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Utah's First Chinese-American Lawmaker A Longtime Community Advocate

Julia Ritchey
Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Taylorsville, chats with other newly elected legislators at a House orientation on Jan. 5. Kwan is the first Chinese-American elected to the Utah House.

Karen Kwan steps up on a small stage at a recent meeting of Utah’s Hispanic Democratic Caucus in the packed basement of La Puente restaurant in south Salt Lake.

She and several other women legislators, like Rep. Angela Romero and Sen. Luz Escamillia, are introducing themselves and going over their agendas for the next legislative session.

Kwan is the newly elected representative of House District 34, which includes parts of Taylorsville and West Valley, a growing swing district of Salt Lake County.

This election cycle brought few bright spots for Utah Democrats, but in two state house districts, District 34 and District 31, Democratic legislative candidates picked up seats previously held by Republicans.

As she tells the crowd at La Puente, her election is significant in one other key way.

Credit Julia Ritchey, KUER
Rep. Kwan speaks to a meeting of the Utah Hispanic Democratic Caucus at La Puente restaurant on Jan. 12. Kwan will introduce a non-binding resolution to recognize the Lunar New Year, a small token of appreciation to the Chinese-American community who helped elect her.

“Many of you know, I’m the very first Chinese-American to serve in the Utah Legislature," she says to loud cheers.

Kwan first moved to Taylorsville 25 years ago from southern California. She began her career as an adviser at the University of Utah before transitioning to academia. For the last 11 years, she’s taught psychology as an associate professor at Salt Lake Community College.

Kwan has long been a community advocate and organizer, but says while she was raising her two daughters, she preferred a more behind-the-scenes role.

“Through an advocacy role, I think from the very moment I came to Utah, I was interested in politics in that way," she says. "But I really became engaged in politics when Taylorsville city was not a city yet.”

Some of her first political work involved lobbying the county council to let Taylorsville incorporate. She later sat on the Governor’s Asian-American Council. Running for office, though? Kwan was reluctant.

"I questioned my abilities. I questioned whether or not I could or had the ability to be a politician. Sometimes I question that now,” she laughs.

Two years ago, encouraged by her friends and fellow Utah Democrats, she decided to run for her district’s seat against incumbent Republican Johnny Anderson.

"I lost by a few hundred votes and that actually encouraged me to run again,” says Kwan.

That narrow loss and the fact that Anderson decided not to seek re-election gave Kwan the confidence to try again. Kwan faced off against Republican Macade Jenson last November — this time winning by more than 1,000 votes.

Kwan says she learned a lot from that first campaign. The first lesson was how difficult it is to run against an incumbent and second was to reach more underrepresented groups. 

“I learned that it was very important to be data driven. …I was able to see what my district looked like rather than knock every door. In 2014, I knocked every door, and it was great to meet a lot of people, but very inefficient.”

That’s not to say talking to people was a waste of time, but Kwan could see that her swing district had a growing number of registered independents, as well as a population that was diversifying both along ethnic and economical lines. Those were the people Kwan wanted to reach.

Kwan credits her victory to hard work, the avid support of Utah’s Chinese-American community, as well as longtime friends like Democratic Rep. Angela Romero of District 26.

Romero says it will be refreshing to have some new voices in the halls of the Capitol.

“If you look at our demographics right now, when it comes to women, and when it comes to communities of color, it doesn’t reflect our populations in the state of Utah," says Romero.

Rep. Brian King, the House Minority Leader, agrees. Although the Democratic caucus remains a super minority at just 14 members, he thinks Kwan’s background — she has an education doctorate — will be a key asset.

"Rep. Kwan will help us bring to pass some priorities that are important to us. …We feel strongly about doing what’s necessary to get our children taught in the way we would like to have them taught, that we pay teachers enough money to attract high-quality teachers and then retain them.”

Kwan’s first few bill proposals are fairly modest. One will deal with licensing requirements for acupuncturists; another will address personal injury law for motorists.

But the legislation Kwan is most keen to tell her constituents about is a non-binding resolution recognizing the Chinese Lunar New Year, which falls on January 28. It’s a holiday celebrated by thousands across Utah, and hundreds of millions worldwide.

Although it won’t be an official state holiday, Kwan says the resolution is a small way for her to pay tribute to the local Chinese-American community, many of whom are descendants of 19th century immigrants who built the country’s railroads and worked in its mines.

"As a Chinese-American, I will always come to the table with a different perspective than a people who are not Chinese American. …And this is a good thing," she says. "Because we want to have people in the Legislature who represent Utah as a whole. And when we have voices that are missing, then we have decisions that are made without regard to these communities.”

At the Hispanic caucus meeting, Kwan tells the crowd she’s eager to get started and learn the ropes as a new legislator. She also wants to encourage more women to run for elected office, and hopes her victory will serve as a model. 

When some people have described her as the “only” Chinese-American in the Legislature, Kwan says she has to remind them she’s only the first.  

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