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Peninsula Politics Yet to Reflect Influx of Asians : Diversity: Cultural values, language barriers mute the impact of changing demographics on local government.

March 30, 1995|JEFF KASS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nestled among the hills overlooking the South Bay, the four cities of the Palos Verdes Peninsula have traditionally been long on wealth and tranquillity but short on ethnic diversity.

On paper, that is changing. According to the 1990 Census, the number of Asians on the 70,000-population peninsula rose from just under 5,000 in 1980 to almost 12,000.

But on the peninsula's school board and city councils--the most powerful bodies of local government--nothing indicates that change: No Asian has ever been a member.

The reasons for this probably have less to do with racism, as was recently suggested by one city council member, than with other factors. Some Asians on the peninsula, for example, are not U.S. citizens. Others apparently shy away from public office because of cultural values that emphasize family and education over politics.

"We (Asians) have realized that empowerment comes through politics," said peninsula resident Angi Ma Wong, who is of Chinese descent. "But there's a cultural resistance to being in politics."

The residential character of the peninsula also may play a role. In other areas, members of ethnic groups who are merchants in the same communities in which they live have obvious reasons to get involved in local politics. Such is not the case on the peninsula, which is home to relatively few small businesses.

Still, the peninsula's population trends are expected to inexorably lead to increased political involvement by its Asian residents.

A study by the Community Assn. of the Peninsula, a group of community leaders and citizens, estimates that the overall peninsula population will decrease slightly by 1998, but that the Asian population will increase to about 17,500. The local high school, officials say, is now one-third Asian.

About 2,800 Latinos reside on the peninsula; the number of African Americans is about 1,000.

The only elected Asian representative on the peninsula was Teresa Sun, who won a seat on the Palos Verdes Library District Board of Trustees in 1989. She was defeated in 1993 after trustees came under fire for spending close to $18 million to renovate the district's flagship library.

Only one Asian, Rancho Palos Verdes resident Kim Wang, has ever made a serious run for a council seat, and no Asian has ever run for the school board.

Ma Wong, who has written books on Asian topics, said that Asians tend to avoid politics because they see getting an education as a higher goal than being elected to office. Politics, she added, is seen as a contest based on superficial qualities such as good looks and speaking skills.

"Asians are very private people," she said, "and if you are in politics, you live in a fishbowl."

The cultural barriers that keep Asians out of politics can be traced back thousands of years, said Wang, the unsuccessful council candidate who chairs the board of the Chinese-American Assn. of Southern California.

"If you know the history of Asia, especially China, there was no democracy. . . . It was ruled by emperors," she said. "That's why politics was never encouraged."

According to the 1990 Census, just under 10%--or 7,000--peninsula residents are not U.S. citizens, making them ineligible for office. The Census does not indicate how many of the non-citizens are Asian. But many Japanese companies employ nationals who work here for three to five years and then move on.

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Another barrier to political involvement by recent immigrants is a lack of language skills.

"Many Asians do not feel they are articulate enough because English may not be their first language," Ma Wong said.

But Wang noted that greater numbers of Asians are becoming involved in volunteer work, especially on school-related issues. And that, in turn, may lead to greater political involvement.

"It takes time for more and more Asians to be involved, but we are doing that," she said.

Wang figured directly in a recent political flap that spotlighted the issue of minority representation on the peninsula. Rancho Palos Verdes City Councilwoman Susan Brooks broached the issue, as well as the question of racism, earlier this year when she and her three council colleagues deadlocked on who to appoint to a vacant seat.

Brooks and Councilwoman Marilyn Lyon pushed for Wang, a planning commissioner who in 1993 placed third in a field of five council candidates seeking two seats.

Brooks and Lyon cited Wang's relatively strong showing in that race in backing her for appointment to the vacant seat.

But Mayor Lee Byrd and Councilman John C. McTaggart said they believed several of the 15 other residents seeking the post were more qualified than Wang.

With the council members slogging along and unable to reach a consensus, Brooks revved up the debate by noting that no one "other than a Caucasian has sat on (peninsula) city councils."

"Are you trying to make this a racial issue?" shot back McTaggart.

"I'm hoping that's not the case," Brooks replied, "but I am pointing that out."

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