On a blistering August day in suburban El Monte, sweating in his straw hat and slacks, San Marino orthopedic surgeon and self-made hospital mogul Dr. Matthew Lin rings another doorbell.
Juan Gomez, the middle-aged man on the other side of the screen, doesn't quite understand what Lin is saying — that he's running for Assembly District 49; that he's going to Sacramento to create “jobs, jobs, jobs”; that he very much wants Gomez's vote. Like many El Monte residents, Gomez speaks only Spanish, so Lin's heavily accented English is pretty tricky for him.
But by the end of the encounter — with some help from Lin's volunteer translator — the group is laughing and vigorously shaking hands, spouting keywords like “trabajo!” and “doctor!” and “Linsanity!” (the doctor's campaign catchphrase) until the buena onda on the doorstep is heavier than the heat. As he closes the screen door, Gomez assures the Republican candidate: “Sí, sí, vamos a votar por ti.”
Lin, 66, is running against Montebello school board member Ed Chau, a lawyer-turned-politician who normally would slip noiselessly into the Sacramento clique. Chau already has endorsements from area Congresswoman Judy Chu and her husband, current 49th District Assemblyman Mike Eng, powerful Democrats who dominate the only majority-Asian voting district in the United States.
Any other day, Chu and Eng's pick would be a shoo-in. But Lin's surprisingly successful June primary — he earned 52 percent of the vote, crushing Chau's 35 percent — is a spark of hope for the beleaguered Republican Party in California, and a huge embarrassment for Los Angeles County Democratic Party chair and political kingmaker Eric Bauman.
Bauman, obsessed with turning Los Angeles County into like-minded blue country, perhaps assumed that with Judy Chu's stamp of approval, he had AD49 in the bag. (Bauman did not respond to L.A. Weekly's request for comment.)
Chau's spokesman Pat Dennis says they aren't worried, describing primary and general elections as “apples and oranges.” In an email, he said Republican turnout in June was unusually high, arguing, “History and every major indicator suggests this Republican advantage will not translate” to the vote in November.
However, Los Angeles–area political consultants from both parties tell the Weekly that — although the Chu-Eng-labor machine will push harder than ever to ensure Chau the San Gabriel Valley seat in November — Lin has a shot at an AD49 upset that nobody saw coming.
When the primary results rolled in, “Their jaws dropped,” Lin says of his opponents. That goes for the clueless Republicans in Sacramento, too: “They started sending some volunteers,” the doctor beams. “They started paying attention to me.”
Allan Hoffenblum, a retired GOP consultant with three decades of experience in California, says that although AD49 is now a “target race” for Republicans, Lin's chances pivot on the whopping 30 percent of voters who decline to state a party affiliation. They are not registered to either party, but in California they lean heavily Democrat in individual candidate races.
“The key for Lin is that he turns it into a candidate race, not a partisan race,” Hoffenblum says.
So far, the most conservative aspect to Lin seems to be his fiscal policy. Although majority owner of the multimillion-dollar AHMC Health Foundation, he's also beloved by many of the area's Asian and Latino residents for not turning away patients, insurance notwithstanding.
“I'm for justice for the people who need to be served, but I'm also for [being] friendly to the businesses so they can provide more jobs to the people who need it,” Lin says.
He served on the San Marino City Council for eight years, often focused on balancing the budget, and refuses to discuss hot-button social issues such as gay marriage or abortion, dismissing them as politicized talking points.
Daniel Ichinose of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center is skeptical of Lin's chances, saying, “Chau has the support of a very high-profile congresswoman in the Chinese-American community … who holds quite a bit of influence in the San Gabriel Valley and has the support of labor on the table. … Lin just doesn't have the same political machine behind him.”
Still, he says, “It's certainly a difficult race to call.”
Charlie Woo, chairman of the nonpartisan Center for Asian Americans United for Self Empowerment (CAUSE), says that although Asians face a tough choice between “two quality individuals,” he sees them gravitating toward Lin.
“I think Asian voters in general judge candidates based on individual character and accomplishments,” Woo says. “Within Asian culture, they judge people on how much success they have earned.”
Lin, he adds, is the favorite with Chinese newspapers, who fawn over his philanthropic and charitable contributions in the San Gabriel Valley and abroad. “He spent months taking care of earthquake victims [in Haiti and Sichuan, China],” Woo says. “That is a highly respected contribution.”
Lin isn't exactly demure about his nearly 40 years as an orthopedic surgeon, or the praise he gets. “People tell me, 'We don't need more personal-injury lawyers in Sacramento. … We need a healer, we need a doctor,' ” he says.
Weina Xiong, a young Chinese immigrant who recently began volunteering for Lin's campaign, agrees: “Doctor is much better than lawyer.”
Xiong wants to become a nurse in California, but says the California State University system won't accept her into a nursing program until she obtains residency — so she might have to settle for a school in another state. The 29-year-old says she's campaigning for Lin because of his Reaganesque views on immigration.
“I am a Republican, but I really cherish the value of new immigrants,” Lin says, employing a comforting doctor's murmur. “They bring an energy, they bring a working force to our community that we need to respect.” Lin, who grew up in a one-room hut in Taiwan, is pushing for a guest-worker program.
Not since white middle-class conservatives ruled the San Gabriel Valley in the 1970s has a Republican candidate won the area's state or federal seat.
USC polling has shown that Asian-Americans in California, many of them the nation's newest arrivals, are the racial or ethnic group most likely to cross party lines. The secretary of state's office has not broken down June's voter turnout by race or party. But Woo believes more Asians turned out than Latinos (who didn't have a major candidate in the race).
Is Lin's rare version of Republicanism liberal enough — and loud enough — to attract significant numbers of Latino voters in November? Experts say the Latinos of AD49, who make up about 28 percent of eligible voters, are a crucial demographic.
Leo Briones, a Democratic consultant who's running an Assembly campaign for Cristina Garcia in Bell Gardens, Downey and Cerritos, expects most Latinos in AD49 to stick to their Democratic tendencies.
However, Luis Alvarez, a consultant for Joe Gardner, the GOP hopeful in next-door AD48, believes the Latino population is underestimated for its swing potential.
“Dr. Lin certainly has been a part of the Latino community in the San Gabriel Valley from his medical perspective and working in hospitals, so it has almost become a nonpartisan race,” Alvarez says. “They feel like he's talking to them instead of at them.”
But it may not even come down to that. According to USC political strategy expert Dan Schnur, Latinos across the country aren't feeling very strongly about the presidential election.
“It looks right now like the Obama campaign is having a much more difficult time mobilizing the Latino community” than before, Schnur says. On the topic of immigration in particular, he adds, “The choice for Latinos is between a president who makes promises he doesn't keep and one who doesn't make promises at all.”
Lin, who shakes his head at the “inhumanity” of the Romney-Ryan ticket, would be one of the most liberal Republicans to hit Sacramento in years if he pulls off his highly unusual turnover attempt in the long-Democratic San Gabriel Valley: a political mutt at home with himself, but maybe not at home in either of California's two increasingly partisan parties.