Asian American candidates in Illinois aim to break state records — and ‘the bamboo ceiling’

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

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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: Appellate Court candidate Sonni Choi Williams; Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Josina Morita, who is running for Cook County Board seat; U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth; state Rep. Theresa Mah, D-Chicago; and U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi. Standing, left to right: Illinois House candidate Hoan Huynh, Illinois House candidate Kevin Olickal, state Rep. Sharon Chung, D-Bloomington; state Sen. Ram Villivalam, D-Chicago; Lake County Treasurer Holly Kim, Illinois House candidate Nabeela Syed, Illinois Department of Human Services Secretary Grace Hou, who is not running for elective office, and Ald. Nicole Lee (11th).

Photo by Lee Milner

It took 174 years for Chicagoans to elect the first Asian American to sit in the City Council – and nearly two centuries for Illinois voters to send the first member of the community to Congress.

Today, at least 10 Asian Americans hold elective offices across the state — two representing Illinois in the nation’s capital. And voters will get a chance to dramatically increase those previously slow-growing numbers in elections this year and the next.

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

It’s part of a nationwide trend already unfolding in Virginia, Michigan and Indiana — and reflective of a 2020 Pew Research Center study finding that Asian Americans are becoming the fastest growing segment of eligible voters out of the major racial and ethnic groups in the U.S.

Palatine resident Nabeela Syed campaigns for an Illinois House seat in the northern suburbs. Syed 23, is challenging Republican state Rep. Chris Bos.

Palatine resident Nabeela Syed campaigns for an Illinois House seat in the northern suburbs. Syed, 23, is challenging Republican state Rep. Chris Bos.

Provided

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

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

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

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

Ald. Nicole Lee, who was appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot this year as the first Chinese American to represent Chinatown’s 11th Ward, has also announced she’ll run for the seat next year.

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

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

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

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

Lee said many residents tell her they didn’t feel comfortable walking into the Near South Side aldermanic office before.

“I’ve heard multiple times from Asian contractors and developers that have come in to ask about things they want to do in the community and anecdotally giving me just the sense that in the past when they came to this office they didn’t necessarily feel like this office was there for them in the past — right, wrong or indifferent,” Lee said.

“That’s how things were in the past, and I think people see my appointment as an opportunity for our community to really be on more even footing with everybody 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 native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders making up 0.1%.

Morita said the pandemic, which brought a rise 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 that was a real transformative experience for all of us, including those of us who were already in office,” 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 contested Democratic primary in a North Side Illinois House district.

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

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

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 Albany Park, Edgewater, Lake View, North Center, North Park, Rogers Park, Uptown and West Ridge neighborhoods.

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

Bos won in 2020 by just 1.8 percentage points in the 51st District, which encompasses 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 Palatine, said she has heard “blatant anti-Asian rhetoric” during the pandemic, including people calling it the “China virus” and the “Asia virus.”

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

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

Provided

In part, that helped inspire her to run — to be a voice in the Asian American community. Syed said her family has been concerned about her safety in running for office — in light of anti-Asian rhetoric — but they are “full on supportive and excited.”

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

She’s also leaning on Morita and other Asian American candidates in Illinois, who have created a network to answer questions and give advice.

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

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

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

Nicole Lee is sworn is 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’s hearing from “family associations” — Chinese clubs with members with the same last name — and getting a lot of office visits from Asian Americans in her ward who are “proud” she’s there.

Lee was proud to see U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth and U.S. Rep. 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, from left: Appellate Court candidate Sonni Choi Williams; Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Josina Morita, who is running for Cook County Board seat; U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth; state Rep. Theresa Mah, D-Chicago; and U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi. Standing, from left: Illinois House candidate Hoan Huynh; Illinois House candidate Kevin Olickal; state Rep. Sharon Chung, D-Bloomington; state Sen. Ram Villivalam, D-Chicago; Lake County Treasurer Holly Kim; Illinois House candidate Nabeela Syed; Illinois Department of Human Services Secretary Grace Hou, who is not running for elective office; and Ald. Nicole Lee (11th).

Lee Milner

Duckworth became the first Asian American elected to an Illinois congressional seat 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 U.S. Senate in 2016, when Krishnamoorthi was elected to her former U.S. House seat.

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

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

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