BLOG: The untold stories of Asian Americans winning

By Assunta Ng

November has been a phenomenal month for Asian Americans. The election results were totally unexpected for several local Asian American candidates. In tough races, no one knew the results until the very last vote was counted. How did they turn the tide even though some were in second place after the primary election?

“The Asian candidates who have won are not ideology-oriented, they have stayed away from partisan politics,” said Y. P. Chan, one of the founders of Washington Chinese American PAC. “They are not right or left, they focus on what matters to the community and voters who are sick of partisan politics.”

Another important factor was that “the Asian candidates themselves were very qualified and educated…Many graduated from Harvard and Yale University, and they have invested in the community (like volunteering and building goodwill).”

On Nov. 2, former Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell became the first Asian and second Black mayor. He won 58% of the votes. He was considered to be the least “left” among all the mayoral candidates, and more to the center.

Vivian Song Maritz

Vivian Song Maritz won a Seattle School Board seat with 72% of the vote, despite the fact that she did not receive an endorsement from the Seattle Times, a critical step for winning, especially for an unknown candidate. She and Harrell were the only Asian candidates to run in Seattle.

Born in Ohio, Maritz’s immigrant parents were from Taiwan. Asked why she won so big, she replied, “I am humbled by the result. I am an unusual Asian candidate. There was no Asian representation (in the school board despite the high number of Asian students).

“I started school as an English as a Second Language (ESL) student,” she said. “My first language was not the dominant language. I can relate to ESL students.”

The Seattle School District serves 6,948 English language learners who contribute 162 languages to the total of 154 spoken by families across the district.

“I understand how difficult it was for my parents to navigate public education, and being unfamiliar with the system.” She added, “I carry a disability identity as I have a disability.” She was born with hearing loss.

Maritz is passionate about ethnic studies. She wanted students to know the importance of Chinese Americans building the railroads and that Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. Because of her many unique perspectives, Maritz said voters resonated with her.

A Harvard University graduate with a master’s in business administration, as well as a bachelor’s degree, Maritz will be the second Chinese American to be elected in the Seattle Public School District since the late Cheryl Chow.

Will Chen

Will Chen made it through the primary election for his bid as Edmonds City Council member in second place. Some of his supporters were worried. And there was more drama on election day as he was trailing behind (344 votes to 397 votes) on Nov. 3. But Chen emerged as the winner. He won by 144 votes, out of the 15,474 votes cast for him and his opponent.

Chen is the first person of color elected to the Edmonds City Council, a city with only 10% Asians, 3% Blacks, and 80% white.

Chen credited his first successful attempt to run for office to his community involvement.

“I have high name recognition,” he said. In his spare time, he volunteers to pick up garbage on the beach and grow trees in the park. Being the only Asian volunteer, he is proud of his involvement in the Edmonds marsh project, protecting fish and wildlife. He is also a member of the Rotary Club, the Edmonds Chamber of Commerce, and a commissioner of the 24-member Edmonds Housing Commission, in which he is one of two Asian Americans.

Chen announced his candidacy after he saw the rising anti-Asian hate crimes nationwide and in Washington state. Quickly, he organized one of the anti-hate crime rallies in Edmonds.

“I know I will make it as I have been through a lot in my whole life,” he said. Chen came a long way from poverty and his native China. His parents were farmers, where he was homeless at the age of 10.

An accountant, Chen has a master’s degree in accounting and an MBA degree from Western Washington University.

Toshiko Hasegawa

Toshiko Hasegawa, 33, won the Port of Seattle Commission seat as the first Asian American woman ever to be elected in that role. Together, with Commissioner Sam Cho and the newly-elected Hamdi Mohamed of African descent, the Port Commission (with five seats total) will have people of color as the majority for the first time in history.

Toshiko Hasegawa (left) with her supporters Abriel Johnny (center) and Bre Jefferson.

Hasegawa’s race was a tough one because she was unseating a well-known and well-liked incumbent, Peter Steinbrueck, also a former Seattle City Councilmember. Detractors attacked her age as a sign of inexperience.

As the daughter of state Sen. Bob Hasegawa, Hasegawa has her own advantage.
“I am the daughter of labor.” Her father works for the union and is a progressive.

Her strategies are focused not only in Seattle, but in South County and the Eastside.

“I won all 17 Democrat legislative districts. From labor, Democrats to environmentalists, my message resonated with voters.” One group of voters Hasegawa didn’t mention was her appeal to working moms. When she decided to run at the beginning of the year, her daughter was just 3 months old.

The new normal with Zoom meetings has become an advantage to win the election. Hasegawa attended over 150 Zoom meetings during the campaign. If she had to attend in-person meetings, Hasegawa said it would be impossible for her to juggle childcare and family and her career. Hasegawa is the executive director of the Washington State Commission on Asian American Affairs, Gov. Inslee’s cabinet member. But she said the support of her family and husband, who shares equal responsibility with their daughter, makes a huge difference.

Gary Locke—the influencer

Former governor Gary Locke may not have run for any office in the November election, but his name and photos were in many campaign brochures. And it matters.

The Gary Locke stamp of approval

Locke had endorsed many important Seattle City races, including Seattle Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell, Seattle City Council member-elect Sara Nelson, and Seattle City Attorney-elect Ann Davison. They all won. Nelson won by 8 points and Davison won by 4 points.

Nelson’s campaign flier consisted of only two endorsers, Locke and Rev. Harriett Warden. Nelson said she had reached out to Locke for his endorsement because “he’s a respectable leader in the community, former governor, and Obama appointee, and he’s a prominent member of the Asian community.” Nelson said she picked endorsers who represent a large number of people. She built relationships with people of color during her campaign and Warden has a strong voice in the Black community and is concerned about public safety.

“As a business owner, I represent voters’ values, and voters finally had enough with false narratives.” Nelson and her husband own Fremont Brewing.

On Locke’s endorsement, Davison’s campaign stated, “All endorsements are important, and with this one coming immediately following the primary as it did, he (Locke) and former Governor Gregoire gave my campaign an invaluable push.”

Assunta can be reached at