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Leaders of San Diego’s Asian community have always felt a little left out when it comes to the city’s halls of power. It’s been almost 50 years since Tom Hom, the first and only Asian to serve on the City Council, was elected in 1962.
But last month’s passage of Proposition D, which made permanent the city’s strong mayor form of government and added a new council district to the existing eight, has given Asian leaders new hope of consolidating the community’s political power. They see the new council seat as their best chance at establishing a seat on the council in 2012.
They’ve started to mobilize to get it done.
Last week, Mitz Lee, a Filipina former school board member, and Allen Chan, a doctor and Chinese restaurant owner, announced the formation of a coalition of local Asian leaders tasked with influencing the process to determine the new district’s boundaries.
They want the new district carved out of the north city communities of Mira Mesa and Rancho Peñasquitos, where the Asian population has grown during the last decade, and which is home to one of the city’s largest concentrations of Asians, according to U.S. Census and Sandag figures.
The new district the Asian leaders expect to lobby for would likely cut away at areas currently represented by Democrat Sherri Lightner and Republican Carl DeMaio. But leaders of the Asian coalition say their lobbying group will be non-partisan, its focus on gaining Asian representation and not on tilting the City Council politically.
“The bottom line is political empowerment,” said Lee, whose school board election in 2004 made her the first Asian elected to citywide office. “Going forward, we would like to get engaged with the redistricting process.”
The city charter requires each council district to contain a roughly equal proportion of the city’s population, so the districts are reorganized every 10 years to reflect new U.S. Census population data. It also requires that district boundaries preserve “communities of interest” and provide fair representation for racial and ethnic minorities.
The creation of a new district means the existing eight will become smaller as they give up some of their residents to the ninth. It may also help Asians avoid some of the challenges they faced when they lobbied for an Asian district a decade ago.
Back then, Chan said, Asian leaders started organizing late and were inconsistent in attending public meetings of the Redistricting Commission, the independent citizen group that determines new district boundaries.
The commission’s flexibility to redraw those boundaries was more limited a decade ago because they were only tweaking existing districts. That made the task more difficult for proponents of an Asian district.
City Clerk Liz Maland, whose office starts the redistricting process, said this effort is historic — the first new council district created since 1963.
Asian community leaders acknowledge the importance, and say it is a prime opportunity to carve out boundaries for a district favorable to Asian candidates.
They say the district is needed to bring balance to a City Council that already has historically Latino and black seats in the city’s southern districts.
The concentrations of Latino and black residents in the city has made their political representation easier, said Leland Saito, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California, who researches the role of race in redistricting decisions. Saito served on the city’s Redistricting Commission in 2000, when he was a professor at the University of California, San Diego.
One of the challenges for the Asian-American community, Saito said, is that they tend to be more dispersed throughout the city.
In the mid-20th century, limitations on where African Americans could buy property concentrated much of the black population in southeastern San Diego. Latinos have also settled in more concentrated neighborhoods, though they remain less segregated than black residents, Saito said.
Asians, on the other hand, have been more integrated into the general population. That has made the consolidation of Asian political power difficult even as their numbers have grown, he said.
Asians make up 15 percent of the city’s population, according to Census estimates, and population growth in the northern part of the city during the last decade has given new heft to Asian community leaders’ case for an Asian council district.
Still, many Asians, especially immigrants, are less civically engaged than leaders would hope, either because of language barriers, family obligations or lack of knowledge about the political process.
In the coming months, the new coalition will focus on collecting data on civic participation among San Diego’s Asian community and launch a campaign to increase participation by Asians in November’s election.
Armed with proof that Asians have become a political force in the city, they hope to make the case to the Redistricting Commission when it begins taking public testimony from interest groups after the release of new Census information in April 2011.
In 2001, Saito said, the gay community came out in force to commission meetings. Their testimony was influential in maintaining most boundaries of the Mid-City council district now represented by Todd Gloria, which has a large population of gay residents.
Public testimony weighed heavily on the ultimate boundaries proposed by the commission, Saito said.
The Asian coalition knows involvement in the public redistricting process will be important and is preparing, said Chan, who also worked with the Census Bureau this year to ensure a complete count of San Diego’s Asian population.
“Through that process I felt that many of the Asian and Pacific Island communities are a lot more ready to get involved with the civic activities and carry out their civic duties now than they were 10 years ago,” he said.