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Charges of racism and red-baiting in race for congressional seat created to elevate Asian Americans

Jay Chen and Michelle Steele are picture in separate portraits.
Rep. Michelle Steel, a Korean American immigrant, has accused Democrat Jay Chen of mocking her accent. Chen, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, responded with an op-ed titled “I didn’t mock Michelle Steel’s accent.”
(Chen by Tom Zasadzinski; Steel by Associated Press)

A new Southern California congressional district was created expressly to empower Asian Americans — binding together residents of Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean and Indian descent to give those voters a stronger voice in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The race to represent the district, which includes portions of Los Angeles and Orange counties, has turned into a mud-slinging battle rife with accusations of racism, sexism and red-baiting between two Asian American candidates.

Incumbent Rep. Michelle Steel, a Korean American immigrant, has accused her Democratic rival, Jay Chen, of mocking her accent. Chen, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, responded with an op-ed titled “I didn’t mock Michelle Steel’s accent.” Steel has also tried to paint Chen, a Navy Reserve intelligence officer, as sympathetic to China’s authoritarian regime; Chen says she’s red-baiting.

“This district was drawn with the aspirational hope that it would uplift Asians,” said Democratic redistricting expert Paul Mitchell. “There’s nothing to suggest a district that’s heavily Asian like this could have the consequence of a slugfest or a mud fight between different Asian elected officials. That’s clearly unfortunate.”

The new 45th congressional district was created last year by an independent redistricting panel in the once-per-decade, post-census redrawing of political maps. It is more competitive than Steel’s current district and includes the Asian American hubs of Westminster, Cerritos and Artesia.

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A third of the district’s registered voters are Asian American, according to Political Data Intelligence, a consulting firm that specializes in information about the nation’s electorate. People of Vietnamese descent account for more than 16% of voters; another 5% are Korean American. There are also voters with Chinese, Filipino, Japanese or Indian roots.

Within the district, there’s a history of fiery politics, particularly in Orange County. Refugees settled there after the fall of Saigon, creating the largest Vietnamese American community in the nation. Many are vocally anti-communist because of their personal experiences or their family history.

Though political disagreements have often focused on ideology, few could recall race-based attacks among Asian American candidates.

“We’ve seen versions of these kinds of attacks in politics everywhere, certainly in Orange County,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a UC Riverside political science professor who studies Asian American voters and candidates. Such battles typically occur between candidates of different races, he said. “This is the first I’ve seen with two Asian American candidates trading these barbs.”

The politics of the area have changed dramatically in recent years. Orange County, a long-time conservative bastion, voted for Democratic presidential candidates in 2016 and 2020, the first time since the Great Depression. And the elder Vietnamese American generation’s history of prioritizing anti-communism and aligning with Republicans is being diluted by younger voters.

Orange County, which nurtured Ronald Reagan’s conservatism and is the resting place of Richard Nixon, is now home to 547,458 registered Democrats.

“I want to see the youths make their mark — and they may have more energy than people who have been in politics for decades. That’s more important. New blood,” said Loc Nguyen, as he loaded his trunk with jackfruit, egg noodles and Vietnamese-language magazines and newspapers in Little Saigon’s Asian Village.

The Republican, who said he is in his 50s, said he had been following the race among Steel, Chen and longshot GOP candidate Long Pham, a Vietnamese American who is a former trustee on the Orange County Board of Education and who is attacking Steel from the right.

Nguyen added that he didn’t care about the recent fracas.

“I want to know what they have done for low-income immigrants or what special ideas they have to help our children access better education. I haven’t seen competitions between a Korean, Taiwanese and Vietnamese in Orange County before,” Nguyen said. “It’s certainly special to have three Asians trying to win our vote.”

Linda Chow, who is Chinese American, said she heard about the accusations from co-workers in the food and beverage industry. She and her colleagues decided that there is “always controversy” within campaigns, she said.

“The country is in crisis, so you want to consider who is best at the job. Who is smarter? Who has better ideas?” said Chow, standing outside the Asian Box restaurant near UC Irvine.

The Cerritos Republican, who said she was in her late 30s, added she may vote for Chen because he “keeps trying and running for a high-level office. He doesn’t seem to give up.”

Chen, president of the Board of Trustees for Mt. San Antonio Community College and a former school board member, unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2012. The 44-year-old withdrew from a 2018 congressional race because of Democratic fears of splitting the vote.

California congressional matchups for the 2022 midterm election are quickly taking shape after new district lines were approved Monday.

Steel, 66, served on the state Board of Equalization and the Orange County Board of Supervisors before her 2020 election to the House in the 48th district, which includes coastal cities from Seal Beach to Laguna Beach and inland communities such as Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley and Aliso Viejo.

Two-thirds of the district was drawn into the new 47th district, which is also where Democratic Rep. Katie Porter — a prodigious fundraiser — lives. So Steel opted to run in the new 45th district, even though it has a five-point Democratic voter-registration edge.

Neither candidate lives in the district, which is not required for members of Congress. Steel lives in Seal Beach, Chen in Hacienda Heights.

The top two vote-getters in the June 7 primary, regardless of party, will square off in the Nov. 8 general election.

Steel’s accusations that Chen mocked her accent followed a Fountain Valley town hall in which a voter asked Chen how Democrats could push Steel to debate and commented that she was a “lousy speaker” who “doesn’t speak very well.”

Chen responded, “Yeah, so she just had another town hall the other day. And it’s tough. Like, we’ve transcribed it. You kind of need an interpreter to figure out exactly what she’s saying. The more she speaks, the better for us. I would love to get her into a debate. She’s going to refuse.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) and nearly two dozen Asian American current and former elected officials called on Chen to apologize. “Disgraceful remarks like those uttered by Jay Chen have no place in our nation’s political discourse and [Democrats] must act unless they approve of these racist remarks,” McCarthy said in a statement.

Democrats accused McCarthy of hypocrisy, given his history of not speaking out publicly against members of his conference when they make racially tinged or Islamaphobic remarks.

“This is just more gaslighting and deception from the man who has handed over the keys to his caucus to white supremacists and advocates of racist replacement theory,” Maddy Mundy, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement.

Chen, whose campaign did not respond to interview requests, wrote in an Orange County Register guest column published Monday that he was shocked by Steel’s claims, which he said “fuel right-wing disinformation.”

“Congresswoman Steel is lying to her constituents once again because it’s the only way she can get ahead,” Chen wrote.

“In that 13-second clip weaponized by the Steel campaign and right-wing outlets, I referred to a written transcript of Steel’s record of flip-flopping and feeding constituents convoluted talking points instead of the truth — not any kind of audible accent,” he wrote.

Chen pointed to his family’s immigrant background and said Steel was trying to deflect attention from her record, such as voting against the bipartisan infrastructure bill and another measure that was aimed at boosting U.S. competitiveness with China in semiconductor manufacturing.

Chen’s comments came several days after Steel’s campaign and national Republicans highlighted the dispute. As Steel led the pledge of allegiance during last weekend’s California GOP convention in Anaheim, she begun by saying, “Fellow Americans — with or without an accent,” drawing laughter and applause.

She also published an opinion piece in the Register and emailed her followers about the controversy.

“My accent is my story. I [am] always conscious about it. I try to speak right,” Steel said in an interview, adding that she starts each morning by reading a few news articles out loud to try to improve her pronunciation. Chen “should understand better, because he has parents who are first generations.”

Steel also accused Chen of sexism after he’d said she relied on GOP talking points from her husband; Shawn Steel is one of three California representatives on the Republican National Committee.

The dust-up has been featured on the front pages of Korean-language newspapers.

James Ko, the owner of J’s Korean Cuisine in Fullerton, cited the media coverage as partly why he plans to vote for Steel. Many of his fellow immigrants are “upset because it’s not just from a white guy. It’s from another Asian,” said Ko, 39, who declined to say which party he is registered with. “Asian people usually just help each other.”

Mai Hall, who recently moved from Texas to Westminster, hadn’t heard much about the candidate clash. But the Vietnamese American, who intends to register as a Democrat, has been focused on other issues.

“I want someone who cares about healthcare and our personal security,” said Hall, 44. “We may be entering a third war. My parents are refugees so of course, we have so much empathy for the people of Ukraine.”

Times staff writer Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.


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