Bay Area Asian Population Strong in Numbers, Vastly Underrepresented in Politics

Posted on May 13, 2020

By Ángel Mendiola Ross, PolicyLink

Diversity of electeds data shows Asian and Pacific Islanders are 26% of Bay Area residents, but just 10% of local electeds.

The spike in discrimination and harassment toward Asian Americans amid the coronavirus pandemic is a painful reminder of continued racism and xenophobia in our region. Although Asian Americans, as a broad group, perform well on many indicators of socioeconomic success, other indicators signal continued exclusion and inequity, such as the diversity of local electeds, a unique dataset maintained by the Bay Area Equity Atlas.

Asian or Pacific Islanders (APIs) remain vastly underrepresented in the highest echelons of local politics, according to our recent analysis of new data on the diversity of elected officials from 2018 and 2019. While APIs make up 26 percent of residents in the nine-county Bay Area — and are the single largest racial/ethnic group in Santa Clara and Alameda counties — they hold just 10 percent of top local elected positions. At the regional level, this unequal representation has not improved over the past two years: 170 seats were up for grabs in Bay Area cities and counties in the 2018 and 2019 elections, but the overall share of API electeds did not change.

Beneath the regional level, however, some Bay Area cities did improve on the representativeness of their top electeds, while others fell behind. This post shares key findings from our analysis of how the region’s 101 cities are doing on this measure, which is calculated based on difference between the share of APIs among top elected officials and the share of APIs in the total population. Note that the city electeds include both city council and county elected officials (supervisors and DAs) because county electeds also represent city residents. This means that the typical city/town has 11 electeds included in the analysis (five council members, five county supervisors, and one county district attorney).

Little Improvement Among the Worst Performing Cities

The cities with the starkest API underrepresentation are largely the same as they were two years ago, with a few exceptions. The top three most underrepresented cities in 2018 — Foster City, San Ramon, and Santa Clara — each gained one API elected official, but they remain continue to lag on API representation because their populations are between 42 to 48 percent API.

Five cities in the top 20 most underrepresented cities for APIs actually lost an API elected, worsening their performance. Among these cities, and now the least representative of APIs, are Milpitas and Cupertino.

Bay Area API Electeds Change in Rankings

Among the cities with the least API representation, Fremont Sees Biggest Gains in API Electeds, followed by Foster City, San Ramon, and Santa Clara

Four of the least representative cities in 2018 elected at least one API and saw their rankings improve. Fremont dropped most significantly from the ninth most underrepresented city down to number 27. In 2018, the Fremont City Council expanded from five to seven members and had their first ever district elections. The number of API city council members doubled from two to four, including two men and two women. Fremont now has the most API council members of any Bay Area city and is evenly represented as the total population is 58 percent API.

Foster City, San Ramon, and Santa Clara each elected one API representative and dropped from the top three to numbers five, eight, and nine, respectively. In the South Bay, Foster City, which is 48 percent API, elected Sanjay Gehani and the city of Santa Clara, which is 42 percent API, elected Raj Chahal. Across the Bay in San Ramon, where 45 percent of residents are API, voters elected Sabina Zafar.

Hercules Loses the Most Ground, Followed by San Jose and Hayward

Milpitas and Cupertino, where two in three residents are API, have the largest share of API residents of any of the 101 cities in the Bay Area, but just 18 percent of local electeds (city and county) are API. Both cities are now represented by just two API elected officials. In 2018, one API councilmember in Milpitas lost his 2018 reelection bid to two Latinas. And in Cupertino, one South Asian councilwoman lost her 2018 reelection bid to a White man by just 45 votes.

The city of Hercules, where half of the population is API, rose up eight places in the rankings to the fourth most underrepresented city for APIs in the Bay Area in 2020. Hercules Mayor Roland Esquivias, who is up for reelection later this year, is now the only API elected official in the city as the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors lacks any API representation. In San Jose, District 7 Council Member Tam Nguyen lost his reelection bid in 2018, with early reports at the time saying just 13 votes separated him from current Council Member Maya Esparza.

57 Bay Area Cities Have No API Representation

The cities bolded in the chart above are notable because they do not have any API elected officials at the city or county level despite having relatively large API populations. American Canyon, located in Napa County, is 36 percent API but does not have any API local elected officials. San Bruno similarly lacks API representation but is 30 percent API. Three of the cities on the list of the top 20 most underrepresented cities for APIs — Brisbane, Burlingame, and San Mateo — are all located in San Mateo County. Roughly one in four residents in each of these cities are API, but they lack representation at both the city and county level.

A Clear Need for Action

While representation does not ensure the passage of more equitable policies, it matters for political power. Local officials hold considerable power over the everyday lives of Bay Area residents, and they ought to reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. Improving on this indicator involves directly addressing the multiple barriers that hold API residents back from running for political office whether they are economic, linguistic, institutional, or historic.

Even before the coronavirus epidemic, working-class people in the region were struggling to make rent, find affordable childcare, and secure living-wage jobs. The historic spike in layoffs and unemployment brought about by COVID-19 has only exacerbated economic insecurity. Many families are struggling to make ends meet and are focused on finding work and paying bills rather than increasing political involvement.

But political inclusion is a critical part of building a more equitable region and we, along with our partners at Bay Rising, lift up the following recommendations to move us toward just and fair inclusion into a region where all can participate and prosper:

  • Local governments (cities, towns, and counties) should pass structural reforms including public campaign financing, like Berkeley’s program that provides candidates a 6-to-1 match on qualifying contributions of up to $50, and campaign finance reform to curtail corporate contributions, secret Super PACs, and “pay-to-play” politics.
  • Local and national philanthropies and corporations should fund equity-oriented leadership development programs, like Urban Habitat’s Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute, that prepare people from underrepresented communities of color to effectively engage in public policy.
  • Policymakers and funders should support voting reforms and civic engagement efforts that increase voter registration and turnout among underrepresented communities, especially in local elections.
Category: Updates