Asian American candidates aim to break state and Chicago election records

It took Chicagoans 174 years to elect the first Asian American to serve on the city council — and nearly two centuries for voters in Illinois to send the community’s first member to Congress.

Today, at least nine Asian Americans hold elected office statewide, two of whom represent Illinois in the nation’s capital. And voters will have the chance to significantly increase those previously slow-growing numbers in this year’s election and next.

At least 22 Asian American candidates are running in November’s election and in next year’s mayoral elections, not to mention others running in other local races across the state.

It’s part of a national trend already underway in Virginia, Michigan and Indiana – and mirrors a 2020 Pew Research Center study that found Asian Americans are becoming the segment of voters eligible for growth. fastest among major racial and ethnic groups in the United States.

Palatine resident Nabeela Syed is campaigning for a seat at Illinois House in the northern suburbs. Syed, 23, challenges Republican State Rep. Chris Bos.

“There’s a saying that you have to see it to be it,” said Josina Morita, commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and member of the Illinois Asian American Caucus, who offered help and encouragement to candidates.

“And I think people were waiting for permission, waiting to see that it was possible. And we were able to be their first phone call and say, “Yeah, you should.”

“I think it really helped break through what we call the bamboo ceiling and really opened the floodgates for people we had never met before but were watching,” Morita said.

Morita, who was the first Asian American elected to office in Cook County in 2016, is running for Cook County Council in the 13th District – joining 20 other Asian American candidates in the November ballot.

Aldus. Nicole Lee, who was named by Mayor Lori Lightfoot this year as the first Chinese American to represent Chinatown’s 11th Ward, also announced she would seek re-election next year.

Aldus.  Nicole Lee, right, poses for a selfie with Ald.  Stephanie Coleman (16th) after Lee's swearing in is the first Asian American woman to serve on the Chicago City Council as the new alderman for the 11th Ward in March.

Aldus. Nicole Lee, right, poses for a selfie with Ald. Stephanie Coleman (16th) after Lee’s swearing in is the first Asian American woman to serve on the Chicago City Council as the new alderman for the 11th Ward in March.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times File

Lee is only the second Asian American alderman in Chicago since the city was incorporated in 1837, following Ameya Pawar, an American Indian who was elected in 2011 but was limited to two terms.

Lee said many residents had told him they didn’t feel comfortable walking into the Near South Side Alderman’s office before.

“I’ve heard many times from Asian entrepreneurs and developers who have come in asking about things they want to do in the community and anecdotally giving me the impression that in the past when they come to that office, they didn’t necessarily feel like that office was there for them in the past — true, false, or indifferent,” Lee said.

“It’s been like that in the past, and I think people see my appointment as an opportunity for our community to really be on an equal footing with everyone else.”

The Pew study found 380,000 eligible Asian American voters in 2020 in Illinois, representing 4% of the state’s total eligible voters. According to U.S. Census figures, Asian Americans make up 6.1% of the state’s population, with Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders making up 0.1%.

Morita said the pandemic — both an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes and a lack of COVID-19 resources and information for Asian Americans — played a role in the rise of candidates. .

“I think it was a real transformative experience for all of us, including those of us who were already in the job,” Morita said.

She said the beating of a 60-year-old Vietnamese man in 2021 – which his family called a hate crime – was personal to Hoan Huynh, a Vietnamese man who just won a disputed Democratic primary in a North Side neighborhood Illinois House.

Josina Morita, then a candidate for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, in 2016.

Josina Morita, then a candidate for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, in 2016.

Huynh would become the first Vietnamese member of the Illinois General Assembly if he wins in November in the 13th district, which covers parts of the neighborhoods of Albany Park, Edgewater, Lake View, North Center, North Park, Rogers Park , Uptown and West Ridge.

Nabeela Syed, challenging Republican state Rep. Chris Bos in a northern suburban district, would become the first Muslim woman elected to the Illinois Legislative Assembly if she wins.

Bos won in 2020 by just 1.8 percentage points in the 51st District, which includes parts of Palatine, Inverness, Hoffman Estates, Rolling Meadows, Barrington, Kildeer, Deer Park, Long Grove, Vernon Hills, Lake Zurich and Hawthorn Woods.

Syed, who is 23 and was born and raised in the Palatine, said he has heard “blatant anti-Asian rhetoric” during the pandemic, including people calling it the “Chinese virus” and the “Asian virus”.

If she wins in November, Nabeela Syed would become the first Muslim woman elected to the Illinois Legislative Assembly.

If she wins in November, Nabeela Syed would become the first Muslim woman elected to the Illinois Legislative Assembly.

In part, that helped her run — to be a voice in the Asian American community. Syed said her family were worried about her safety when she ran for office – in light of the anti-Asian rhetoric – but were “full of support and excited”.

“They were worried about my safety, but they don’t want that to deter me,” Syed said. “They don’t want that to deter people from seeking representation and supporting candidates who will bring more representation to decision-making tables.”

She also relies on Morita and other Asian American candidates in Illinois, who have created a network to answer questions and offer advice.

“Knowing that I have this kind of community, people who have gone through similar experiences as Asian American candidates, has been a great source of support and encouragement for me,” Syed said. “It’s amazing to be one of the first.”

Lee was appointed to the Chicago City Council in March to replace the former 11th Ward Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson after being convicted by a Federal Court jury of lying to regulators and filing false tax returns. Lee was a United Airlines executive whose father served as longtime deputy chief of staff under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, Chicago’s longest-serving mayor and Thompson’s uncle.

Nicole Lee is the first Asian American woman to serve on the Chicago City Council in March.

Nicole Lee is sworn in as the first Asian American woman to serve on the Chicago City Council in March as her sons, Anton Lee-Kline, left, and Kanoa Lee-Kline, right, look on.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times File

Lee, who along with her two sons are the “fourth generation of Lees” to live in the Chinatown building purchased by her grandparents, said she hears about “family associations” – Chinese clubs with members wearing the same last name – and that she was getting a lot of office visits from Asian Americans in her department who are “proud” that she is there.

Lee was proud to see U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth and U.S. Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi at an Illinois Democratic County Chairs’ Association brunch in Springfield last month.

Asian American candidates and officials pose at an Illinois Democratic County Chairs' Association brunch in Springfield in August.

Asian American candidates and officials pose at an Illinois Democratic County Chairs’ Association brunch in Springfield in August. Seated front row, left to right: Court of Appeals candidate Sonni Choi Williams; Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Josina Morita, running for the Cook County Council seat; US Senator Tammy Duckworth; State Representative Theresa Mah, D-Chicago; and US Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi. Standing, left to right: Illinois House candidate Hoan Huynh; Illinois House candidate Kevin Olickal; State Representative Sharon Chung, D-Bloomington; State Sen. Ram Viltivam, D-Chicago; Holly Kim, Lake County Treasurer; Nabeela Syed, House candidate from Illinois; Grace Hou, secretary of the Illinois Department of Social Services, who is not running for elected office; and Ald. Nicole Lee (11th).

Duckworth became the first Asian American elected to a congressional seat from Illinois in 2012. Duckworth was born in Thailand. Her mother is the daughter of Chinese immigrants to Thailand and her father was from Virginia.

Duckworth was elected to the US Senate in 2016, when Krishnamoorthi was elected to her former seat in the US House.

Morita, Syed and Lee snapped a photo with the group, which filled two tables at the event in Springfield last month.

“Sometimes what you have to see is that something is possible to feel like you can do it too,” Lee said.

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