The Chinese-American community has long been a non-factor in Chicago politics.
Language and citizenship barriers resulted in low voter participation.
To the limited extent Chinese residents did participate, it was mostly in lockstep with Democratic incumbents who valued the community as much for its campaign donations as votes.
Theresa Mah wants to change all that. Some say she already has.
Mah, 48, a former history professor and aide to Gov. Pat Quinn, is seeking to become the first Asian-American elected to the Illinois General Assembly.
She is running in the March 15 Democratic primary against Alex Acevedo for the Illinois House 2nd District seat long held by Acevedo’s father, Edward, who is retiring.
The elder Acevedo was a kingpin in the now-defunct Hispanic Democratic Organization, whose symbiotic relationship with Mayor Richard M. Daley brought Latinos unprecedented political power in the city in exchange for protecting the mayor’s flank.
When we last visited this race, Acevedo wanted to quit his post early so his son could be appointed to take his place, but Democratic ward bosses led by Cook County Commissioner John Daley blocked the move.
In the end, Daley and the others backed the younger Acevedo’s election bid anyway, which passes for progress in Democratic Machine politics.
Independent Democrats, who have made real progress in recent elections, are hoping Mah can continue the trend.
The possibility of electing one of its own has energized the fast-growing Chinese community to an extent previously unseen, much in evidence as I followed Mah through Chinatown on Thursday.
“I’m Chinese. You’re Chinese. Of course, I’m going to support you,” an Archer Courts resident told Mah in a typical exchange. Many residents sought to have their picture taken with Mah in recognition of her growing celebrity.
But the very thing exciting the Chinese community has also triggered a backlash from the Acevedo campaign, which is invoking Latino ethnic pride in its efforts to retain the seat.
That resulted in an ugly incident Monday when Rep. Luis Gutierrez and two Hispanic aldermen were forced to cut short a press conference endorsing Mah because of intimidation tactics by Acevedo supporters.
The Acevedo group, which included members of the candidate’s family, shouted down and otherwise harassed the Gutierrez-Mah group until it withdrew from the Pilsen location where the event had been scheduled.
“It was very dangerous,” Gutierrez told me Friday. “This is HDO. This is what they do.”
I’ve only seen videos of the incident, but the whole business reminded me a lot of 1986, when the Hispanic community was just awakening to its growing political power in a raucous election that lifted a young Gutierrez into the City Council over a Machine-backed candidate.
What it proved to me is that the Acevedo camp sees Mah as a real threat to what’s left of HDO’s grip on power.
In a typical primary election, only 500 to 600 of the 2nd District’s 5,000 registered Chinese voters make it to the polls, Mah said. She is hoping to double or triple that turnout, but knows there is a gap between those who say they support her and those who will actually vote.
“The vast majority may be registered, but they’ve never voted,”Mah said.
Mah’s 78-year-old father, Raymond, a leader in San Francisco’s Chinatown community, extolled the virtues of voting as he accompanied his daughter.
“I tell them you have to vote. The vote is the power. You don’t vote, they don’t see you,” he said.
Even if they do vote, it won’t be enough for Mah. Latinos retain a 54 percent majority of the voting age population in the district, with 24 percent Asian-American and 20 percent white.
That means winning will require one of the candidates to forge a coalition across ethnic lines, which Mah is attempting through her alliance with Gutierrez and the others. She hopes to build on that by campaigning throughout the district with an inclusive message about her shared experience as the child of immigrants who emphasized education as the path to opportunity.
Mah was responsible for leading a successful movement during the last round of state redistricting in 2010 that sought to concentrate the Asian-American population in one legislative district.
Before then, Chinese voters had been split among four House districts, greatly reducing their potential influence.
“Nobody accepted any responsibility for our community,” Mah said. “We never had the ability to vote anybody in or out.”
Now they have that opportunity.
Even if Mah falls short this time, it’s hard to imagine Chicago politicians failing to see Chinese voters again.