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Asian-Americans notch wins in municipal elections

Email|Print| Text size + By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / November 22, 2007

Several Chinese-American politicians won election in Newton, Brookline, and other posts around the region this month, as Asian-Americans made some strides in increasing representation in the area.

Paul Watanabe, director of the University of Massachusetts at Boston's Institute for Asian American Studies, pointed to evidence of a growing trend with the victories on Nov. 6, including in two races in Newton, where Greer Tan Swiston was elected to the Board of Aldermen in Ward 3's at-large race, and Alderwoman at Large Amy Mah Sangiolo was reelected in Ward 4.

Also, Donald H. Wong was elected to the Saugus Board of Selectmen, and then named chairman by the board, and Lisa Wong was elected mayor of Fitchburg.

Other Chinese-Americans to win office include Brookline School Committee member Ira Chan and former Brookline School Committee member Terry Kwan.

Watanabe said Asian-Americans from other ethnic backgrounds who have also won seats include Sam Yoon, a Korean-American just reelected to a second term on the Boston City Council; Rithy Uong, a Cambodian-American who served on the Lowell City Council; Dean Tran, a Vietnamese-American who just won a second term on the Fitchburg City Council; and Lexington School Committee member Ravi K. Sakhuja and Norfolk Selectman Ramesh Advani, both Indian-Americans.

He said the success of those candidates has spurred other Asian-Americans to run, noting for example two Chinese-Americans who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in Quincy this year.

"I think it demonstrates some of the hard work that has been done in other parts of the political process," Watanabe said, noting the organized effort by Asian-Americans in support of Deval Patrick in the Democratic primary race for governor in 2006.

Donald H. Wong, who serves on two Asian-American commissions on Beacon Hill, said he was proud to be a political ground-breaker. But he observed that first and foremost, "I'm a Saugonian. I'm from Saugus, and I will do whatever I can for the town of Saugus."

He said he hoped his victory would spur other Asian-Americans to run, "but I also hope that more people, not just Asian-Americans, get more active in their communities."

Wong, who spent most of his childhood in Belmont, resided two years in Taiwan after high school studying martial arts.Since moving to Saugus in 1973, he has devoted himself to the 1,200-seat restaurant his maternal grandparents began in 1950. Today, he runs it with his parents and five siblings. Wong and his wife, Jeannie, have three children and a grandchild.

His community involvement includes serving as cofounder and president of the Saugus Business Partnership, which funds various community needs, and as a board member of the Saugus Business Educational Collaborative, which supports local public schools. He also chairs the group's Adopt-A-School Committee.

In this month's election, he topped a field of nine candidates seeking five selectmen seats.

"It's very humbling and surprising. I really thank the loyal people of Saugus who have the faith in me to do the right thing," said Wong, 55, who also called it "an honor" to have been tapped as chairman by his fellow board members the night after the election.

Selectman Peter A. Rossetti Jr., who had served as chairman the previous two years, said it will take time for Wong to adjust to the high-profile role.

While Rossetti described Wong as a "hard-working, intelligent person," he called him "relatively shy, and very unassuming."

"He doesn't know how to use the pronoun, 'I.' It's always 'we,' " Rossetti said. "He is always willing to assist, and usually he prefers to do that from the background . . . But I'm very confident he's going to grow into that position."

Rossetti said he doesn't think Wong's need to recuse himself from certain votes, because of his position as restaurant owner, will hamper the board's work, noting that selectmen tend to agree on most licensing matters. He said it was good that Wong is seeking an opinion from the Ethics Commission, however, because "that way he knows the boundaries."

A priority for Wong is to get more residents, organizations, and businesses involved in helping the cash-strapped town solve its many challenges.

"We are going to have a lot of issues with housing, seniors, the schools, and public safety, and this will need the input of everyone," he said. "A solution will come from the unity and help of everyone."

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