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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / U.S.
SENATE

Torn Between Ethnic Pride and Political Loyalty

Fong candidacy divides Asian Americans, posing a tough, and potentially decisive, choice for some Democrats.

October 14, 1998|AMY PYLE and TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SAN FRANCISCO — Outside the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Assn. on Tuesday, lifelong Democrat Alfred Lee chanted his choice for U.S. senator from California--a man who shares his ethnicity but not his political party.

"Matt Fong, Matt Fong, Matt Fong," he repeated with the crowd.

Inside the 150-year-old building, San Francisco County Supervisor Mabel Teng pledged her support for Fong's opponent, incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer.

Like no other race, the Senate contest has split California's Asian American community. On the day after the candidates' second and final debate, that divide was evident in San Francisco's Chinatown, where Fong supporters clashed with Boxer backers on the sidewalk as a news conference for the incumbent ended.

"You should be ashamed of yourselves," said San Francisco Supervisor Michael Yaki, a longtime Boxer ally.

"Shame on you! Shame on you!" Fong backer Julie Lee shouted back.

Fong "is the one who has suffered!" said supporter Albert Chang, co-director of the Chinatown Merchants Assn.

"Well, we all have," responded Boxer backer Henry Der, a state assistant superintendent of education.

The senatorial race has created a "difficult situation," Teng said. When pressed, she elaborated, taking care to compliment Fong--who, if elected, would be the first Chinese American senator from the mainland. (Hiram Fong--not a relative--was elected from Hawaii in 1959.)

"Asian Americans have felt so disconnected and disempowered from politics and policymaking," Teng said. "So it's very exciting to see a Chinese American candidate. . . . There's the obvious pride thing, and it's very emotional."

For Teng and other Asian American supporters of Boxer, the task is to persuade constituents and friends that the incumbent's record should eclipse their ethnic pride.

Teng was ready with a few examples: Boxer's support for compensation for interned Japanese Americans, her advocacy for appointments of Asian American judges, her push for immigration legislation to help reunify families.

If Alfred Lee is any indication, Teng faces a hard sell.

Boxer, Lee said, "really does the party line stuff, [and] she helps the Asian elite, but it doesn't trickle down. . . . This will be the first time I cross party lines to vote for Matt."

Yes, the community activist acknowledged, he is troubled by Fong's positions on bilingual education (opposed) and abortion (supports it only in the first trimester, opposes public funding). "But," Lee shrugged, "he's a stronger role model for us."

Although Asian voters represent just 4% of the electorate based on recent Los Angeles Times exit polls, in a neck-and-neck race like the Boxer-Fong contest, such small pockets of voters could make the final cut between senator and loser.

At least that's what Fong spokesman Steve Schmidt is counting on. Standing out front with the supporters, a smile on his face, he said Boxer visiting Chinatown this late in the campaign is the mark of "a desperate, desperate politician."

Fong started his morning after the debate defending his policies on an Oakland-based television show.

Though he had held his own when face to face with Boxer on Monday night, Tuesday found him on the defensive over two issues she has used to slam him: his opposition to requiring childproof locks on handguns and his support for a flat income tax.

Fong said any trigger-lock law is doomed because it would not be enforced. Similar laws that require helmets for motorcyclists and bicyclists work only because police give tickets, he said. "Unless you're having safety police going through everybody's house trying to make sure everybody is using [trigger locks], it still requires responsible parents."

The tax issue has produced a battle of experts, with each candidate rallying academicians for support.

Boxer's campaign Monday released a letter signed by 59 California economists--including professors from Stanford University and several UC and Cal State campuses--decrying Fong's flat tax plan as "bad for America and bad for California taxpayers."

Fong released a letter from Michael J. Boskin, a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, calling it "preposterous" to claim, as Boxer has, that President Clinton's 1993 budget, with its tax increase, was a major contributor to the nation's economic resurgence.

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