Congratulations to Mayor Donald P. Wagner and Councilmembers Christina L. Shea & Melissa Fox; all were sworn into office this evening. pic.twitter.com/7gL97pkBXS
— City of Irvine (@City_of_Irvine) December 14, 2016
While Irvine became the largest city in the United States with more Asian than White residents, it also elected an all-White city council for the first time in 12 years.
What seemed to be the year of Asian political ascendancy became underrepresentation of a large Asian demographic.
What happened, and what does this mean for a suburb of 257,000 approaching an Asian majority?
Political experts have offered various explanations for the outcome of the city council election. According to the OC Register, one is that Asian voters split the vote because there were multiple Asian candidates on the ballot, thus allowing other candidates to win.
Additionally, Asian turnout is often low. Around a third of Asian residents in the U.S. are not citizens. Those who are vote or registered to vote at rates lower than some other groups.
According to some researchers and elected officials in Orange County, having various ethnic groups represented at City Hall can increase cultural sensitivity, help improve communications with residents and energize voters. It can also create more opportunities for newcomers to gain entry-level political experience through appointments to city commissions.
At the same time, other researchers and elected officials say that ethnicity in a city council is not a concern as long as the representatives serve the needs of different ethnic communities.
“I think most elected officials in Irvine are good at recognizing and celebrating diversity and how multicultural this city is,” said Mary Anne Foo, Executive Director of the Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander Community Alliance, according to the OC Register.
James Lai, an associate professor of ethnic studies and political science at Santa Clara University, described Irvine as an “emergent suburb,” where Asian representation in local politics doesn’t yet reflect its large Asian population. The OC Register quoted him saying that Irvine appeared to be following the path of cities such as Westminster, Cupertino and Monterey Park, where demographics and councils have shifted from majority white to majority Asian.
The Asian population in Irvine has now surged to more than 45 percent (U.S. Census Bureau). In 2004, the city elected Sukhee Kang and Steven Choi, its first Asian American council members. Kang later served as mayor from 2008 to 2012, and Choi from 2012 to 2016.
Irvine’s newly elected mayor, Don Wagner, said to the OC Register that the racial makeup of the council was more coincidental than anything else. “People who are moving to Irvine and changing the demographic face of this city want the same things everybody else does,” Wagner said.
Newly elected councilwoman Melissa Fox introduced her appointments to city commissions and committees at a recent public meeting, and three out of seven are Asian Americans. One has close ties to Chinese immigrants, another to the Korean community, and the third has an Asian Indian and African American background. Fox told the OC Register that she considered multiple factors that included ethnicity, age and experience. “You have to look at diversity as a whole,” she said.
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