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Mihalopoulos: First Asian-American state rep leads diverse area

Theresa Mah, the first Asian-American elected to the Illinois General Assembly, is shown campaigning last year at the Chinese Community Center in Chinatown. | Sun-Times file photo

Ninety-three years ago, Theresa Mah’s grandfather arrived in this country as a “paper son” — an immigrant who got around the Chinese Exclusion Act by falsely claiming blood ties to people with U.S. citizenship.

Next week, Mah will be sworn in as the first Asian-American member of the Illinois General Assembly, representing a heavily immigrant district that includes Chicago’s Chinatown.

Mah, 48, was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown and grew up helping her dad at the corner store he owned across from an all-black public housing project.

Her family also bought a Mexican bakery and added Chinese pastries and European desserts to the shop’s original, south-of-the-border offerings.

The bakery in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, she says, was much like the 2nd Illinois House District that elected her to Springfield — “an amalgam of different groups.”

OPINION

Mah first came here for graduate school, earning a doctorate from the University of Chicago in U.S. social and cultural history.

After six years as a college professor in Ohio, she returned to Chicago in 2006 and became active in issues affecting the city’s growing Chinese community. That included fighting for a new library in Chinatown and successfully blocking the closure of the neighborhood’s post office.

“I experienced how difficult it was to get the attention of decision-makers,” Mah says. “Nobody will listen to us until we have a seat at the table.”

Mah also helped on the failed mayoral bids of Miguel del Valle in 2011 and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in 2015. “I’ve never been a fan of the mayor,” she says of Rahm Emanuel, although she quickly adds that she will “work with anybody I need to work with” to help her constituents.

She had more success trying to topple the Democratic establishment on the Southwest Side after the 2nd District was redrawn to encompass all of Chinatown, which previously was split between four state House districts.

It helped that many voters were angry that the district’s retiring state representative, Eddie Acevedo, wanted to bequeath the seat to one of his sons.

“The patronage system runs deep in this area, and I’m just not interested in all that,” Mah, who worked in Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration, says over a slice of blueberry pie at a diner on Archer Avenue.

Instead of cozying up to ward bosses, she hustled to put herself before as many of the district’s voters as possible. At the diner on Archer recently, a white woman approaches Mah and says, “I’m one of your seniors at St. Mary’s.”

In her Democratic primary battle with Alex Acevedo, Mah enjoyed the backing of many Latino politicians. Acevedo’s backers crashed an event where Mah got the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.

“They descended on us,” Mah says. “Even Congressman Gutierrez was shaken. I know how rough Chicago politics can be, but the virulence of it all was kind of shocking.”

In her days canvassing for voters for other candidates, Mah had been advised to not bother with knocking on the doors of Chinese homes “because they don’t vote.” Mah inspired Asians to show up on Election Day in a way Chicago had not seen.

“Nobody believed I could win,” she says. “Nobody believed Chinese voters would turn out.”

She thinks her win was so rare because many immigrant families urge their children to focus on professional and economic success rather than encouraging civic activism. Mah hopes to inspire others to realize what her father told her as a child in San Francisco.

“Here, the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” she says. “You’ve got to say what you want.”

Mah now will be responsible for saying what Chinatown — and the other diverse neighborhoods of her district — want from state government.

If her actions in Springfield prove as strong as her words, she’ll be much more than a paper tiger.