On March 5, 2013, in a historic election, Chin Ho Liao was elected to serve on the San Gabriel City Council, but the city council refused to let him take his seat. This was unheard of and something no city had ever done before. The council took this unprecedented action because of a single complaint filed by a city resident with close ties to one of the losing incumbents, who contested Liao’s eligibility to run.
But this is more than a story of local politics gone awry. There are lessons here that increasingly diversifying communities across the country should heed as we embark together on the important task of fortifying the rights of every American to take part in our proud democracy.
On May 7, after two intense months of legal battles and community outrage, Liao was finally permitted to take his oath of office and join the council as its newest member. What happened during these two months tells a story of Liao’s courage, one that began a quarter-century ago. It also highlights how demographic shifts like one that has been taking place in San Gabriel can set off dynamics that present challenges – and opportunities – for communities with rapidly changing populations.
The city of San Gabriel, one of California’s oldest settlements, is nestled in the San Gabriel Valley, in the eastern part of Los Angeles County. San Gabriel has a population of less than 40,000, and is celebrating its centennial year. In recent decades, the city and the region as a whole have undergone massive demographic changes resulting in a diverse population of Asian Americans and other immigrants. In San Gabriel itself, over 60 percent of the population is Asian American, over three quarters of whom are immigrants.
Among those who now call the San Gabriel Valley their home is Chin Ho Liao, an immigrant from Taiwan who came to the U.S. to seek out higher education and who then settled in San Gabriel. Since his retirement, he has engaged in one of the most longstanding of American traditions – volunteerism. For the past 24 years, he’s served the community of San Gabriel through his involvement with nonprofit and civic organizations. Then he sought office so he could serve the community as a public servant.
Prior to the March 5th election, San Gabriel’s five-member city council had no Asian American members, and only two Asian Americans had previously served on the council. The five candidates in the city council race included three incumbents and two Asian American challengers, including Liao. In a result that surprised many, Liao and the other Asian American candidate were the top two vote-getters and won seats on the council. Only one of the three incumbents won re-election.
Three weeks after the election, when it came time to install the winners of the election, the city council told Liao that he could not take his seat. At that point the council still included the two incumbents who lost. Despite the conflict of interest, and despite the appearance of undermining a historic moment for Asian Americans, the council ignored the plain and clear requirements of state law to seat Liao.
The council justified its action by pointing to the complaint contesting Liao’s eligibility to serve. However, the proper procedure was to let Liao assume his seat first and then to consider the complaint.
Compounding its error, the council announced that it would conduct its own review of the complaint, rather than refer the matter to a neutral third party such as a court or an administrative hearing officer. The council that was to conduct the review included three of Liao’s political opponents: two incumbents who were not up for re-election in March but who supported the re-elected incumbent and the two losing incumbents, plus the re-elected incumbent who similarly supported the two losing incumbents. These circumstances cast doubt on the integrity of the council’s decision to conduct its own hearing.
The Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC) took on Liao’s case because we are a civil rights organization and we believed this to be a civil rights case. It was clear that Liao’s fundamental right to hold office, a right recognized by the courts, had been violated. It was equally clear that the fundamental right to vote of the San Gabriel electorate had been infringed.
This is because the two rights are inextricably linked – the confidence that voters have in democracy depends on their belief that elections fairly won will not be unjustly taken away from the candidate they supported. And nowhere is this more critical than with newcomers to the American electoral process, including Asian Americans whose burgeoning but fragile political participation was threatened by the council’s ill-founded actions.
In the end, the council defied expectations and ruled in favor of Liao – an issue that was never in doubt in the hearts and minds of the San Gabriel community. Certainly the efforts of our legal team played a part in this outcome, but even more important was the inspiring courage demonstrated by Liao in fighting for his right to represent the people of San Gabriel. Also inspiring was the activism of San Gabriel community members, who formed a multi-racial coalition to voice concerns about the threat posed by the council’s actions to San Gabriel’s democracy.
As San Gabriel looks ahead to its next 100 years, those who serve the community would do well to embrace the future and welcome the participation of all Americans, including the newcomers who have come to pursue their aspirations. In our rapidly diversifying society we must all be prepared, like the residents of San Gabriel were, to demand that all Americans are afforded their right to take part in the political process.
Mee Moua pointed out that as a former candidate of color, her strategy involved “tailored outreach” to specific communities. It’s an issue, she added, that “most mainstream candidates struggle with.”
This year, at least 19 Asian American candidates will be competing in congressional races, up from eight in 2010. Another 13 incumbents claim API heritage. Their numbers are further proof of the rising political engagement of the API community.
Still, impediments remain. According to the poll, one-fifth of respondents said they would be more likely to vote if they had in-language assistance. Lake pointed out that a majority of API voters speak a language besides English at home, and that 58 percent were born outside the country.
Speaking on the wave of voter suppressions laws being passed in states like Texas, Georgia and Florida, Chen admitted more needs to be done to educate voters. “These laws,” she said, “could have a chilling effect on people’s commitment to go to the polls … More voter education is needed to ensure the franchise.”
When asked why they vote, a majority answered they did so out of a sense of civic duty. A large percentage also said they voted for the candidates who touched them personally.
“Once we are engaged, we actually do turn out to vote,” said Moua, who added that the regional and political diversity of the API community opens the door to important opportunities for both parties.
When it comes to engagement, however, “neither party is doing a very good job.”