Bernarda Wong is a longtime Chinatown leader. She runs the Asian-American Service League, a linchpin human services organization in the heart of Chinatown. Because of that, she typically stays away from political endorsements. But on Tuesday, standing in front of the landmark mural in Chinatown Square, she and dozens of community leaders and residents gathered with a clear message.
“Let’s make history happen,” she said. “Let’s vote for Theresa Mah, the most-qualified candidate for the 2nd district, and the first Asian American to go to Springfield.”
The excitement among Asian-Americans in the 2nd state representative district is unmistakable. Mah is one of their own, and she appears to have a real shot at winning. Both newspapers have endorsed her, as well as an array of Latino political leaders. Among them is Cong. Luis Gutierrez, who also spoke at Tuesday’s rally in Chinatown.
“I am here to say that Theresa has the endorsement and my commitment to her campaign for election as congressman of the 4th Congressional District,” he said.
But Gutierrez had more pointed words, as well.
“There’s a campaign that says that Chinese need not apply,” he said. “It reminds me of a very sad moment in our history. The Chinese Exclusion Act has reappeared in the 2nd District.”
Gutierrez was referring to the campaign of Alex Acevedo, who is also running for the 2nd district seat. The first time Gutierrez publicly voiced support for Mah, it was a disaster. He and several Latino Chicago aldermen meant to endorse Mah at a press conference in Pilsen.
Protesters descended on the gathering, calling the officials “sellouts,” and holding up signs that read “Stop dividing the Latino community.” Witnesses not affiliated with either campaign said the protesters shoved and physically intimidated Mah’s Chinese supporters — and even used racial slurs.
WBEZ tried repeatedly to speak with Alex Acevedo, but calls, emails and texts to him, his campaign and his father —even political surrogates—were all ignored. Mah has accused her rival of sending the protesters. But in comments to other media, Acevedo distanced himself from them.
The tension comes from how the 2nd state legislative district has been redrawn. For a long time, it was solidly Latino, represented by Eddie Acevedo, a powerful force in state Democratic and Hispanic politics. Now that he’s retiring, his son is running to replace him.
But the new borders have shifted the balance of power in the district. Latinos have gone from 70 percent to 53 percent of the population. Asians, on the other hand, grew from 11 percent to nearly a quarter of the district.
Emma Lozano wasn’t among the protesters, and doesn’t even agree with their message. But the pastor and longtime Pilsen community activist does believe strongly that the seat should remain Latino.
“I do, and I think that that’s very, very important,” she said, “because we’re a large percentage of the population and we deserve our own representation.”
Lozano likes Acevedo’s background as a pediatric nurse. She says health care is an important issue in a district with undocumented residents. Lozano concedes that it’s just as important to Asian immigrants, but she says it’s a Latino lawmaker’s job.
“The struggle for immigrants has been led by the Latino community, and we stand up, and we take those positions, and we win, everybody wins,” she said. “And right now we want to continue to take the lead because that is our responsibility.”
Both campaigns have accused the other of race-baiting and vote-tampering. CW Chan says it’s been ugly and disappointing to watch. But he’s trying to focus on how far the Chinese-American community has come, especially since the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“People who needed anything would have to go to the alderman and say, ‘Alderman, can I have this?’ And the alderman (would) say, ‘Okay, I’ll give you that.’ You say, ‘Thank you, alderman.’ And if the alderman says ‘No,’ you still say, ‘Thank you, alderman.’”
Chan, who now chairs the Coalition for a Better Asian-American Community, has spent decades trying to change that by registering voters and trying to boost the unusually low turnout rate among Chinese voters. Mah once worked for Chan, and he personally supports her.
But Chan says the real reason the race is historic is that it marks a turning point. The community once got things done through quiet negotiations with power-brokers. Now, it’s fighting for a seat at the table with the power-brokers. Chan says they’re quickly learning that it’s a very different game.
“We really believe in this notion of American democracy. But once you get into the game, when you run into the ring, you realize there’s reality you have to deal with,” he said. “So I think that’s something the community is still trying to learn, trying to figure out.”
Chan says no matter how the election turns out, they’ll learn some important things. Like, what is it that gets Chinese voters excited, and how they can turn that excitement into sustained political engagement.