Irvine embraces diversity at the polls

Barboza is a Times staff writer.

Defined by its neatly manicured cul-de-sacs and its precisely designed villages, Irvine can’t quite seem to shake the stereotype that it is just another vanilla suburb.

But beyond the ficus trees and cookie-cutter homes lies a community dotted with Buddhist temples, Korean churches, Chinese banks and Asian grocery stores. The city’s Islamic center sits right next to the Chinese cultural center in a spotless office park.

One of America’s definitive master-planned cities now revels in its diversity.

Irvine is more than one-third Asian American and is home to a large Iranian American community. And on Tuesday, voters here elected the city’s first nonwhite mayor. Sukhee Kang, a Korean immigrant and city councilman, credits his success to knocking on 10,000 doors, building up his credibility through two City Council terms and amassing a multiethnic coalition of voters.


“I never wanted to be viewed as a Korean American or Asian American candidate,” Kang said, his voice hoarse from post-election talks and interviews. “I wanted to be viewed as Sukhee Kang. Because as mayor, you serve the entire community.”

Last week, Kang, 56, who immigrated to Orange County at age 24, basked in the spotlight as he became one of a few Korean American mayors in the country, fielding calls from dozens of journalists on both sides of the Pacific and seeing his photo grace the cover of the Korea Times next to President-elect Barack Obama.

“Irvine is much more than a predominantly white community,” said Grace Yoo, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Korean American Coalition. “It is definitely mixed and integrated well, and I’m glad to see the elected officials are starting to reflect the entire population.”

Irvine voters reelected all incumbents to the five-member council in Tuesday’s hard-fought election, but as Kang’s election marked a historical first, political watchers noted that he couldn’t have prevailed with support from Korean Americans alone.


Unlike the power base in Orange County’s Little Saigon, from which Vietnamese city, county and state politicians have emerged by targeting voting blocs in their own immigrant community, in Irvine’s multicultural stew, candidates have succeeded only by courting other Asians, Persians and whites -- still the largest group of Irvine residents.

Attracted by high-performing schools, low crime and good jobs, well-to-do Asian American professionals, especially Chinese Americans, have flocked to Irvine. But it is also home to one of Southern California’s largest Persian communities and sizable populations of Koreans, Indians and Vietnamese, transforming over the last decade into a distinctly cosmopolitan suburb.

And although the city’s other major ethnic groups -- notably Chinese Americans and Iranian Americans -- have yet to see representation in elected posts, they have made inroads in getting seats on city commissions and feel kinship in Kang’s ascension to the city’s highest office.

“Communities are built not from our ethnicity but from our common values of where we live, where we go to school,” said Nora Valenzuela, president of the Irvine-based Network of Iranian American Professionals of Orange County. “It is promising that if you are a qualified candidate, that your ethnicity is not going to stop you from getting elected.”


The high standard of living may be the glue holding the city’s various cultures together.

“Irvine is a new kind of immigrant community,” said Pei-Te Lien, a UC Santa Barbara professor of political science. “You are talking about a gathering of new, middle-class immigrants, not the working-class Chinatown type, so you are going to see more integration.”

Just four years ago, Irvine voters elected their first nonwhite City Council members -- Kang and Steven Choi, also Korean American. Each candidate shrewdly aligned himself with a slate of established leaders, Kang with the Democratic majority and Choi with the Republican opposition.

But even so, Kang credits his first win to the clout of Asian American voters, saying that the hundreds of ethnic votes gave him and Choi “the edge we needed to be able to win the election.”


An analysis of the 2006 election by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California showed that 26% of Irvine voters were Asian American, the second-highest percentage in Orange County after Garden Grove, home to swaths of Little Saigon.

Tim Cheng, program manager of the South Coast Chinese Cultural Center and a city commissioner, said Kang’s election symbolizes how “Irvine is still growing into a multicultural, integrated city” in contrast to heavily Chinese cities in the San Gabriel Valley, where the community is more insular.

“You have lots of ethnic groups here, but it’s not an isolated island,” he said outside a Taiwanese coffee shop and bakery at the recently opened Diamond Jamboree, an upscale shopping center with Korean, Chinese and Japanese restaurants, salons and a grocery store. “I go to the Persian or the Korean supermarket and I’m treated the same way -- as part of the community, and not just as an Asian.”

The integration has not, however, been seamless. Occasional controversies, including a City Council goof-up over a Chinese sister city agreement, tensions between Jewish and Muslim students at UC Irvine, and recent comments by Choi attacking a Muslim council candidate for his ties to an Islamic civil rights organization, have heightened ethnic divides.


Kang said he plans to set aside potentially divisive issues and focus on building consensus. “I don’t like confrontation,” he said. “I like communicating and showing mutual respect.”

Beth Krom, outgoing mayor and a Kang backer, said the election of her successor “sends a message that anyone in this city can aspire to serve. . . . It demonstrates that the same kind of inclusiveness that people have been embracing at a national level, people are embracing here in Irvine.”