Rashi Kesarwani, Rigel Robinson, Jenny Wong and James Chang: four newly elected representatives for Berkeley. Photos: Courtesy

When Rashi Kesarwani and Rigel Robinson sit down at the City Council dais tonight, it will be the first time in 41 years that there has been an Asian-American city councilmember in Berkeley.

The new representatives are just two of four recently elected Asian-American officials in Berkeley. James Chang was reelected in November to a second term on the Rent Stabilization Board. Jenny Wong was elected city auditor. Nicky Gonzáles Yuen, who lives in Berkeley, is a member of the Peralta Community College District board. He was last re-elected in 2016.

This appears to be the highest number of elected Asian-American officials serving Berkeley at one time. It also reflects the nationwide electoral gains of 2018 when there was a large bump in the number of women and people of color elected to office for the first time.

“This is significant and an important moment for Berkeley,” Wong, who moved to the U.S. from Taiwan when she was young, told Berkeleyside. “We need diversity in our leadership and representation.”

Wong added that she hoped her appointment would encourage other Asian Americans, as well as women, to run for office.

“I want people to be informed and involved.  Hopefully I can bring people in and they will become civically engaged,” she said.

The first and last Asian-American city councilwoman was Ying Lee, who served from 1973 to 1977. Lee, who emigrated from China with her family when she was 13, was elected as part of a coalition that was against the Vietnam War. Berkeley had citywide, not district, elections then.

There have been at least two other elected Asian-American politicians over the years:  Gene Roh, a Korean American probation officer, served on the Berkeley Unified School District Board from 1973 to 1977. Howard Chung was elected to the Rent Stabilization Board in 2006.

When Lee was elected, about nine to 11% of the Berkeley population was Asian, she said. Few people back in the 1970s used the term “Asian-American,” she said. People from South Asian, East Asia, and Southeast Asia were just known as Asians, she said. The largest groups were Chinese American and  Filipino Americans.

Berkeley’s population is now 19.7% Asian-American, according to U.S. Census figures. Whites make up 60.2% of the residents, Hispanics make up 11%, African Americans make up 8.6%, and Native Americans make up 0.5%.

Kesarwani, whose parents emigrated from India to southern California, and who refers to her background as South-Asian, said part of the reason so many Asian Americans were elected was the fact there were three open seats. Longtime City Council members Linda Maio and Kriss Worthington retired, as did City Auditor Ann-Marie Hogan.

Kesarwani said not only did many Asian Americans run for office, people of other backgrounds did too. There were LBGTQ candidates, people who were gender queer, old and young office seekers.

“It speaks to the inclusive culture in Berkeley,” said Kesarwani. “People of marginal communities felt empowered to run.”

Diversity matters in all its forms, not just racial diversity, she said.

“I think it’s important for people with diverse backgrounds to shape public policy.”

By speaking badly about immigrants, Trump inadvertently pushed many political newbies to run, said Kesarwani. Both she and Wong got training in electoral politics through Emerge America, a program that assists women in running for political office.

“When the current president makes statements that are insulting to immigrant communities, it does light a fire in you,” she said. You think “It’s my country too and I have a right to run for office and to shape the decisions being made.”

Robinson, whose mother is Korean, said the election of four Asian Americans is “immense.”

“It’s really exciting,” he said. “It’s an Asian wave which is really beautiful to see in a city that’s as diverse as ours. Berkeley has a deep and rich history of Asian-American activism in the East Bay. The fact we haven’t seen that many Asian elected officials here, especially when such a big share of the population is Asian-American, is disappointing.”

The surge in diverse candidates winning so many seats in 2018 still has people talking, about now and future elections, said Robinson.

Chang, who identifies as Taiwanese American, said he was delighted that other Asian Americans now hold elected office.

“For the last four years, it’s been lonely being the only Asian American official in Berkeley,” he said. “It’s nice to see a 300% increase.”

Editor’s note, Dec. 13: This article has been corrected to say that Gene Roh served on the BUSD board, not Ron Lai.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...