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Asian representation:
the most unlikely scenario

Manuel Galvan


Like generations of other ethnic groups, Asians have contributed much to the cultural diversity of Chicago. Their influence has been well noted in the spheres of business, health, education and many other professions. Their impact seems to be everywhere —except Chicago politics.

Among Chicago's top 10 minority-owned businesses, Asians are represented by four companies, including the top ranked Tang Industries Inc., a group of manufacturing and distribution firms. Smaller Asian companies, shops and restaurants flourish in the near southwest side Chinatown; along Clark Street near Wrigley Field; down Devon Avenue in Rogers Park, once a marketplace for scores of Jewish merchants, and deeply into Chicago's northwest side and suburbs.

In the health field, hundreds of Asians serve as doctors, nurses and technicians, settling in the western suburbs, where they can drive the Elsenhower Expressway into the city's medical center and its area hospitals. As professors, researchers and students, they live and work around major campuses, such as the University of Chicago or Northwestern University in nearby Evanston.

Yet, while Asians have made themselves known in several areas, Chicago politics is not one of them. Like other minorities, Asians have never been elected to the U.S. Senate from Illinois. Like Hispanics, there are no Asian members of Congress. There are no Asian state senators or members of the Illinois House of Representatives. Asians have not been elected Cook County commissioners. And not even with 50 wards has the Chicago City Council ever had an Asian alderman.

While the new political boundaries in Illinois for congressional and state legislative districts and Chicago's wards will increase the influence of Latinos and blacks in Illinois, the possibility of an Asian being elected will still remain the most unlikely of scenarios.

According to the latest census figures, the national growth percentage for Asians between 1980 and 1990 is larger than for any other minority group. The same is true in Chicago, a city with the country's serventh largest Asian population. In the last decade, Chicago's Asian population doubled, while its suburban population increased by 104 percent. Even in a traditionally Jewish suburb like Skokie, one out of every six residents is Asian.

Lee Maglaya, who ran against state Rep. Bruce Parley... in the 1986 Democratic primary, predicts at least two Asian candidates in the next round of elections

Four percent of Chicago's population is Asian, and to begin describing it is to begin explaining explaining the lack of political impact in a city legendary for its clout. Just as the generic term "Hispanic" encompasses several different groups, such as Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans, "Asian" is actually a label for many distinct ethnic origins. The largest of those in the Chicago area are Asian Indians, Filipinos, Chinese, Koreans and Japanese. But there are also significant populations of Vietnamese, Cambodian Thai immigrants. The biggest number of Asians came to Chicago only a quater of a century ago, when the revamping of immigration laws in 1965 eliminated restrictions and discriminatory quotas against them.

Unlike Hispanics, who share common language of Spanish, Asians speak at

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least as many different languages as they represent countries. In some cases, the same language may have several distinct dialects. This language diversity plus major differences in culture and religion reduce chances for a standing, political coalition or one leader to speak for all Asians.

In addition, geography and the desire to assimilate have weakened the chances for any strong Asian districts. Unlike blacks, and to a lesser degree Hispanics, different Asian groups have dispersed themselves throughout the Chicago area. Often skipping the historic, blue-collar stage of many stage of many emigrant groups, Asian business people and professionals have moved right into the middle-class neighborhoods of Chicago and, more often, into the suburbs. Today, 59 percent of the area's Asian population lives outside the city, up from 51 percent 10 years ago

Culturally, Asians often do not view political jobs as desirable because of the servitude involved and the low pay. That view leads to yet another reason for Asians' lack of clout. You don't move up political riders unless you pay your dues. So, with no political jobs at stake, a significant number of Asians have also bypassed the ethnic voting-bloc stage of blacks, Hispanics and many other groups before them.

Despite the lack of an Asian-majority ward or district, many Asian political activists warn Democrats not to count them out. Lee Maglaya, who ran against state Rep. Bruce Parley (6th District) in the 1986 Democratic primary, predicts at least two Asian candidates in the next round of lections. One will run for state representative in DuPage County, where Naperville ranks third in suburban Asian centers. And one, maybe two candidates will run for Chicago City Council from northside wards. Which suburban legislative district and which city wards will be targets depend on final boundary lines of the remaps.

But Maglaya, a Filipino-Chinese American, is certain of one thing. Asians are getting tired of being taken for granted by the Democrats. And the aspect of opening talks with Republicans, who are aiming for more control in Springfield, and Hispanics, who are seen as coalition builders, grows more appealing as the Democratic party regulars continue to ignore Asians.

Manuel Galvan is manager of special projects for the Chicago Tribune. As a reporter in the early 1980s, he followed the political development of minority communities as census data helped dictate redistricting.

November 1991/Illinois Issues/31

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