- Why Ted Dang Lost: An Analysis of the 1994 Mayoral Race in Oakland, California 1
Throughout the 1990s there has been a marked increase in the participation of Asian Americans in electoral politics. A review of the National Asian American Roster: 1979 shows a relatively short list of Asian American elected officials, compared to the 1996 National Asian Pacific American Political Almanac, where over 300 elected officials were counted. These elected officials include two U.S. senators, five federal representatives, twenty-two state senators, forty-one state representatives, eighty-three city council members, and twenty-six city mayors. 2 The most recent breakthrough was the November 1996 Washington state gubernatorial campaign of Gary Locke, the son of Chinese immigrants, who became the first Asian American to be elected governor in the continental U.S.
While the growing number of Asian American elected officials is significant, political scientist Don Nakanishi contends that it is just as important to consider the number of individual Asian Americans who have run for political office, but who were not elected. Nakanishi argues that those efforts are evidence of a changing political landscape. He cites recent mayoral races in San Francisco (1992), Los Angeles (1993), and Oakland (1994) as high-profile—though unsuccessful—campaigns by Asian American candidates. 3 Other signs of emerging Asian American [End Page 153] political involvement are the high rate of naturalization among Asian immigrants who are potential voters, recent statistics noting a higher voter turnout rate among Asian American registered voters, and the 1996 National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium exit poll revealing a high percentage of Asian American first-time voters. 4
This paper will analyze the hotly contested 1994 Oakland mayoral race between African American incumbent Elihu Harris and the surprise Asian American challenger, Ted Dang. Harris eventually won the November 8, 1994 election by a wider margin than expected, but this mayoral race is important to study, because it presents Asian American political strength and efficacy in a diverse urban center where the Asian American population is growing, and Asian American attention to local politics is on the rise.
According to the 1990 U.S. Census, Oakland is the eighth largest city in California, having a population of 372,242. Despite its reputation for being a “black” city, no ethnic or racial group constitutes a majority of the city’s population, and at least eighty-one different languages and dialects are spoken there. 5 Asian American and Latino populations have increased significantly since 1980, while African American and white residents comprised a declining—though still predominant—portion of the city’s ethnic mix. The number of African American residents in Oakland increased only slightly since 1980, representing 42.8 percent of the city’s population in 1990. The number of whites in Oakland declined after 1980, comprising 28.3 percent of the city’s population in 1990. Within this same period, the number of Asian Americans increased from 28,053 to 54,931, while the number of Latinos increased from 32,133 to 51,711. By 1990, Asian Americans and Latinos represented 14.2 and 13.0 percent of Oakland’s residents, respectively.
When Dang decided to enter the mayor’s race, it was a period of great political change in Oakland. Less than one year earlier, Asian American and Latino activists had joined forces to redraw city council districts aimed at providing both groups with greater influence at the polls. This effort was a significant achievement in Oakland because whites and then later African Americans had been in control of the political landscape. [End Page 154]
This article will analyze three major reasons why Dang lost his bid to become mayor of Oakland. First, Dang failed to galvanize the diverse Asian American communities and interest groups in Oakland. Second, Dang’s conservative campaign message was inappropriate for the liberal and socially-conscious community of Oakland. And third, Dang’s negative campaign tactics and mailers served only to create conflict and heighten racial tension, rather than forge the broad multiracial coalition needed to win in Oakland.
This study uses data from ethnographic fieldwork and interviews begun in 1993 following the successful redistricting effort...