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Monterey Park nears a demographic milestone, yet race rarely discussed

Monterey Park elections could produce an all-Chinese council, an all-male council or its first black lawmaker

Monterey Park voters stand a good chance of some kind of demographic history.

Their March 3 city elections could produce the city's first African American councilman, the first all-male City Council in at least four decades — or, in a reversal for a city where Asian Americans first fought for diversity in elected government, they could elect the nation's first all-Chinese City Council.

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FOR THE RECORD

Monterey Park: In the Feb. 24 California section, an article about demographics in Monterey Park's City Council elections misidentified resident Terry De Wolfe as the co-president of the Monterey Park Democratic Club. He is the co-president of Concerned Citizens of Monterey Park.

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Unprecedented demographic change is old news for Monterey Park. Since the 1980s, the city has been hailed by academics and journalists as a new kind of American suburb shaped by the ebbs and flows of global immigration. It was the first city in the Continental United States with a Asian American majority population and the first to elect an Chinese woman as mayor.

But race remains a tricky subject in the suburb of 60,000 east of downtown Los Angeles.

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Although candidates offer campaign materials in English, Spanish and Chinese, race is rarely discussed at council meetings and candidate forums.

At a recent forum East Los Angeles College, the six candidates for three open council seats fielded questions about hotel development, trash contracts and government transparency. Race never came up.

Incumbent councilwoman Teresa Real Sebastian, the city's only Latino candidate and the only female candidate, focused on her business and legal expertise. She declined to comment on the council's ethnic makeup.

None of the three Chinese candidates running for City Council seats responded to multiple requests for comment. Other current and former council members also downplayed the issue.

But with a population that is 67% Asian, 27% Latino and 5% white, race is "always on everyone's mind", said Delario Robinson, an African American candidate. A postal clerk and accomplished collegiate hurdler drafted by the Oakland Raiders as a wide receiver in 1974, Robinson introduces himself as an "all-American" candidate at events and hands out a business card printed with an American flag.

"If the voters pick all Chinese candidates, it's not a bad thing," Robinson said. "But if we only have one culture that's represented in the City Council, the diversity factor is virtually eliminated."

Randall Avila, a consulting professional born and raised in Monterey Park, said the city's Latino population needs to be represented on the City Council.

"Five out of five Asian Americans is not representative of this city," Avila said.

Historically, Monterey Park has elected politicians of Asian ancestry at a greater rate than neighboring cities with similar demographics — Temple City, Rosemead, Alhambra and San Gabriel, each with just one or two Asian American council members.

Chinese politicians, specifically, have dominated the city's elections for the last decade. The city has an unusual political pipeline and mentoring system that consistently produces strong candidates, said James Lai, a professor of political science at Santa Clara University who studies majority Asian communities. Monterey Park's at-large election structure — in which each voter casts a ballot for each seat — allows a majority population's preferences to influence each race, Lai said.

Monterey Park came close to electing an all-Chinese American council in 2011. This election, the Chinese candidates have money and endorsements. Stephen Lam, a planning commissioner and local businessman, has raised about $120,000 for his campaign as of Feb. 3, $80,000 of it his own. Mitchell Ing, an incumbent who has raised about $12,000, was the top vote-getter in his last election. And Anthony Wong, an incumbent who has raised $100,000, has accumulated more endorsements than any other candidate.

To govern effectively, Asian American politicians have to maintain broad, multiracial appeal even as they enjoy the support of Asian American majorities, Lai said. This is especially true in Monterey Park, where residents have seen victories for diversity and racial backlash in equal share.

In 1985, two years after Lily Lee Chen became the first Chinese American women in history to be elected mayor of a U.S. city, a group of residents led an effort to declare English the official language of the city. Even as national news magazines were profiling Monterey Park as a harmonious middle-class melting pot, a bumper sticker became popular with locals: "Will the Last American to Leave Monterey Park Please Bring the Flag?"

Back then, the prospect of a Chinese-dominated city government was many longtime residents' worst nightmare, said Francisco Alonso, a former mayor.

"When you have too rapid of a change, this completely different culture zooming in, there's friction at first," he said.

Lai says Asian-dominated cities such as Monterey Park will become more common in California. Asian immigration has grown steadily for decades, and increasingly, new immigrants are settling in the suburbs. There are more than a dozen Asian American majority cities in the state, Lai said.

And in Monterey Park, the days of open racial conflict have ended, Alonso said, adding that even if Monterey Park elects an all-Asian council, race per se will only be one relatively small factor among those voters will have considered.

Terry De Wolfe, co-president of the Monterey Park Democratic Club, has a similar view. De Wolfe has lived in Monterey Park since 1973, when the City Council was all-white. He has grown accustomed to voting for Asian politicians over the years.

"I've always supported whomever I thought was the best candidate," De Wolfe said. "Lately, that's been a Chinese American person."

frank.shyong@latimes.com

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