Candidate filing period marks milestone for Asian-Americans

November 26, 2013

WBEZ/Odette Yousef
Josina Morita is the first Asian-American candidate slated for countywide elected office by the Cook County Democratic Party. She hopes to win a position on the board of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.

On a recent, frigid morning, Josina Morita stood bundled up in a quilted coat at the Ravenswood Metra station. Clutching a coffee in one hand and a clipboard in the other, this has been Morita’s routine at least three mornings each week since August.

“Morning, how are you doing today?” she says, as she approaches commuters waiting on the platform. Morita’s gathering signatures and introducing herself as a candidate for the board of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD.) She needs 7300 valid signatures to qualify for the primary ballot.

Morita often has to explain the function of the MWRD, which manages the reclamation and treatment of stormwater and wastewater for Cook County residents. Many voters have never heard of the obscure agency. Fewer still realize the significance of Morita’s bid for the office.

Morita is the first Asian-American candidate to be slated by the Cook County Democratic Party for elected countywide office, marking another milestone in a tide of Asian-American political ascendancy in Illinois.

“You just have to hustle and get to know the kingmakers,” said Jae Choi Kim, president of the Asian American Action Fund of Greater Chicago, a Democratic Political Action Committee.

Kim said the slating process has long been a challenge for Asian-American candidates. “It’s a very closed loop system, and that is why I think it’s so hard for newcomers who are not in organized politics to win in Cook County.”

Kim acknowledges that Asian-Americans make up only 7 percent of the Illinois population. But she warns that political parties ignore Asian-Americans at their own peril, since the racial group is the fastest growing in the state. Kim believes Asian-Americans have sufficient numbers to be the margin of victory in some local elections. She says that’s why AAAF has focused on boosting Asian-American voter engagement, and has started to nurture candidates for public office.

“Our experience is when you are not at the table, they’re not talking with you, they’re talking about you, and they don’t necessarily have the facts about you proper,” said Kim. “And so we want to be at the table to discuss and better represent and properly represent who we are. Because we’re a very complex, dynamic community.”

Morita says she is proud of her half-Japanese, half-Chinese heritage, and grateful for the support of the AAAF and the Indo-American Democratic Organization, another group that mobilizes Asian-American political support. But Morita says her campaign is structured to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters.

“I can run only as an Asian-American, and try to get only the Asian-American vote,” she said, “but that is not a strategy to win, and it’s also just not a strategy to represent the community the way that it should be represented.”

Morita says she’s banking on broad support across racial and ethnic lines. She says her primary assets for the position have nothing to do with race, but rather are her urban planning background and experience as Executive Coordinator of the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations, a grassroots coalition that takes on issues of social justice.

Still, Morita says recent wins by Asian-Americans, and her own candidacy, are part of a changing tide in Illinois politics. She points to her friend and early supporter, Ameya Pawar, the first Asian-American alderman on Chicago’s City Council. Morita also looks at the election of Illinois Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth (D-8th), for whom she volunteered.

“There’s been a lot of work that I’ve been a part of with so many other people at grassroots level to engage Asian-American voters for decades,” said Morita, “and my election, or my candidacy is a piece of that.”

Odette Yousef is WBEZ’s North Side Bureau Reporter. Follow her on Twitter @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud.