In the days after the election, inner-city schoolteacher Mark Takano flew to Washington, picked up his laptop, office key, voting ID and posed for photos with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — all part of the orientation drill for an incoming member of the 113th Congress.
Going from a bipartisan reception to touring the marbled halls of the Capitol, a thought swirled through Takano’s head.
“The thrill of being elected to higher office comes with a responsibility to represent the least of us,” he said. “I feel a real need to work toward equality and dignity for all people.”
Takano, 51, born and raised in Riverside, is the first openly gay Asian American elected to Congress and part of the new wave of Asian politicians savoring election day success.
Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) is the first American Samoan in Congress, Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) will be the first Asian American woman in the U.S. Senate, and Democrats Tammy Duckworth and Grace Meng become the first Asian Americans to represent Illinois and New York, respectively, in Congress.
With Dr. Ami Bera’s victory over GOP veteran Dan Lungren in California’s 7th District, there will be a dozen Asian Americans in Congress when they are sworn in Jan. 3, a high-water mark, forming the largest caucus of Asian American and Pacific Islander members in any single congressional session, according to the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies.
The diversity of winners “sends a message to our young people that there is no ceiling that cannot be shattered,” added Sayu Bhojwani, who heads the New American Leaders Project, a group focused on training first- and second-generation immigrants for civic leadership.
Takano, who teaches social studies and literature in the Rialto Unified School District, grew up the grandson of a gardener. As a boy, he played football and was lured to politics while watching the Watergate hearings on TV. He attended Harvard University, majoring in government and had thought about going to law school.
But he was drawn to the classroom, not the courthouse, and went to UC Riverside to get his teaching certificate.
He describes his journey as “just another story America produces that can inspire — this experience taking me from the people’s college to the people’s house.”
He hopes his win mirrors a breakthrough for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, adding, “I do feel a responsibility to be a leader there, as I also want to be a champion for the Latino and Asian communities.”
Both groups, he said, need more access to small-business loans and help implementing the Affordable Care Act.
Even with election triumphs, Bhojwani said Latinos and Asians — who make up a combined 22% of the nation’s population — should do far better than they do. Numerically, there should be 31 Asians in Congress, instead of 12, and 86 Latinos instead of the current 31, she said.
“There’s talented people working toward more representation,” Takano said. When he’s reading “Macbeth” or “Pride and Prejudice” with the multilingual students in his classroom, he reminds them, “You can create and live your own stories.”