Vince Fong brings Asian representation to central California as McCarthy’s replacement

Over the past year, Roy Sekine volunteered and helped organize fundraisers to ensure that Vince Fong became the first Asian American congressman to represent his hometown of Bakersfield in California’s 20th District, which covers the state’s deeply conservative farm belt.

Sekine, who’s Japanese American and a retired technology services supervisor, said he believes Fong embodies the changing values and politics of an Asian electorate that’s increasingly concerned with rising crime rates and costs of living and has become disillusioned with the state’s ruling party.

“Most Asians in Congress are Democrats. They always talk about Trump but they never talk about crime,” Sekine, 64, said. “I hate Asian elderly being targeted. I want an orderly society.”

Fong, a former California State Assembly member, was sworn in earlier this month to succeed former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, securing Republicans a crucial six-seat majority in the House of Representatives. Endorsed by McCarthy and former president Donald Trump, Fong ran on a staunchly conservative platform of reining in fiscal spending, lowering taxes and bolstering law enforcement to fight crime.

Fong, 44, says progressives have “moved in a direction that’s antithetical” to principles that are important to Asian Americans.  

California’s 20th Congressional District, which encompasses a cluster of inland farming hubs from Fresno to Fong’s hometown of Bakersfield, is one of the reddest districts in the state. McCarthy has represented districts in the region from 2007 until last December, when he resigned after being deposed as House speaker. Fong, who worked as McCarthy’s district director for more than a decade, won a special election in May to complete the remainder of his mentor’s term. Fong will again face Sheriff Mike Boudreaux, whom he defeated handily in the Republican primary runoff, in November’s general election and is likely to secure a full two-year term starting in January.

For Fong, the son of Chinese immigrants who had little interest in politics, running for office wasn’t a career choice he envisioned. He didn’t catch the “political bug,” he said, until the summer after his freshman year at the University of California, Los Angeles, when he met McCarthy while interning with former Republican Rep. Bill Thomas. 

“He opened my eyes to making good public policy,” Fong said about McCarthy. “He saw something in me I didn’t see in myself, the qualities of a good leader.”

In 2016, Fong became the first Asian American to represent Bakersfield in the state Legislature, a notable milestone in a state where Asian political representation has generally coalesced around urban centers like Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area, which are home to the vast majority of California’s Asian population.

In the 20th District, Asian Americans comprise just 7% of the population. But many generations and communities of Asian Americans have left a mark in the Central Valley, Fong said, from the Hmongs in northern Fresno to the Filipino farmworkers who mounted the seminal 1965 grape strike in Delano, and the Chinese immigrants who built the country’s first transcontinental railroad in the late 19th century. “It’s an honor to be a person to share their story,” he said. “I never thought I’d be a trailblazer.”

California’s farm belt has also become a bastion of Asian American Republican politics and civic engagement. Karen Goh, a Republican of Chinese descent, is the first Asian American mayor of Bakersfield. Vong Mouanoutoua, also a Republican, is the first Hmong mayor pro tem of Clovis, a city in Fresno County, home to the second-largest Hmong population in the country. 

“Our needs in the Central Valley are not unique but they are more pronounced because of the dominance of L.A. and San Francisco representation,” Mouanoutoua said.

He said that Asian American voters in the Central Valley generally support lower taxes and cost of living, increased water access for drought-plagued farms, as well as protections for small businesses and freedom of speech. “It is not about right versus left or Republican or Democrats,” Mouanoutoua said, adding that faith and family are crucial pillars in the lives of Asian families. “It is about values and having a sense of right and wrong.”

Christine Chen, the executive director of the nonprofit group Asian Pacific Islander American Vote, said the recent success of Asian American Republicans in the Central Valley shows that Asian Americans are largely independent voters who prioritize issues over party affiliation.

“We’ve always said the AAPI electorate is up for grabs,” she said. “It’s always based on issues, and the relationship voters have with a candidate.”

According to exit polls from the past two elections, a majority of Asian American voters supported Democratic candidates, but the share of voters supporting GOP candidates increased from 26% in 2018 to 32% in 2022. In San Francisco, the number of Chinese immigrants registered as Republicans has increased by 60% since the start of the pandemic. The trend also tracked with those running for office: A slew of first-time GOP Chinese American candidates won big in San Francisco’s down-ballot races this spring.

Janelle Wong, a senior researcher at AAPI Data, said while there’s no denying that Asian Americans have shifted to the right, the majority remain Democrats and the data on that shift requires further study.

“The confusing thing is that attention to anti-Asian hate crimes grew as more attention to Donald Trump and Republican xenophobic rhetoric grew,” Wong said. “Yet, Donald Trump still received a higher proportion of the Asian American vote in 2020 versus 2016.”

Meanwhile, Fong said his foremost concerns in Congress are securing the U.S.-Mexico border against human trafficking and drug smuggling, as well as expanding domestic production of oil, gas and renewable energy to support the business owners, ranchers and farmers of his district.

“To be able to represent my hometown in Congress is something I’d never imagined,” he said. “Now the real work begins.”

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