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Fil-Am candidates aspire to break racial barriers in US elections

Cherie M Querol Moreno
Fil-Am candidates aspire to break racial barriers in US elections
These Filipino Americans hope to break racial barriers in their respective bids for elected offices on November 8.

SAN FRANCISCO, USA – Filipino Americans with political ambitions hope to break racial barriers in their respective bids for elected offices on November 8. Born in the United States, in the Philippines or elsewhere, they tout their Filipino identity and vow to bring their best qualities, skills and experience to serve the entire population while giving voice to minorities. (READ: ‘Filipino Americans and the US elections: What’s on their mind?‘)

As the two contenders for this country’s highest office envision becoming either its first woman president or its first man unelected ’til then, Fil-Ams seek seats never occupied by one of their own. They are banking on their individual records but also their shared roots and vision to propel them to long-unreachable posts.

Aiming for the assembly

California has the distinction of being the state with the largest population of Americans of Filipino descent but has not elected a Fil-Am to the state Senate or a Fil-Am woman to the state Assembly.

Mae Cendaña Torlakson won’t take that fact sitting down: If the success of the Philippine-born former rock singer – thrice elected to the Ambrose Park and Recreation District Board of Contra Costa County east of San Francisco Bay – holds up, she would become the first Filipino American woman member of the Golden State Legislature. 

Four years ago, another Philippine native, Rob Bonta, truimphed in his bid for District 22 comprising Alameda, Oakland, San Leandro in the State Assembly and defended that seat by a landslide last year. To date he is one of two FilAms holding the highest elected seats in two branches of goverment (California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil Sakauye was nominated and later elected to her post).  

The Assembly often is dress rehearsal for the national political theater. Its members hold two-year terms but are limited to 12 years in that seat. Many termed-out representatives run for the state Senate for 4-year terms, like Torlakson’s husband of 7 years, Tom Torlakson, now State Superintendent of Schools. The more confident vie for the US Congress 

No greenhorn on the political trail, Cendaña Torlakson took one of two top votes in June to advance to the final race to represent District 14, which spans parts in of Solano and Contra Costa Counties across San Francisco Bay to the east. 

By day, the 57-year-old mother of a son in college and a daughter in communications is statewide coordinator of the University of California (UC) Mathematics, Engineering, Science, Achievement program. Administered by the UC Office of Diversity and Engagement, the MESA program assists disadvantaged students build careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

She highlights her immigrant story as a journey of challenge, resilience and faith in herself and her adopted country where she arrived in 1988 with her first husband and their children. The University of the Philippines graduate was armed with a rich resume amplifying her work in entertainment, fashion, and property management.  

Torlakson’s pursuit of her American Dream stalled when her then-husband left the family. Suddenly a single mother, she lost her home but not the will to carry on. In 2000 she joined the staff of UC Berkeley, one of the foremost public universities in the country.

Less than two decades later, Torlakson became the first known Fil-Am woman elected in Contra Costa, one of 9 counties composing the San Francisco Bay Area. A fan of the outdoors, she won a seat on the Ambrose Parks and Recreation District board that operates 9 parks including recreation services in the unincorporated community of Bay Point and a small section of Pittsburg, her home town. She is its current chair.

Torlakson vows to advocate for the following: “background checks for all gun sales,” development of “revenue streams for education… pursuing efficiencies in the health care system,” promoting neighborhood watch and modernizing the transportation system. 

In August, she earned the endorsement of the California Labor Federation for “promoting and defending the interests of working people and their families for the betterment of California’s communities.”

“I believe that one of the State’s main responsibilities is to stimulate economic growth, create good paying jobs, help lift our workers to the middle class, and bridge income and wealth gaps,” Torlakson reponded.

“In order to do this, I plan on working closely with the California Labor Federation to ensure that our work force is strong, trained, supported by elected leaders, and treated with the dignity and respect working people deserve.”

Marjan Philhour seeks a seat on the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors to advocate for young families like hers.
Photo courtesy of Philhour campaign

Supervisor races

San Francisco is fountainhead of the nation’s Filipino political activism and origin of Filipino Studies in the country’s academia’s ethic studies programs, but it has not yet elevated a Fil-Am to the Board of Supervisors, the body governing this country’s only administrative entity that is both County and City (though locals and vicinity residents refer to it simply as “The City”).

San Francisco-born Marjan Philhour, aims to end the exclusion of Filipinos from the position, where other Asian Americans, like Chinese and Korean Americans, have sat or are currently seated. She is no slouch in the political arena, having been an aide to state officials throughout her professional life. But she has framed her campaign on her motherhood, underscoring the lack of advocacy for families in a community focused on technology, real estate and development. 

“Despite being the fastest growing and largest Asian American population in California, the Filipino American community has not yet succeeded in translating its activism into elected leadership commensurate with its size,” Philpour told this writer.

“I do believe that is changing, and the time is now for us to reap the benefits of our growth and activism. I have had over two decades of experience in government, politics, and community outreach. I have built relationships not only with elected leaders but also neighbors. I understand the importance of fund-raising as well as personal contact, and will run a campaign that prioritizes voter engagement.” 

The daughter of a Filipina mother and Iranian father is a cradle political strategist, having joined the office of San Mateo Congress Member Tom Lantos right after college graduation at UC Berkeley. She later joined the staff of several women legislators before signing on the presidential campaign of then-Democratic nominee John Kerry as deputy director for finance in the Pacific Northwest.

She returned home and ventured on her own in 2009, establishing her consultancy. By then she was a wife to Byron Philhour, a high school physics teacher. They settled down in the Richmond District, the original “Outside Lands” or outskirts of California, which became part of San Francisco 18 years after annexation from Mexico.

“The Richmond,” as it’s known, covers the northwest of The City including the expansive Golden Gate Park, the “New Chinatown,” the commercial hub that is Clement Street, and the billionaire enclave of Seacliff. 

“Deep in the heart of San Francisco is a wonderful openness to newcomers — including to my own immigrant parents — and I am troubled by the growing undercurrent of nativism and exclusion we see in our politics,” Philhour says on her campaign site.

“We also need to fight hard to protect what makes the Richmond District so special. We love our sleepy and foggy avenues — there is no appetite here for skyscrapers. We love our unique and legacy businesses … and don’t want to see them run out by this unnerving boom-bust economic cycle we’ve seen over the past 20 years. We want to remain a residential community for families, working people, the retired, immigrants — everyone. We want to retain our wonderful shopping and dining experiences and have access to ordinary services.”

The San Francisco Chronicle endorsed Philhour for “taking action” and “taking a stand… where housing and homeless concerns are at the top of the list.”

“Philhour has the skills and can-do approach to upgrade the area’s voice at City Hall,” the paper recommended in its September 16 issue.

San Mateo County is home to Daly City, which boasts the highest concentration of Filipinos in the continental United States, but has not voted a Filipino or Asian American to its Board of Supervisors.   

Mike Guingona with son Kai and wife Jackie is fighting to end Filipino and Asian drought on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.
Photo courtesy of Guingona campaign

San Francisco-born Mike Guingona seemed a shoo-in for the seat to represent District 5, where he made history nearly a quarter of a century ago by getting elected to the City Council of Daly City, where Filipinos make up almost 40% of the population. It took some 20 years before he was joined on the council by another Fil-Am, Ray Buenaventura, who was born in the Philippines and came to this country at age 11 with his parents.

The criminal justice lawyer battled to advance to the Nov. 8 election after placing a distant second to the front-runner, a colleague on the City Council.

Guingona belongs to the American branch of the political family led by former Philippine Vice President Teofisto Guingona. His father, Joe Guingona, heads the ABS-CBS Foundation and Meralco’s former partners in Spain. His mother, Cecile Limjap Apacible, hails from the clan that produced fighters in the revolution against Spain. 

While no longer the enfant terrible that in 1993 defied the Fil-Am establishment admonishing him to defer his candidacy to those who had waged and lost earlier campaigns, Guingona at 54 still drips with aplomb at odds with self-effacement instilled in the Philippine culture, particularly toward elders.

To his contemporaries, however, Guingona embodies the leader whose qualifications stack up against the brightest, in or out of the mainstream. Majority of the sitting Board of Supervisors concur: They endorsed him to succeed the termed-out incumbent. 

The University of San Francisco and UCLA alum started out as an San Francisco public defender before going into private practice.  He is a 2nd Lieutenant with the California State Military Reserve.

Now as then, the father of Kai, 15, marches to the beat of his own drum. He has a core crew of “confidantes” who admire his candor. Pioneer business leaders Vince Agbayani and Guy Guerrero have been raising funds because they support what Guingona would focus on if elected: “County healthcare system, affordability for families and seniors, and the transportation network throughout the County.

Guingona rests on his service record.  

“I will continue to work toward fiscally sound and sustainable government budgets; promoting economic development and local job creation; maintaining quality public safety services; investing in City services for our seniors and youth; and improving transportation systems,” he emphasized.

“Besides being the most eminently qualified, he is our best chance to get a Filipino American elected to the board,” agree Guerrero and Ray Satorre, who led the campaign to change the former voting system they believe disadvantaged candidates of color.

November 8 marks the first time only district residents will vote for their district representative. District 5 comprising the county’s largest city Daly City, Broadmoor, Colma, Brisbane, and parts of South San Francisco and San Bruno further south, is the first to elect its representative exclusively by district residents.

Guingona grew up making history. He was the first Fil-Am head of the student body at Westmoor High School in Daly City, where he led the wrestling team. He is confident his record will hold through the most important campaign of his life – to date. – Rappler.com 

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