The outcome of San Diego’s District 6 City Council election will test the limits of what it means to be an Asian empowerment district.
It is the only open seat on the Council, home to the city’s highest concentration of Asian and Pacific Islander residents, and a high-profile Asian business community that is a cultural heartbeat of the district, which covers Kearny Mesa, Mira Mesa, Sorrento Valley and University City.
For the last eight years, the district has been represented by Chris Cate, who is of Asian descent, and when he won his seat in 2014, all of his opponents were, too.
But vying for the seat this time are two Democrats, Kent Lee and Tommy Hough. Lee is Asian, but Hough is not.
Both have vowed to protect AAPI interests as the area densifies.
Hough, a county planning commissioner, said he’d hire staff fluent in a variety of languages to ensure every resident can advocate for themselves. But he also said many of the issues in District 6, like parks and infrastructure, are universal and extend across Council boundaries.
Lee agrees. “What we need in terms of problem solving and collaboration at City Hall is the same across districts,” he said.
While he’s not running because of his ethnicity, he said, he still considers it an important dynamic in the race, especially after a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans during the pandemic. He would be only the fourth person of AAPI descent to ever join the City Council. Tom Hom was the first in 1963, followed by Todd Gloria more than four decades later and then Chris Cate, the current District 6 representative who’s termed out at the end of this year.
But Lee also stressed that the AAPI community is not a monolith — it’s a broad spectrum of backgrounds and experiences.
“I don’t pretend to understand all of it,” he said, but being immersed in that diversity for years has helped him grasp the varying needs and concerns. Lee is executive director of the nonprofit Pacific Arts Movement, which hosts the San Diego Asian Film Festival.
Lee and Hough are both supportive of the Kearny Mesa community plan, which was updated in 2020 to make way for more dense housing in the largely commercial area. Lee said it’s particularly important that the District 6 representative understand the history of the Convoy Street business district — home to many immigrant businesses that had nowhere else to go in San Diego — and be mindful of it as the city changes.
“Convoy is special because a new generation of small businesses pop up that may not be the same as the parents’ generation,” he said. “It’s constantly evolving.”
Hough’s pitch to the AAPI business community mirrors his wider pitch to the district as a whole.
“I don’t want to see a lot of those mom-and-pop shops getting pushed out by overdevelopment,” he said.
The attempt to create an Asian empowerment district in San Diego goes back at least two decades. Those efforts led to Cate’s election in 2014 and his re-election in 2018 over Hough.
At the time, Hough had the backing of the regional Democratic Party. It’s endorsing Lee in November, partly in keeping with the district’s reputation for Asian empowerment and because some political operatives felt as though Hough had lost a winnable race in the midst of a blue wave. Lee also has the support of major labor groups and the Regional Chamber of Commerce, while Hough is drawing on environmentalists.
Last year saw a series of contentious meetings as the redistricting commission set about drawing the new boundaries based on the 2020 Census. Advocates wanted to push the total AAPI population in District 6 to as high as 51 percent, fearing that the electoral turnout would otherwise be low. Historically, AAPI turnout has lagged compared to other groups for several reasons, one being that voting — and staying informed on the campaigns — isn’t always easy for people who speak limited English.
In the end, the map approved by the commission was closer to 40 percent.
One analysis of the district, conducted by Ryan Clumpner of Public Dynamics, who’s working on an independent expenditure committee in support of Lee, shows that AAPI residents account for 22 percent of registered voters in District 6 and comprised only 17 percent of the June primary turnout.
It was lower than some had hoped — and indeed warned against — suggesting that an Asian empowerment district doesn’t guarantee Asian representation. Rather, as advocates acknowledge, it’s part of an ongoing effort to increase civic participation and boost the chances of an AAPI voting bloc.
Lee is ethnically Chinese but his parents fled Vietnam and Burma, now known as Myanmar, so he said he understands why others with similar experience of government oppression might be turned off by the political process. He considers it important to represent those who abstain, as well as those who vote, and sees his election as a step toward greater inclusion.
Lee has the support of more than 120 San Diegans of AAPI descent, some of whom, like Cris Liang, co-owner of Common Theory brewhouse, said Lee’s background was less important than the time he’s spent on Convoy Street and the relationships he’s built there. Liang’s endorsement was based on “knowing someone on that deeper level,” he told me.
One of the district’s long-standing leaders has offered a dual endorsement in the race.
During the redistricting effort, Mitz Lee, who co-founded the Asian Pacific American Coalition, came under fire for supporting a map that differed from what many AAPI community members had been advocating for. She resigned after a former Asian Pacific American Coalition board member — who went on to work for Kent Lee’s campaign — accused her of an ethics violation.
Mitz Lee, who ran unsuccessfully for District 6 in 2014, told me in an email that her resignation from the redistricting commission did not influence her decision to offer both candidates an endorsement.
“As a voter with no party affiliation since 2013, the D6 race should focus on the needs and priorities of our community and neighborhoods,” she said in a statement. “The voters will decide who will represent their interest at City Hall.”
Nevertheless, Kent Lee has the overwhelming support of AAPI leadership, including Wesley Quach, business advisor and programs manager at the Asian Business Association. Quach, like Liang, cited Lee’s knowledge of Convoy and said he’d pick up seamlessly where Cate leaves off.
During his time in office, Cate has secured a variety of funding to boost tourism and place banners and other signage. In 2020, Convoy was officially designated a Pan Asian Cultural and Business Innovation District. Cate also worked with Quach’s group to put in angle parking, increasing the total number of spots that serve businesses along Convoy.
“Our success paralleled having someone like us in office,” Quach said. “There’s so much nuance you can’t just teach someone.”
From this viewpoint, partisan distinctions become irrelevant. Cate is a Republican and Lee is a Democrat.
“As long as they can truly represent the community they serve,” Quach said, “that’s what matters the most.”