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A Long Journey From Internment Camp to Assembly : Legislature: Nao Takasugi plays it down, but his arrival in Sacramento is a milestone for Asian-Americans.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A half-century ago, Nao Takasugi was among the 112,000 Japanese-Americans confined in federal detention camps in the wake of Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The events of those years were much on his mind Monday--the 51st anniversary of the attack that thrust the U.S. into World War II--as Takasugi was sworn in as the first Asian-American to serve in the state Legislature in 12 years.

“Fifty years ago, I was put behind barbed wire,” the 70-year-old Takasugi noted shortly after he took the oath of office in the ornate Assembly chamber. Citing his ability to overcome his internment experience and become a successful politician, the former Oxnard mayor told reporters, “This is still the greatest country in the world.”

Takasugi acknowledged Monday that his election was a milestone for Asian-Americans, but he played down the connection, noting that he was elected in the solidly Republican 37th Assembly District where Asian-Americans make up only 6.5% of the population.

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But, he added, he feels a “special responsibility” to watch out for the needs of the state’s growing Asian community. Having been interned in a detention camp, he said, “I’m pretty sensitive to the issue of civil rights.”

Matthew Fong, a member of the State Board of Equalization, said Takasugi’s election shows that a minority member “doesn’t have to come from a minority district to win” a legislative contest. Takasugi’s Ventura County district covers Oxnard, Camarillo, Moorpark, Port Hueneme and most of Thousand Oaks.

Assembly Speaker Willie Brown noted that with Takasugi’s election, and the election of seven Latinos and seven African-Americans, the 80-member Assembly is beginning to mirror the state’s racial makeup.

“This house does not yet reflect the diversity of the people of the state of California,” Brown said. “But it comes closer than any other elective body of being appropriately representative of what California is and what California will become.”

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In his first vote Monday, Takasugi joined other Republicans in opposing Democrat Brown’s reelection as Speaker. But Takasugi said he expects to reach out to Democrats, especially other Assembly newcomers, to deal with the state’s problems. High on his list is an effort to overhaul the state’s workers’ compensation system, he said.

Takasugi embarks on his new career at an age when many people are looking toward retirement and spending more time with their grandchildren.

Takasugi, however, is on the move. He attended a dinner on Sunday for GOP lawmakers and was expected to attend a reception Monday night thrown by Gov. Pete Wilson, who endorsed Takasugi in a contested Republican primary last June. Today, he is scheduled for a round of orientation meetings, including a session on legislative ethics.

Equally important, he is looking for a Sacramento apartment to rent while he and his wife are in the capital.

Half a century ago, Takasugi’s family was moved from Oxnard--their home of 40 years--to Gila, Ariz., to one of several camps where American citizens of Japanese descent were interned.

Takasugi eventually obtained a security clearance that allowed him to complete his undergraduate studies at Temple University in Philadelphia. He then earned a master’s degree in business administration from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Earlier this year, Takasugi said that after he finished school, he could not get hired by any of the major accounting firms. “They’d say, ‘With that Asian face, we can’t put you in the field.’ ”

So he returned to Oxnard to work at the Asahi Market, which his father founded in 1909. He was elected to the Oxnard City Council in 1976 and became mayor in 1982.

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Having moved on to the state Assembly, Takasugi joked Monday, “I don’t feel any more powerful.” But he also said that in the legislative spotlight he could “be a role model” for a younger generation of Asian-American politicians.


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