A legislative constitutional amendment in the California State Legislature has put Democrats in a bind and has put their grip of one constituency to the test: Asian Americans. More specifically, certain groups of Asian Americans.

That bill is SCA 5, dealing with affirmative action.

Disclaimer: I am Chinese American and am personally ambivalent about the bill. However, I will strive to write this diary by focusing on the issue's political impact rather than its merits.


Race- and gender-based affirmative action was banned in California by Proposition 209, which was passed by the voters with almost 55% in favor. The most important provision was the following:

(a) The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.
This applied to all California state government institutions, but most prominently affected the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems, which had previously used affirmative action policies in admissions.

After Prop 209 passed, California public universities created numerous programs to get around the prohibitions. They also currently use a "holistic review" process that takes into account socioeconomic factors, while racial and gender data is taken only for statistical purposes. African American and Latino systemwide enrollment rates plummeted in the initial post-Prop 209 years, but have inched their way back up to near pre-Prop 209 levels. However, their enrollment rates at UC Berkeley and UCLA, the two most elite public universities in California, have remained low.

Several attempts have been made to overturn Proposition 209. Efforts have fizzled out in state and federal courts, with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals most recently ruling in favor of the proposition in 2012. In 2011, SB 185, authored by Democratic state senator Ed Hernandez of West Covina, tried to overturn the ban in university admissions and sailed through the legislature on party-line votes, but was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown.


Hernandez tried again and authored Senate Constitutional Amendment 5. Like SB 185, SCA 5 sought to allow the consideration of race, ethnicity, and gender in university admissions only. The bill must pass both chambers on the two-thirds supermajority vote, after which it would be placed on the November 2014 ballot.

The bill sailed through the state senate on a party-line 27-9 vote (three senators did not vote) in January and was sent to the state assembly for consideration. That was when it ran into the buzzsaw.

Sometime in February, the ethnic Chinese press reported on the measure and launched an uproar in the community. The Chinese-language press, an important advocate for the community's issues but never known for impartial reporting, devoted mounds of pages and airtime to the anti-SCA 5 forces.

The anti-SCA 5 people concentrated their outrage and efforts on the seven Chinese American state legislators, all of them Democrats and who hold the swing votes determining the bill's fate.

The three in the state senate are Carol Liu of La Cañada Flintridge, Ted Lieu of Torrance, and Leland Yee of San Francisco.

The four in the state assembly are Ed Chau of Monterey Park, Paul Fong of Cupertino, Richard Pan of Sacramento, and Phil Ting of San Francisco.
Except for Pan, the legislators listed above represent districts with significant Asian communities. It's interesting that the anti-SCA 5 movement decided to target mainly the Chinese American legislators (not Asian, just Chinese) and not the other 113 senators or assemblymembers, especially when they were advocating colorblind university admissions. Just saying.

The ensuing backlash got to the point where the three state senators, who had supported the bill in January, had to furiously backpedal and jointly wrote letters to both Hernandez and assembly speaker John Perez to hold the bill. Congresswoman Judy Chu, a progressive Asian American powerhouse, came out in opposition. Chau had to declare his opposition on camera at an anti-SCA 5 rally, while Ting said that he "wasn't ready to vote for it". Other politicos such as Sharon Quirk-Silva of Fullerton, who is from a swingy district and faces a strong Korean American challenger in Young Kim, also voiced opposition.

On March 17, Speaker Perez sent the bill back to the senate, essentially killing the bill for the rest of the legislative session. He also moved to set up a bicameral commission "on issues surrounding recruitment, admissions, and retention in California’s systems of higher education."

Immediate impacts

First things first: SCA 5 is dead. Any efforts this year to alter Proposition 209 or affirmative action through legislative means died along with it. Hernandez has stated he wants to get it on the November 2016 ballot, but Democratic leadership might not want to revisit the issue for the near future.

Reaction by advocates of the bill was muted. State senate president pro tempore Darrell Steinberg reiterated his support, while Hernandez joined in Speaker Perez's statement supporting a commission.

The Republicans will try to capitalize on the issue, attempting to drive a wedge between Chinese Americans and the Democratic Party. State senate GOP leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar, whose wife is Chinese American, has been popping up in anti-SCA 5 panels and discussions, and the California GOP is presenting a unified face against the measure.

Realistically though, the Democrats should be fine. Even though some feathers were ruffled, Asian Americans, especially Chinese Americans, will mostly vote as Democratic as they have before. One need look farther than 2011's AB 376, which banned the sale of shark fins, a Chinese delicacy. After much gnashing of teeth and accusations of racism, Chinese Americans gave 81% of their vote to President Obama and helped launch California Democrats into legislative supermajorities. That was with the shark-fin bill actually becoming law.

In short, the anti-SCA 5 forces have won. There is some minor rumbling about turncoat Asians and switching en masse to the Republicans, but they have gotten their point across.


One should not be panicking about how Democrats are losing Asian Americans or even just Chinese Americans, because they're not. A better discussion should be how should the Democratic Party renew its commitment to Asian Americans and its component subgroups. Much has been said about African Americans and Latinos, especially how the latter is leading a sea change for Democratic fortunes. Little has been said or researched, both here on Daily Kos and elsewhere on the political interwebs, about the impact of Asian Americans on the Democratic Party.

For Democrats who support SCA 5, the question should be how the effort went so haywire. In the 2012 National Asian American Survey, 76% of Asian Americans supported affirmative action (without specifying what constituted "affirmative action"). Yet the messaging was lost in a whirlwind of action that has now deep-sixed all efforts to alter Prop 209.

For Democrats that opposed the bill, the question should be how to get the party to be more responsive to their concerns. The three state senators (Liu, Lieu, and Yee) said there was no opposition when they first voted on SCA 5. The recent rallies show the existence of deep concerns about the bill (and I don't believe it's astroturf); where were those voices in the beginning? This bill didn't come out of the blue; it was floating around for quite a while before the recent brouhaha.

The Democratic Party is a big tent political party. There is bound to be friction, minor spats, and the occasional floor fight. The most important issue is what the party takes away from this experience.

What do you think?

Originally posted to kurykh on Tue Mar 18, 2014 at 09:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by California politics.

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