District 29 voters sent to represent them in the state Senate, after recalling Democrat Josh Newman following his vote to raise the state gas tax.
Racial and ethnic affinity can definitely help out Asian American candidates, said Christine Chen, who leads the national, non-partisan APIAVote, which promotes civic engagement among Asian Americans.
"There are those that still identify as like, 'Oh, that person looks like me, so I'm going to vote for that person,'" Chen said.
But Chen added that Asian Americans who are U.S.-born or have been in the country longer are "really going to look beyond race."
"They're going to really look at each of the candidates to actually see, do the candidates' values line up with my values?" Chen said.
ASIAN AMERICANS ARE PART OF THE BLUE WAVE
Surveys show that Asian Americans as a group are moving to the left, aligning more with Democrats on jobs, health care, education, environment and gun control.
Public affairs consultant Alex Kim has seen the red-blue divide fall along generational lines in the Asian American community — like in his own household.
His Korean immigrant parents were small business owners in Orange County who moved there for the suburban lifestyle and the perceived safety relative to Los Angeles. It kept them insulated from the social issues that preoccupy Democrats more, Kim said.
They were able to focus on their livelihoods, and found themselves drawn to the GOP's positions on taxes and regulations.
But Kim, who calls himself a moderate Republican, said younger generations tend to be employed, not employers. And they want government to take care of societal problems like rising homelessness in Orange County.
"Maybe the newer voters are thinking, 'Okay, well, if one party is not dealing with this, I'm going to go with the other party," Kim said.
Asian American voting trends bode well to the newly-elected Democratic Congress members including Gil Cisneros.
Still, his own party has identified him as a vulnerable "frontline" candidate and Cisneros said he is not taking the Asian American vote for granted.
Cisneros pointed out that staff in his D.C. and Fullerton offices can speak Mandarin, Korean and Tagalog. His campaign manager-turned-chief of staff is of Chinese descent, while his spokesman is Filipino American.
"We're going to continue to work hard to make sure that we get them out to vote and let them know that I'm going to be the one in Washington who's going to really represent them and their values," Cineros said.
Cisneros, a lottery winner who poured millions of dollars into the race, has made veterans, health care and immigration reform some of his top issues. He said like many Asian Americans he wants to help those immigrants in the U.S. illegally who were brought here as children.
"You know, 10 percent of Dreamers are from the Asian community, the largest sector coming from the Korean-American community," Cisneros said. "We need to make sure we find a path for them to citizenship."
Kim, for her part, said immigrants must come legally. But she criticized family separations at the border. And she is against President Trump's efforts to curb family-sponsored migration.
She does, however, agree with Trump's policies on the economy and trade deals.
"If you ask me, would you have someone like Donald Trump date one of your daughters or get married?" Kim said. "I would say maybe not. But I do like the policies."
A DEMOCRAT IN A REPUBLICAN HOUSEHOLD
Young Kim had an afternoon of meetings ahead of her at Panera with community leaders, including a pastor who came by to pick up a ballot box to place at his church ahead of the March 3 primary.
Another supporter, Jatinder Singh from Brea, excitedly stopped to talk to Kim, who he's known since her days of working as an aide to retired Republican Congressman Ed Royce, the mentor she had hoped to succeed.
Singh said he relates to Kim as a fellow immigrant. From India, he registered as a Republican when he became a U.S. citizen in 1980. He said the party appealed to his personal values.
"The platform of the Republican Party actually does not treat all of us as victims and gives us the impetus to be our best so that we can contribute to the society as a whole," Singh said.
Singh said he didn't see the blue wave in Orange County coming, but then again he doesn't hang much with Democrats, except for his daughter, Hardeep Signh. It lends to animated conversations in their home.
Said Hardeep: "There are times that we do get very, very, very heated and it requires us to walk away from one another for a little while."
Hardeep Singh said she grew up with many of her parents' conservative values. But attending the University of California, Irvine opened her eyes to climate change and the mass incarceration of black and brown people. And she's long been attuned to race since 9/11, when fifth-grade classmates made fun of her dad for wearing a turban and beard because he's Sikh.
"People would say, 'Oh, your dad is Osama.' And I felt like I couldn't come home to tell it to my parents because I wanted to protect their feelings," she said.
Now 28 and a medical student interested in working in prison health care, Hardeep Singh is doing what she can help to make sure Orange County's blue wave is here to stay.
She voted early a week ago — for Cisneros.