By WARREN FURUTANI
Last month, the Asian American community honored a great patriot and celebrated a significant milestone in our fight for equality. Fifty years ago on Aug. 21, Hiram L. Fong became the first Asian-American elected to the U.S. Senate. The child of Chinese immigrants and the seventh of 11 children, Fong helped support his family and worked his way through high school, earning money by selling newspapers, shining shoes and caddying. He matriculated into University of Hawaii and then Harvard Law School before going on to serve as a senator under five presidents, among many other accomplishments. Fong’s life is a testament to the American Dream, the idea that by working hard and persevering, we can achieve the seemingly impossible.
As an activist who has fought, from the 1960s until today, for equal opportunities for all people, I know how Fong’s story has opened the door to the many Asian Americans who have had the honor of serving as senators, assemblymembers and governors throughout our country. Yet despite these accomplishments, the diversity of our elected officials has failed to keep pace with California’s demographic trends. The reason for that, plain and simple, is money.
The unfortunate reality is that financial barriers have kept too many minorities from being elected. More often than not, elections are won by the candidate with the deepest pockets, not the most qualified candidate. As a result, politicians are less likely to provide a voice for underrepresented groups and look out for the interests of their constituents. Our current system also means our elected officials must spend far too much time raising funds for their next election rather than implementing public policy that would positively impact our communities.
There is much that needs to be done to ensure we have a government that truly represents its people. And an important first step in helping us realizing that goal is passing the California Fair Elections Act on the June, 2010 ballot.
Authored by Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) and signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger, AB 583, the California Fair Elections Act, would establish a voluntary pilot project for California’s secretary of state races in 2014 and 2018. Candidates will be allowed to qualify for public financing if they agree to strict spending prohibitions and raise a large number of $5 contributions from Californians. If established, this pilot program would be funded primarily by fees on lobbyists, lobbying firms and lobbyist employers, who have some of the lowest fees in the country. No taxpayer dollars will go to candidates.
Under a fair elections system, candidates from any background who show a broad base of support can run for office.
In Arizona and Maine, which offer candidates the choice of public financing, fair elections have allowed more people of color to run for office. In Arizona the number of Latino and Native Americans running for office nearly tripled in the first year Fair Elections went into effect, from 13 in 2000 to 37 in 2002.
Of course, it’s not just our elected officials’ backgrounds that matter; it’s also the decisions they make in office. In the seven states and two cities that have adopted a form of the Fair Elections Act, elected officials are free to make decisions that benefit the public, without fearing political retribution from powerful special interests.
While I have been lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to serve my constituents in the 55th Assembly District, I know that our current campaign process too often bars talented candidates from having a shot at elected office.
In 1959, when Fong contemplated a run for U.S. Senate, he wondered if his background would prevent him from getting elected. Despite the challenges, he thought the campaign “would allow my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to say at some future date that their grandfather and great-grandfather was a serious candidate.” Implementing the California Fair Elections Act will help ensure that the “future date” when underrepresented communities are equally represented in Sacramento will come even sooner.
Warren Furutani represents the 55th Assembly District (Carson, Lakewood, North and West Long Beach, and the Los Angeles communities of Harbor City, the Harbor Gateway and Wilmington). The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.