You can't get more American than Jay Chen. Though of Taiwanese ancestry, Chen was born in Michigan; grew up in Ohio, Indiana, Oregon and California; received a Marine Corps scholarship to attend Harvard University, from which he graduated with honors; became an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve; traveled the world; worked as a professional writer, and served as president of a school board in Los Angeles County. The 34-year-old commercial real-estate manager also has been featured on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, worked as a global business consultant for Mitt Romney's Bain & Co., and was an intern for Republican Congressman Ed Royce.
On Nov. 6, Chen is hoping his rookie Democratic Party campaign can unseat Royce, a 19-year veteran in the nation's capital, in California's newly drawn 39th Congressional District that spans portions of south LA County (Hacienda Heights, Walnut, Chino Hills and Diamond Bar) and cities in western and northern Orange County (Fullerton, La Habra, Brea, Placentia and Yorba Linda). It's a minority majority district, with Caucasians accounting for just 34 percent of residents. The area's increasing Latino and Asian population isn't always welcomed.
"Fuck off, chink," a controversial, disgraced Costa Mesa businessman recently told Chen in an email following a mass campaign blitz seeking support. "I'd never vote for a slant-eyed gook. Asians are trying to take over out [sic] country, so why would I want to vote for a slope. Fuck off and die. I hope you get cancer of the eyes and testicles. Leave me alone. Thank you, Anthony Kassas. Sent from my iPhone. Please excuse any typos."
Late last year, the State Bar of California disbarred Kassas from his legal practice after Attorney General Kamala Harris' investigators raided his Costa Mesa offices (in a building shared by the Weekly near John Wayne Airport) and determined he had been operating a brazen mortgage-debt scam on unsuspecting consumers. Contacted at the same email address that originated the racist communication, Kassas first agreed to field questions, but when repeatedly asked to explain the anti-Asian rant, he did not respond.
Kassas may not be alone in his temper tantrum. Chen campaign manager Sam Liu reports Chen has received "two or three other anti-Asian emails with messages like 'Go back to China.'" Signs have been torn down at the campaign's Fullerton headquarters, and xenophobic posters have popped up. "Vote for the American," says one. Another reads, "Is Jay Chen a Closet Commie?"
While the brutal tone of Kassas' email shocked Chen and his aides, such ignorant sentiment is a recurring theme in the candidate's life. In a 2010 episode of The Daily Show, Chen—then vice president of the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District—was asked to defend a Cederland Middle School program to teach kids Mandarin and Chinese culture because the Chinese government helped to fund the effort. The Comedy Central show aired a clip of a Hacienda Heights town meeting at which a spiky-haired, middle-aged Kate Goslin doppelgänger lamented the red menace penetrating Southern California. "If it comes from communist China, it is tainted with communism," declared the livid woman whose house is likely filled with products from China. "You can't lie to us!"
Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi expertly diced the hysteria. After that woman claimed the cultural studies were tantamount to "brainwashing" and would create little commies, Mandvi observed, "It's simple. In the same way that anyone learning German becomes a Nazi or anyone learning French becomes an asshole, learning Chinese has only one outcome." A red hammer-and-sickle image then ominously appeared onscreen over video of kids sitting in a Southern California classroom.
"It was hilarious how these people attacked anything that came from China as communist," says Liu, who thinks a majority of voters is ready for a change in representation from Royce, a GOP heavyweight who's conservative on financial and international affairs. "There's an anti-incumbency sentiment right now. Generally, people are tired of the same old thing. That motivated Jay to run."
Royce enjoys a substantial fund-raising lead. With the loyal support of corporate banking and insurance lobbyists, the incumbent entered the final five weeks of this election with $1.5 million in his campaign coffers, according to disclosure reports filed at the Federal Election Commission in Washington, D.C. Chen—who has the support of the Asian American Action Fund, National Education Association and the United Auto Workers—reported less than $280,000 in cash on hand.
Nevertheless, the campaign is hoping Royce's active participation in an obstructionist House Republican strategy to sabotage President Barack Obama's economic agenda, plus the district's shifting demographics, makes voters more susceptible to Chen's "moderate" ideas. He supports making higher education more accessible, improving services for military veterans, sustaining legal protections for a woman's right to choose, reducing oil-company tax breaks to aid the creation of "green" industry jobs and increasing spending on the nation's crumbling infrastructure.
"We need to invest in America," Liu explains. "LA and Long Beach are two of the busiest ports in the world. Forty percent of our commerce comes into these ports, yet we have no infrastructure to get the interstate commerce out and to the rest of the nation."
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Though more than 100 people have volunteered to help, the Chen campaign still understands it's facing an uphill battle in a district the political experts call a "safe" Republican seat.
"This area is so diverse, yet there are so many people who are stuck in old ways," Liu says. "Even among Jay's supporters, there are people who'll say things like, 'He'll definitely get the Oriental vote.'"
This article appeared in print as "Putting Race In the Race: It'll take more than a racist email to derail Democratic candidate Jay Chen's bid for Congress."