Democrats Hope an Asian Influx Will Help Turn Orange County Blue
Posted June 3, 2018 7:27 p.m. EDT
IRVINE, Calif. — When the Taiwanese bakery opened for business a decade ago, the line for taro bread and sea-salt coffee undulated down the sidewalk, but at least it wasn’t the three-hour wait for Shanghainese hot pot that plugged up the same shopping center earlier this year. Still, that was preferable to the half-day’s perseverance required for entry to the South Coast Plaza branch of Din Tai Fung, the upscale soup-dumpling chain that, for three weeks this winter, threw a crystal-bedecked Lunar New Year party more elaborate than that of most Chinatowns.
Immigrants from China and Korea, and Asian-Americans from other states, have made Irvine nearly half Asian. This has not gone unnoticed by the Irvine Co., the developer that did not so much develop as invent this master-planned city of spotless parks, top schools and cul-de-sacs out of a former sheep ranch in the 1960s, when Orange County was agricultural (think lima beans and orange groves), conservative (think Richard Nixon and the John Birch Society) and white (very, very white).
Known for its devotion to tasteful Mediterranean-ish homes and strip malls that bear approximately the same architectural relationship to Tuscany as the Las Vegas Venetian does to Venice, the Company has cultivated a few new trademarks in recent years. Developments advertise second kitchens designed to seal off the aroma of Asian cooking. In-law suites cater to the Asian custom of multigenerational living. Asians smile out of ersatz family photos in the model homes. And Asian immigrant couples have been buying homes up — often for millions, often in cash.
“Asians,” said Sukhee Kang, who became the first Korean-American to run a major U.S. city when he was elected mayor of Irvine in 2008, “are good for business.”
Whether Asians are also good for votes is one of the biggest political questions driving this year’s midterm races in Orange County, where Democrats are counting on immigrants to help the party pull off, if not quite a blue wave, then at least an unmistakable purpling.
Orange County is now one-fifth Asian and more than one-third Latino, with a Little Saigon in Garden Grove; Westminster, a Koreatown beginning to rival Los Angeles’ in nearby Buena Park; and a thriving Latino community centered in Santa Ana. Forty-five percent of the county’s households speak a language other than English.
In the 45th Congressional District, whose biggest city is Irvine, three of the four Democratic candidates were born to immigrants, including one of the front-runners, Dave Min, a Korean-American law professor at the University of California, Irvine. Whichever Democrat does best in the June 5 primary will challenge Rep. Mimi Walters, the Republican incumbent, in a district that has never elected anyone but Republicans — an area once famous for nurturing the political careers of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
Hence the double-takes when Orange County chose Hillary Clinton in 2016, the first time a Democratic presidential candidate had carried the county since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second term.
Clinton’s edge seems like less of a stretch in the diverse precincts of Irvine, whose demographics increasingly look like the future of Orange County.
But when half the residents of this city of a quarter-million are Asian, it is not clear whether demographics will be destiny for the Democrats, or just, well, a faux-Mediterranean cul-de-sac.
Turnout is one reason. Asian-Americans tend not to vote in high numbers, put off by language barriers, lack of outreach from either party and a historical absence of political engagement.
Though they have gravitated toward the left ever since the 1990s, they are fractured. According to a national survey of Asian-Americans conducted after the 2016 election, Indian- and Korean-Americans tack progressive, Chinese- and Vietnamese-Americans more conservative. While Asians registered as Republicans in Orange County outnumber Asian Democrats, more than one-third of Asian voters identify as independents.
Those splits reflect the diversity of an Asian population that is one-third Vietnamese, one-sixth Korean and one-sixth Chinese, with smaller shares of Filipinos, Indians and Japanese. Those who live in Irvine are often highly educated and affluent, especially the businesspeople from mainland China and Korea who often buy up new subdivisions. But there remain pockets of poverty among the county’s Vietnamese, Cambodians and Pacific Islanders.
And though they tend to hold liberal views on issues like gun control, climate change and public spending, the political causes that some Asian-Americans have rallied around in recent years have veered conservative. Organizing on the social media platform WeChat, Chinese immigrants mobilized in 2014 to kill legislation that would have resurrected affirmative action at California universities.
Even so, many Asians oppose the Trump administration’s makeover of the immigration system, and their votes evince a broader discomfort with the president. Orange County Asians re-elected their Republican congressional representatives, yet tilted toward Clinton in 2016. “Because of Republican rhetoric against immigration, Republicans are really turning off Asian-Americans,” said Jennifer Lee, a Columbia sociologist and one of the 2016 survey’s authors. She said both parties needed to work harder for Asian votes. “As they grow as a larger voting bloc, they’re really up for grabs,” she said.
What could cut through the political crosscurrents this year is a simple maxim: Asians vote for Asians.
The few Asian politicians in Orange County have tended to be Republicans, not least because the party has been the only game in town. A front-runner to replace Ed Royce, a retiring Republican congressman who represents heavily Hispanic and Asian parts of northern Orange County, is a Korean-born Republican former state legislator named Young Kim.
But younger Asian-Americans, especially those born in the United States, have tended to swerve left of their elders. They include Min, a former adviser to Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who calls himself a housing finance wonk. Depending on how several other races turn out, he could become the only Korean-American in Congress, a prospect that finds its way into his pitch when Asian voters are around.
Running in Irvine, where Asians, whites and Persians alike buy million-dollar homes in large part to put their children in ultracompetitive public schools, Min has reasons both for doubt and for hope. “I joke that it’s the one district in the country where being an Asian-American law professor is an advantage,” he said. Resistance City, this is not. Lawn signs advertising open houses tend to far outnumber those endorsing politicians. And then there is the question of Asian voters, who, beyond inconsistent turnout, are not numerous enough on their own to pick winners.
Still, Asians are the fastest-growing immigrant group in the country; in 2015, researchers at the University of California, Davis, projected that the number of eligible Asian-American voters in California would rise 37 percent by 2040.
“The more you can engage them in the place they’re comfortable, in the language they’re comfortable in — it’s a sign that we value their vote,” said Katie Porter, a UC Irvine law professor who is considered Min’s main rival.
She said her campaign, which highlights her consumer protection work with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., was energizing previously apathetic voters: “I think that this is a place where historically, politics wasn’t discussed, but this most recent election, I think, changed that.”
Min speaks only minimal Korean, making it difficult for him to tap into the community on his own. So his parents, who arrived in the United States as graduate students in 1972, have campaigned for him at Korean churches and restaurants, and Kang has prodded local Korean-language media to cover him more.
On a recent evening in Turtle Rock, a neighborhood near UC Irvine, virtually every white voter whose door Min knocked on was familiar with his campaign, including an ex-Republican who pledged his vote.
Some of the Asian voters on his list proved harder to engage.
A woman named Celeste grimaced when Min told her that Walters, the Republican incumbent, was “100 percent with Trump.”
“This feels like an attack on the values that brought my parents to this country and that I grew up with,” Min added.
The woman listened, but did not ask questions or linger.
Nowhere is Orange County’s accelerating diversity more obvious than in its schools and shopping centers, where, in the absence of downtowns, community life unfolds.
Zion Markets (Korean) and 99 Ranches (Taiwanese) jostle with, or even replace, Vons and Albertsons supermarkets. There are so many Chinese students in Irvine now that the city supports several competing Chinese-language schools, and the public schools have been known to send notices to parents in English and Chinese.
In 2016, when Ryan Garlitos was preparing to open Irenia, his critically acclaimed Filipino restaurant in Santa Ana, “there was a question of, ‘Is Orange County ready for this place?'” Garlitos said.
Apparently it is. Why? “Kids like us grew up,” said Sarah Mosqueda, his partner, who is from a Mexican family in Tustin. “That’s what changed.”
Garlitos and Mosqueda met working at Taco María, an ambitious Mexican restaurant in nearby Costa Mesa chosen by the Los Angeles Times as its 2018 restaurant of the year.
But the chef, Carlos Salgado, the son of Mexican immigrants, said he had no illusions about how far immigrants still had to go in Orange County. “I have a tall white guy in my kitchen; people think he’s the chef,” Salgado said.
Local headlines this year have been a reminder that the county is still conservative turf mottled with liberal patches, not the other way around. A dozen Republican-dominated cities recently passed resolutions opposing the state’s new so-called sanctuary state law, which extends more protections to unauthorized immigrants.
Most of them were predominantly white communities.
“To me, it’s the last gasp of a ruling group of Republicans who are on their way out the door,” said Kia Hamadanchy, a son of Persian immigrants who is running for Congress as a Democrat in Irvine.
Whether immigrants will replace them remains to be seen.
“It’s hard to get Asian-Americans to run,” said Cyril Yu, a deputy district attorney who lost his race for the Irvine school board in 2012. “But I think you’re going to get people who are excited, nonetheless, because an Asian-American’s on the ballot.”