WEST SAN GABRIEL VALLEY — In fashionable San Marino, where City Council election budgets are usually so small that they seem directly opposite in proportion to the community's well-known wealth, even to post political lawn signs can be considered an excessive campaign expense and even bad taste.
In neighboring South Pasadena, where campaigns often get down-and-dirty, municipal elections are thought to hinge more on grass-roots politicking than a lavish outlay of funds.
But this year, two political neophytes have changed all that.
To the chagrin and befuddlement of their competitors, the two--the first Asian-Americans to run for City Council in each community--have amassed campaign war chests far greater than have been raised before.
At the close of the second campaign contribution reporting period Thursday, South Pasadena's Paul Zee had collected $31,429 and San Marino's Allan K. Yung $37,252, which includes a $15,000 loan to himself.
Yung's campaign fund is more than five times the size of any other candidate's, and Zee's is more than double his opponents'. Routinely, candidates in South Pasadena may spend $5,000 to $10,000, at most $15,000. In San Marino, with 13,000 inhabitants only half the size of South Pasadena, the amount is usually no more than $5,000.
"I'm really proud of this support," said Zee, 41, the owner of an El Monte distributorship of industrial safety products. "I was a little overwhelmed at first."
"The key issue is not the campaign money issue. It's finding the right person for the job," said Yung, a 51-year-old physician who is chief of staff at Alhambra Community Hospital and teaches at UCLA Medical School.
Other candidates, however, said the unexpected infusion of campaign money disturbed them, but, in most cases, they were reluctant to openly criticize.
"My real concern is what will be the impact on future campaigns," said San Marino Vice Mayor Eugene Dryden, who said he will probably spend about $5,000. "Is this setting a precedent? It has nothing to do with (Yung) or has nothing to do with race in any shape or form."
But South Pasadena Councilwoman Evelyn Fierro characterized the money as representing outside interests.
"A lot of that money, and I don't care what Zee said, it came from Alhambra and Monterey Park," Fierro said. "The issue in (the Asian-American) community is development. If they get Paul Zee elected, you're going to see a lot of controls we have on development" relaxed.
Zee vehemently disputed her charge, saying that he favors only "quality development" and that he would do nothing to support any development that would denigrate the small-town, historical charm of South Pasadena.
His contributors, Zee said, are nothing more than his friends, business associates and family members. They also include, he said, his doctors, lawyers, accountants and the like. Among them are locally prominent business and professional people in the Southern California Asian-American community, including developers. Zee raised most of his funds at a $99-a-ticket dinner in February that attracted 250 people. About 75% of the donations, Zee said, have come from South Pasadena residents, many of them non-Asian-Americans.
"These people have a lot of family members that live in San Marino," Yung said of his supporters who aren't San Marino residents. Yung said it is incorrect to assume that because a donor contributed to him, he "is going to owe someone a big favor down the line."
Zee and Yung, whose campaigns have no connections with each other, said they see themselves as representative of their entire communities and consider it unfair to be labeled as "Asian candidates."
They say their ability to easily raise funds simply reflects strong support for their candidacies and is also indicative of the well-wishing spirit of the local Chinese-American community.
In the last decade, the increased percentage of Asian newcomers has dramatically changed the makeup of San Marino and South Pasadena. About one-third of the San Marino population is of Asian ancestry. In South Pasadena, the proportion is about one-fifth.
In many respects South Pasadena and San Marino politics are very different, yet the donations to Zee and Yung reflect the widespread and growing sociopolitical phenomenon of Chinese-Americans becoming more involved in local political campaigns, such as in Monterey Park, where several Asian candidates in elections going back to 1988 have raised contributions totaling $35,000 and more.
Fierro said she considers the increased campaign spending as death to grass-roots politics that has characterized small town elections in the San Gabriel Valley.
"It's an attempt to buy the election," she said. But no amount of money is going to be able to come in . . . and buy an election," said Fierro, who first said she expected to spend $8,000 to $10,000 but has now raised $12,435. In 1988, when she was first elected to the council, she spent about $6,200.