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Heated Race For Congress Is Centering On Voters In Little Saigon

A side-by-side collage of Congressional candidates. Jay Chen, an Asian American man in his 40s wearing a suit is on left, positioned against a blue backdrop. Michelle Steel, an Asian American woman in her 60s, is wearing a shift dress, with her arms crossed, and is positioned against a red backdrop.
Democrat Jay Chen and Republican Rep. Michelle Steel are front-runners in the race for the 45th House District, located mostly in Orange County.
(Josie Huang
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In the tight race for the 45th Congressional District, Little Saigon landmarks are campaign must-stops.

In Garden Grove, Jay Chen, the sole Democrat in the race, took off his shoes on a recent Sunday to enter the Tu Viện Đại Bi temple as hundreds of Buddhists gathered to honor a late Zen Buddhist master.

“I think one of the best parts of this district is how diverse it is and how strong the Vietnamese American community is,” said Chen as he gifted a potted orchid to one of the temple’s members.

Days later, at the Asian Garden Mall in neighboring Westminster, the top Republican candidate, Rep. Michelle Steel, lunched over Vietnamese food at a meet-and-greet with members of the local chamber of commerce.

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“I feel very close to [the] Vietnamese American community because you know what? I've been known [to the] Vietnamese American community,” said Steel, who gave a speech and presented a plaque to a restaurant owner for joining the chamber.

It’s an only-in-California scenario: A Korean American Republican and Taiwanese American Democrat are leading a pack of candidates trying to win over the greatest concentration of Vietnamese American voters in the country.

It’s one of several toss-up races in California being closely-monitored nationally, as Democrats try to hold on to their slim majority in the House.

An Asian American woman in her 60s wearing a black shift dress presents a plaque from the Westminster Chamber of Commerce to an Asian American man in a suit.
Steel presents a plaque to the owner of Perfume River Restaurant on behalf of the Westminster Chamber of Commerce.
(Josie Huang/LAist)
An Asian American man in his 40s wearing glasses and a suit (l.) presents a potted plan to a nun (r.) who wears a smile and a shaven head.
Chen visits a Buddhist temple in Garden Grove, presenting a gift of orchids to one of the nuns.
(Josie Huang/LAist)

Steel, an incumbent from another Orange County district, and Chen, who’s served in local office and run for Congress before, are expected to take the two top spots in the June 7 primary, likely setting the stage for a face-off in November’s general election. (Other candidates are Republican Long Pham and independent Hilaire Fuji Shioura.)

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The competition between the front-runners has, for the most part, played out predictably. Like candidates in every other race, Chen and Steel each identify inflation and gas prices as top concerns. They are split on the pressing election issue of abortion rights, with Chen in favor and Steel calling for restrictions.

Both have racked up a raft of endorsements. Steel, 66, is backed by House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy and the sheriffs of Los Angeles and Orange counties, Alex Villanueva and Don Barnes. Chen, 44, has support from House Democrats Ted Lieu and Judy Chu and state Attorney General Rob Bonta. Fundraising records for the period ending May 18 show that Steel had raised $4.1 million — nearly $1.8 million more than Chen.

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But the district’s distinctive demographics have brought other fractious issues into focus that aren’t as commonly raised in elections, such as discrimination against immigrants and homeland politics that have Chen and Steel accusing the other of hiding ties to China’s Communist Party.

New Maps, New Races

Campaign barbs about China are being traded in a district where Vietnamese Americans make up the plurality of the Asian American population, many of whom have strong feelings about Communism.

Tens of thousands of Vietnamese Americans live in the Little Saigon business and cultural district, which stretches into the cities of Westminster, Garden Grove and Fountain Valley.

Little Saigon used to be in the 48th House District along the coast, which elected Steel in 2020. But redistricting created a new coastal district that drew in Irvine, home to Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, who soon announced she would be running for that House seat.

Eschewing a potential match-up with a nationally-known incumbent, Steel shifted her sights to the 45th, even though voter registration gives Democrats a slight edge. Chen, who had been planning a run against Republican incumbent Young Kim in another House district that straddles Los Angeles and Orange counties, also made the decision to turn to the 45th. He said redistricting had created an “AAPI influence district.”

Districts are prohibited from being drawn to favor a particular party or incumbent. Rather, the state panel that shapes electoral maps to reflect new census numbers is tasked with distributing population equally, keeping “communities of interest” together and ensuring that minorities have the opportunity to elect representatives of their choice under the Voting Rights Act.

The commission spent months last year taking public comment.

“We had received a lot of testimony from communities on the ground, in particular, a significant amount of testimony from Little Saigon wanting to be kept together,” said Sarah Sadhwani, one of the commissioners.

The commission folded into the 45th other nearby cities with large concentrations of Asian Americans, including Cerritos and Artesia, home to Little India.

Now, 37% of voting age citizens in the district are Asian American — second in the state only to a district encompassing parts of Silicon Valley where the proportion is 47%.

Sadhwani said the goal wasn’t to create a competitive district. The 45th, though, is mostly located in Orange County, a once-conservative bastion that has turned purple as it’s grown more diverse and Democratic. And the 45th’s large share of Asian American voters — who are also concentrated in cities such as Cerritos, Fullerton and Artesia, home to Little India — makes the district even more of a toss-up.

“Amongst Asian Americans, many identify with no party preference,” said Sadhwani, who also teaches politics at Pomona College. “And so for quite some time, Asian Americans have been — if you will — fair game for a political party or candidate who wants to do the work to earn their vote.”

The circuitous boundaries of the redrawn 45th Congressional district reach into L.A. County to pick up Cerritos and than form a rough C from Brea in the north to Fountain Valley in the south.
(Courtesy We Draw The Lines)

The prominence of the Vietnamese American community in the 45th presents a change for Chen, who lives in the San Gabriel Valley community of Hacienda Heights, where the majority of Asian Americans are of Chinese and Taiwanese descent.

“I found the Vietnamese American community to be very welcoming,” said Chen, who works in commercial real estate and serves as a Mt. San Antonio College trustee. “Partly, it's because I'm a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserves [with the] Seventh Fleet. It was the fleet that was actually involved with the Vietnam War [and] helped evacuate a lot of folks out.”

Steel, who lives in Seal Beach, points out she has represented Orange County — and Little Saigon — since 2007, when she was first elected to the Board of Equalization and, following that, as a county Supervisor. She left the board of supervisors after unseating Democratic Rep.Harley Rouda in 2020 in a race where both candidates also aggressively courted the Little Saigon vote. Steel was one of three members of the incoming class to serve as the first Korean American women in Congress.

Steel described having strong support among Korean American and Vietnamese American voters, but voiced confidence in reaching more people beyond those groups.

“Most of the Asian Americans are not voting by the party line,” Steel said. “They heard about you, then they vote.”

Neither candidate lives in the 45th, though Chen, the father of two boys in elementary school, said he will move into the district if he wins. Steel, a grandmother of two, said she has not decided what she will do.

Communism Enters The Chat

Within weeks of announcing their candidacies, Chen and Steel accused the other of having ties to China.

Steel’s campaign has worked to revisit a controversy from 2010 when Chen, as a school board member in the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District, voted to bring in a cultural and language program through the Confucius Institute, which receives funding from the Chinese government. Ultimately, the program was not adopted after a backlash that was parodied on The Daily Show.

Chen, meanwhile, has resurfaced a 2020 Wall Street Journal story that said Chinese nationals hoping to gain access to the Trump White House had been invited to a Republican National Committee event as guests of Steel’s husband, Shawn, a long-time GOP leader in California.

Lawn sign reads "Jay Chen: Veteran for Congress"
(Josie Huang/LAist)
Blue and yellow lawn sign reads "Stop Inflation, Lower Taxes: Michelle Steel U.S. Congress"
(Josie Huang/LAist)

Both candidates disavow any connection to the Chinese government, but the specter of such a relationship could alarm those who fled Communism, such as the many refugees who settled in Little Saigon.

“The war in Vietnam ended, officially, but for many people, it hasn't ended emotionally or psychologically,” said Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, who teaches Asian American studies at the University of California, Irvine.

Wu said anger about Communism runs so deep among some immigrant voters that former President Trump’s comments about “kung flu” and “China virus” did little to sour them on the GOP.

“Even though he had this kind of racist rhetoric, there are people in the community who were very supportive of his anti-Chinese politics, or anti-China politics,” Wu said.

Steel, though, said it’s Chen who is guilty of racism, following comments he made at a recent town hall. Chen had described reading a transcript of Steel speaking, saying, “You kind of need an interpreter to figure out exactly what she’s saying.”

Steel wrote a letter demanding an apology from Chen, signed by more than 20 other state and local officials, most of them Asian American.

“I came to this country when I was 19,” said Steel, who also speaks Japanese and Korean. “You know what? My accent is my story. And I'm very proud, first-generation that’s serving in Congress.”

Chen said he wasn’t commenting on Steel's audible accent, but rather her talking points being nonsensical. Chen pointed out that he’s the son of immigrants and has rallied against attacks on Asians, like marching in Diamond Bar last year when a motorist drove his car into an anti-Asian hate demonstration.

“I think it's sad when she's trying to play the victim when we actually have real incidents of anti-Asian hate that are happening daily,” Chen said.

Chen said he is eager to debate his opponent. Steel said she wanted to get through the primary first: “We still have five or six months to go.”

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.