State contest bound to divide Asian voters in Silicon Valley
Former San Jose Councilmember Lan Diep was unseated in November 2020. Now he's running for a seat in the state Assembly. File photo.

In a contested California Assembly race where more than half of voters are Asian Americans, four Asian Democrats are vying for the job.

Assemblymember Alex Lee, who won the Assembly District 25 seat in 2020, is running for the same job in a new district. His district, which used to encompass Santa Clara, Alviso, Northern San Jose and parts of Fremont, is now District 24 after a state commission redrew political boundaries last December through a once in a decade redistricting process.

The new boundaries—which include Milpitas, Fremont, Newark and the Berryessa area in North San Jose—turn the Bay Area district into the largest Asian voting bloc in the state, with 53.81% of voters being Asian American. Assembly District 49 in Southern California is a close second, with 52.9% of voters being Asian American.

Several advocacy groups pushed for the change in boundaries to preserve and enhance voting power for communities of interest in the area, said Richard Konda, executive director of San Jose-based Asian Law Alliance.

“We were pushing so that this district would have a very high concentration of Asian Americans,” Konda told San José Spotlight. “That would mean that the Asian community would have a strong voice and a candidate who is representative of that district.”

Political observers say the District 24 race is one to watch, as four candidates—all Asian American Democrats with some name recognition in their perspective bases—compete to represent a portion of Silicon Valley.

Lee, 26 and the youngest state legislator in more than 80 years, is facing his predecessor Kansen Chu, former San Jose Councilmember Lan Diep and Fremont Councilmember Teresa Keng.

“These are Asian Americans with experience in government, and they’re credible candidates for the seat,” Bill James, Santa Clara County Democratic Party chair, told San José Spotlight.

District up for grabs

Chu, who gave up his state Assembly seat to run for Santa Clara County supervisor in 2020 and is serving as a Berryessa Union School District board member, will pose a significant challenge to Lee, but the young legislator still appears to have an edge, political observers said. Chu and Lee didn’t respond to several inquiries about the race.

In Alameda County, Keng said her connection to the East Bay cities, where half of the district’s population lives, will help her better represent the district.

“Before this redistricting, Fremont was split in half,” Keng told San José Spotlight. “We used to be low priority, even though we’re the fourth largest city in the Bay Area. So the redistricting is pretty significant in that sense.”

The Fremont councilmember first entered the political landscape in 2018. If elected, Keng would be the only female Asian Democrat in the current state Assembly.

Diep, unseated from the San Jose City Council after one term in 2020, jumped into the race in January. Diep said being Asian in an Asian-majority district has its perks, but he plans to reach beyond the core voting bloc.

“It could be an advantage, but not really because the other candidates are also Asian American,” Diep told San José Spotlight. “It’s kind of a moot point.”

Asian voters also don’t often vote as a bloc, Diep said, as each community has its own concerns and priorities.

“The person who can reach out to the Latino community, African American community and the Caucasian community to get their message across will ultimately win the district,” he said.

The race is bound to divide Asian American voters in the district, political observers said. But voters will likely look beyond the ethnic lines in the contested race.

“Competition is good,” Konda said. “I think it will cause the candidates to hopefully sharpen their arguments, to be more attentive to what the district residents need and want.”

The formation of the Asian-majority district signals the growing voting power of the Asian community in California, but progress could be slow. Asian Americans make up roughly 40% of the population in Santa Clara County and more than 15.5% in the state. Yet, only 14 out of 124 California legislators are Asian American, according to a 2021 analysis by CalMatters.

Asian voters in San Jose make up 39.5% of the population, yet struggle with having a political voice. Some claimed city officials attempted to dilute their votes during the redistricting process. The city’s Redistricting Commission lost its only Asian voice when commissioner Kaitlyn Tran withdrew from the commission and was not replaced.

“Representation matters,” James said. “When young or even older Asian American residents in our area look to Sacramento to try to solve problems, it’s a positive thing that some of the representatives are themselves Asian Americans, who have shared experience, language and connection through their parents and families within their community.”

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter. 

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