SACRAMENTO — Not a single Asian-American holds a seat in the California Legislature and none held a seat last year when a bill was introduced making it a crime to eat dog.
No one rose from the floor to explain that while dog meat is a delicacy in some Asian regions, the mere thought makes most Asian-Americans shudder. And no one warned that some would surely view the bill as an ethnic slur.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 22, 1990 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 5 Metro Desk 2 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
Asians in politics--A story on Asian legislative aides on Aug. 16 incorrectly quoted Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach) as using a term derogatory to Japanese-Americans during a legislative debate. A review of a tape recording of that debate shows that Ferguson did not use the term.
In the same story, the senator for whom Butte County legislative candidate Lon Hatamiya once worked was incorrectly identified. Hatamiya interned for Sen. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove).
But behind the scenes, a cadre of influential Asian-Americans went into action. These were not elected officials, but well-placed aides to powerful politicians. Armed with political savvy, legislative know-how and the ear of their bosses, some of them set to work to take the bite out of the "dog bill."
The legislation that Gov. George Deukmejian ultimately signed made it a crime to kill and eat domestic pets--language that did not implicate any ethnic group. In an unusual message, the governor also called for a follow-up bill to make sure no pet-eater goes to jail.
One of every 10 Californians now is of Asian heritage, and the fraction is growing fast. However, Asian-Americans are vastly underrepresented in elected posts--a legacy of both discrimination and a traditional distrust of politics. Asian-Americans hold only 2% of the state's top 300 elected offices and only 1% of city council and school board seats. In Washington, only two of California's 47-member congressional delegation are of Asian descent.
The 1990 elections offer little hope for improvement. As in previous years, few Asians are candidates, and those who are running generally face tough campaigns.
But into this political vacuum has stepped a new generation of Asian-Americans who have landed jobs as legislative aides and analysts, consultants, researchers, press secretaries, campaign managers, attorneys and advisers.
They are the first to say they are no substitute for elected representatives. But as they begin to climb the political ladder, they are having a subtle but substantive effect on public policy in California.
"What you're seeing now is that Asians are not only donating money, but asking to be partners in the process," said James Lee, 26, state press secretary for U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson. "More Asians my age are coming to work in campaigns and doing pretty well. . . . They are really going into positions where they are having a major impact."
Like their black and Latino counterparts, Asian staffers were once hired primarily to help lawmakers cover their flanks in heavily minority districts. Nowadays, those aides are increasingly likely to be public policy professionals juggling issues that affect all citizens, from health to transportation to insurance.
"We are not just 'the Asian staff person' where we handle Asian complaints or bills which have the title 'Asian' in the bill," said Dale Shimasaki, 36, a special assistant who handles education issues for Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco). "We're trying to diversify ourselves in public policy areas."
These staffers are rarely quoted--except when touting their bosses' accomplishments. But they have put their stamp on such issues as discrimination in Asian admissions to the University of California, divestment from South Africa, redress for Japanese-Americans interned during World War II and the portrayal of that incident in state publications and textbooks, bilingual education, school funding, hate crimes and redistricting.
When Congress approved reparations to Japanese-American internees, for example, the payments were exempted from federal taxes. Priscilla Ouchida, an aide to Assemblyman Pat Johnston (D-Stockton), realized that state taxes would still apply and wrote a bill to also exempt the reparations from California taxes. Johnston introduced the bill in the Assembly, and Ouchida enlisted Asian-American staffers on the Senate side to smooth its voyage through the Legislature.
Asian staffers also played a role in bringing the question of discrimination in UC Berkeley admissions to a head by taking the issue directly to Brown and Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti of Los Angeles, aides, politicians and community leaders said.
After aides arranged for the leaders to meet with the Asian American Task Force on UC Admissions, Brown in March, 1987, backed a resolution calling on UC Berkeley to disclose its admissions policies. And Roberti asked the state auditor general to investigate.
The resolution passed both houses unanimously in September of that year. Three months later, then-UC Berkeley Chancellor Michael Heyman apologized for the way the university had handled the issue.
"Had the (Asian) community gone to a member that didn't have an Asian-American staff member, it probably would have happened, but it might have taken a year more," said Shimasaki, a Berkeley alumnus who drafted the resolution for Brown.