Elected in a near landslide Tuesday, Michael Woo, the grandson of a Chinese laundryman, became the first Asian member of the Los Angeles City Council by tapping several traditional sources of political power: family wealth, ethnic pride, younger voters and a festering discontent with an incumbent officeholder.
There was another element in Woo’s 13th Council District victory over Councilwoman Peggy Stevenson--the growing recognition by politicians in California that the Asian constituency is becoming an important force in California politics.
During the last several days of the campaign, Woo received a flurry of unexpected endorsements, including ones from Sen. Alan Cranston, who rarely takes sides in local elections, and Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, the state Republican chairman. Woo is a Democrat.
Members of Cranston’s staff and sources close to Antonovich attributed those endorsements, in part, to a desire to build closer ties with Asian voters and fund-raisers.
“Really, for the first time Asians are in a position to make quite a difference in American politics,” said Wilbur Woo, Michael’s father.
The elder Woo, a retired banker and merchant, should know what he is talking about. A political fund-raiser for many years, he was in charge of raising money for President Richard M. Nixon in the city’s Chinese community in 1972 and, this year, was the largest contributor to his son’s campaign, providing nearly 50% of the $473,000 raised by Michael Woo by the last campaign fund reporting deadline near the end of May.
Election night, on the eve of his 70th birthday, Wilbur Woo sat in a back room of his son’s campaign headquarters and talked about the campaign, about the political differences between him and his son and about the financial help he gave his son’s campaign.
A lifelong Republican, he said that his son’s liberalism has had a positive effect on him in recent years.
Michael Woo is a Democrat who spent eight years working as an aide to state Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) before running for the council seat in the district that takes in Hollywood, the Hollywood Hills, Silver Lake and nearby areas.
“I find myself moving more toward the center because of Michael,” his father said.
Woo said his son probably could not have won without his generosity.
“If I didn’t give him that money, I’m not sure he would have had a chance in this kind of race,” he said. “I also think that is what a father is for.”
The money helped Michael Woo do something that a challenger in a City Council race is rarely able to do--outspend a veteran officeholder who draws support from the city’s major real estate and entertainment interests. Records of campaign contributions show that by election day Woo had raised almost $50,000 more than Stevenson.
Woo’s financial strength was especially evident during the last week of the race when voters were greeted with a blizzard of campaign mail that brought home the main theme of Woo’s election strategy, the charge that Stevenson had become the handmaiden of corporate lobbyists.
The Los Angeles city archivist’s office said Woo was the first Asian ever elected to the council in a city whose population is 6% Asian. His victory in a district with an Asian population of less than 5% was particularly gratifying to Asians who remember how badly Woo was defeated four years ago, 61% to 39%, after the Stevenson campaign depicted him as a tool of Chinatown bankers.
Wilbur Woo said the victory vindicated his own philosophy of politics.
“I have always preached that as Asians we should go out and engage in politics because it is the best way for people to get to know us, and once they do, they will be less likely to discriminate against us.”
But he said that the bitterness of the 1981 campaign gave him second thoughts.
“I asked myself: Is Mike ready for the district? Is the district ready for Mike? But I came to the same decision. It’s just a matter of more people getting to know us.”
Lawyer Fred Fujioka, president of the Japanese-American Democratic Club of Los Angeles and a volunteer in Woo’s campaign, hailed the victory, saying “it’s going to have a tremendous effect. It changes our perception of Asians and everyone else’s perceptions of Asians.
“People aren’t going to say anymore, what was said to me when I applied to law school--that Asians should forget about going into politics because they can’t do that here,” Fujioka said. “Now, people are going to say race isn’t an obstacle.”
Kam Kawata, an aide to Cranston, said that Woo’s election will be a boon to Asian political interests.
“A victory like Mike’s will cause people in politics to sit up and take notice of us,” said Kawata, whose forefathers were Japanese. “Others who have been doing their homework know that Asians have been taking part in politics for some time.”
Woo said that for most of his 33 years he has not been made to feel that race would be a barrier to the political ambitions he said he has held since high school.
Length of Hair
As a college student at the University of California at Santa Cruz and then Berkeley, Woo, who was born in Los Angeles, said he was more accustomed to being chided for having long hair than for being Chinese.
While nearly 80% of Woo’s campaign funds came from Asian backers, including his father, Woo was careful to distance himself from uniquely ethnic concerns. For example, he opposed a ballot measure that would have created two new council districts shaped to promote the election of Asian and Latino candidates. The measure was defeated by voters in April. After he won, Woo said that Asians should not expect special favors from him, and he emphasized that his victory was the result of “a coalition effort by a lot of people who don’t normally work together.”
Woo’s impressive victory margin makes it clear that he appealed to a broad segment of the renters, homeowners, senior citizens, gays and young families that make up one of the most diverse districts in the city.
Avoiding doctrinaire stands, Woo cultivated an image as a thoughtful liberal, appealing especially to college-educated, younger residents that he saw as the key voting bloc in the district. He emphasized his training in city planning, frequently mentioning the master’s degree from Berkeley that he holds in the subject. He campaigned for rent control, but made frequent mention of the fact that he owns a home in the district. He called for more low-income housing but criticized real estate development where it has intruded on residential neighborhoods. He was a champion of gay rights and a critic of the Los Angeles Police Department for alleged harassment of gay bars in the district. But he also said the police ought to be more visible on foot and on horseback in Hollywood.
He was especially popular with the young, college-educated renters and homeowners who dominated his campaign staff and live in his part of town, Silver Lake and Echo Park, where Woo has always been strongest.