In LA, The Rise Of The Asian American Progressive
Kenneth Mejia, who cruised to a landslide victory in his campaign for city controller while calling for police accountability and decriminalizing homelessness, said he used to give little thought to politics.
"I was one of those non-political Asians most of my life, but I saw something that sparked my interest,” Mejia said on a Zoom call recently with other Asian American progressives.
That spark, Mejia said, was Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose 2016 presidential run focused on universal health care and education, drawing legions of progressives to dive into electoral politics for the first time.
Mejia, who took office Monday as the first Asian American to hold citywide office in Los Angeles, is at the forefront of an increasingly visible group of Asian American progressives to enter local politics in the last few years, many of them inspired by Sanders.
“I think Bernie really showed us that we could ask for more,” said political organizer Meghan Choi. “And that sort of pushed people's imagination.”
Choi co-founded the grassroots political organization Ground Game LA and co-managed the 2020 campaign for Nithya Raman, who became L.A.’s first Asian American woman to join the city council, boosted by a Sanders endorsement.
Choi said another event drove many Asian American progressives to action: the 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Floyd’s death ignited conversations among Asian Americans about racism, justice and solidarity, Choi said.
‘I do think that there is a sense of a burden to push back against anti-Blackness, and also a desire to be seen and recognized and not invalidated as a POC community,” said Choi, now a senior advisor to newly-elected Council member Eunisses Hernandez, who ran as an abolitionist in District 1 encompassing Highland Park and Chinatown.
Mejia Was Among A Large Slate Of Asian American Candidates
This year saw a host of progressive Asian American candidates seek office, including Kelsey Iino, who won election to the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees.
In 2020, Cyndi Otteson, who was backed by Sanders supporters, lost to Kevin de León in the race to represent the 14th city council district.
The progressive candidates campaigned outside of a Democratic establishment that backed incumbents. They said they rejected identity politics that pits racial and ethnic groups against one another — an approach highlighted by recently-leaked audio in which council members prioritized Latino political power at the expense of Black Angelenos.
“We're not just trying to win and just only represent just AAPI — but everybody,” Mejia said.
But Mejia also expressed pride in his Filipino heritage — he’s a child of immigrants who grew up in the San Fernando Valley — and acknowledged that his win could inspire other Asian Americans to consider politics.
Still More Asian Americans Were Behind The Scenes
His campaign, for example, drew Asian Americans to work behind the scenes as volunteers and staff.
Meija’s campaign was managed by Jane Nguyen, who first met him through her work as co-founder of Ktown For All, a group that provides mutual aid to unhoused residents of Koreatown.
Nguyen will act as Mejia’s chief of staff alongside other employees who run the gamut in age and background, including 19-year-old Kyler Chin, who was hired as the director of technology and innovation after winning plaudits for making maps of affordable housing and parks for the campaign.
Long-time activist Taiji Miyagawa has been seeing more young faces as a founding member of Progressive Asian Network for Action, a group formed by Sanders supporters in L.A. after his 2016 run.
Today we had our Team Mejia swear in with the people who have been with us since we officially launched 2 years ago exactly on December 10, 2020! Years of hard work brought us to this moment! Thank you all!— Kenneth Mejia, CPA (@kennethmejiaLA) December 11, 2022
Thank you Councilmembers @EunissesH & @mikebonin for speaking too! 💚 pic.twitter.com/M7mN0UbFY5
Miyagawa said he expected Asian American progressives to grow as a force in the coming years as Gen Z voters grapple with income inequality and housing.
He notes the wealth gap between the richest and poorest Asians in the U.S. is the greatest of any demographic, dispelling the model minority myth.
“There's language problems,” Miyagawa said. “There's the burden of having to take care of your elderly immigrant parents. There's all of these things we aren't aware of that Asians have to face.”
Progressives beyond L.A. have been celebrating Mejia's win, which saw him nab more than 60% of the vote.
In Orange County, Vincent Tran has been fighting for rent control for working-class Vietnamese Americans as an organizer with VietRISE.
He's followed Mejia's campaign and sees his win as inspiring more Asian American progressives, much like he was mobilized to volunteer in 2016 by Sanders and a Vietnamese American progressive congressional candidate.
While that candidate — Bao Nguyen — lost, Tran thought at the time, "maybe we should create something more established in order to kind of continue this momentum.”
'Being Progressive Is Challenging Institutions'
From crossing paths with politicians in his advocacy work, Tran said he has noticed the term “progressive” co-opted by many Democrats but Mejia strikes him as authentic.
“Being progressive is challenging institutions,” Tran said. “And seeing like, what are alternatives in terms of policing, prisons, immigration reform?”
Tran said he was so taken with Mejia’s messaging, which used eye-catching billboards and TikTok videos to innovative effect, that the fact he is Asian American came as an afterthought.
On Mejia's Zoom call with progressive Asian Americans, the conversation focused less on ethnicity than their shared politics. But as a group, members expressed their desire to support Mejia in his work.
Mejia responded that he would need their help as he prepares to stir up City Hall with audits that will scrutinize municipal spending on police and homelessness initiatives.
‘Please be patient with us and support us if you notice we're getting attacked by the media or by the establishment because it's going to happen a lot,” Mejia said. “We’re going to do our best and run this office like we campaigned on with transparency and accountability.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously said Cyndi Otteson was endorsed by Bernie Sanders and misstated Vincent Tran's last name.