Ong Mixes The American Dream With A Healthy Dose Of Pragmatism


May 8, 2012 | Dr. Jennifer Ong is too nice to be a politician, yet that seems less an indictment of her and more about the loathsome occupation of an elected public official. Ong is petite and, dare say, breakable, with fine features and soulful eyes. The better to peer into her patient’s pupils during eye exams. “Better one? Better two?” she might ask with a soft voice that sounds vaguely like Sarah Palin. However, Ong is not from Alaska, but originally born in the Philippines and she is not a conservative, but a Democrat running this June for the California State Assembly in Hayward’s 20th District.

With one of the largest populations of Asian Americans in any assembly race in the state, her chances of finishing in the top two this June are formidable, strategist says. It also doesn’t hurt to be a full-fledged Tagalog-speaking Filipina with a Chinese surname, either. If elected she would make history as the first Filipino American member of the California Legislature. More so, Ong represents one of the most politically pragmatic candidates running for any office in the East Bay. It’s a trait that emanates from an immigrant story that may well resonate with voters in the district and likely give voters a reliable insight into how she might one day represent an area ridiculously downtrodden by the antics of termed out Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi.

“I was a little geek,” Ong said last April at a coffee shop near her optometry practice in Alameda, which she purchased 12 years ago at age 30. She immigrated to the United States in 1981 at age 11. While her immersion in American culture was much smoother than that of her two older siblings, she arrived with certain preconceived ideas about life in the States. “I had heard that school was easy,” she said, which was a common rumor among Filipino youth back then. “but the children are not very well-behaved in school and have no respect for the teachers.” Ong’s fear may have also came from attending a Catholic school where “if the nun had to tells us twice, we would be crying.”

Once in the U.S., she attended Bancroft Middle School in San Leandro and, indeed, immediately skipped two grades, but with girls sporting big hair and the clownish makeup threatening each other in the hallways, her fear became reality. “It fulfilled everything I was told, that school would be easier and the children would be misbehaving.” Her troubles were compounded because she was painfully shy. “They wanted to have me checked out,” she said. “The good thing about being an introvert is you take time to listen and observe and when the time comes, then you share it because, at that point, you really have a lot to say.”

“Even when I asked my own uncle for water, I would start to cry and he was even my favorite uncle!” She didn’t speak up until after attending optometry school in 1995. “My whole family is still shocked to this day that I’m running for Assembly because they were used to this really shy person.” She also understands staying out of the limelight is a function of being new to this culture. “Immigrants tend to not want to make a fuss,” she says.

When I hear people say they’re running for office because these people can’t run the country. I say, really? And who put them there? We’re part of the problem for who put them there?

A great deal of Ong’s stump speech involves her immigrant tale and delves often into her mother selling hot dogs at the Oakland Coliseum and her dad working the produce aisle at Lucky. Even though, both of her parents were college educated in the Philippines and worked as accountants for the government, she say both were worked hard at their new jobs in America, but because of their union jobs, they were able to provide for their children’s health and welfare. As labor unions lose power, it’s something she says needs to regain strength. “I can be the example, that, no, you need to create good jobs with benefits,” says Ong, “otherwise we are not going to be self-sufficient.” If not, the phenomenon is sort of like a circular firing squad that eventually renders everyone wounded. That’s not to say, she isn’t advocating taking responsibility for your actions, either. You will be hard-pressed to hear Ong complain about the state of politics and the current crop of leaders. Instead, she says, doing so actually alienates the previous will of the voters. “When I hear people say they’re running for office because these people can’t run the country. I say, really? And who put them there? We’re part of the problem for who put them there.” The point is well made in a district that has been the epicenter of politicians behaving badly with Hayashi’s shoplifting and former Alameda County supervisor Nadia Lockyer’s drug and alcohol addition. Both were elected officials who once garnered vast majorities of the electorate’s support just two years ago.

Old hands in Sacramento equate the capitol as being something akin to the worst aspects of high school. “Are you sure you want to come here,” Ong recounts a legislative aid once asking her. In a similar vein, just how a legislator will fit in with colleagues in Sacramento may be the most telling aspect of how well a future assembly member may succeed. Ong

Ong’s trio of go-to issues which include job creation, crime prevention and education will not be achieved by one lonesome assembly member, she concedes. “Right now we’re failing on all three, or, at least, we’re not as good as we once were. Some say they’re going to do all of this, but that’s not me. I’ve never done anything without anyone else. I’ve always been part of the team.” Yet, everything seems to double back to Ong’s early childhood experiences has heavily instructive to her conscience as a candidate. “The immigrant experience always gives you a unique experience. You can always say you’ve seen it worse.” Sometimes that experience comes in the form of racism, which too often sullies immigrant’s early years. In Ong’s case, it reveals a pragmatic approach to coping. “I don’t feel like I’ve been a victim of racism, but I’m sure I have,” she says. “I’ve been called a chink before, but it doesn’t bother me, because I’m thinking, I’m not Chinese, I’m Filipino.”

While traveling to Costa Rica on a mission to protect endangered sea turtles, she recalls, one particularly cranky older gentleman who complimented her for her ability to prepare a well-made bed. “Did you use to do that professionally or something?” he asked. “I thought, ‘oh my god, thank you.’ Like I’m that good that you would think I used to be a housekeeper. That’s how my brain works. I didn’t think anything of it. Either you gave me a compliment and don’t know it or you called me something that is so different than what I am, that I didn’t pay any attention to it.” Instead, she focused not on her own ego, but on what a negative reaction to the man’s comment reflected upon herself. “I tell people who asked me about the racism they have gone through and my first comment to them is, why did you understand it the wrong way? Why do you think so poorly of housekeepers that you’re immediate reaction is, they’re looking down on me by saying that to me?” Part of it is insecurity, she believes. “Ok, call me a chink. Ok, well I’m actually part Chinese, but, I’m also Filipino, so you got that wrong. You don’t know your geography.”

“That’s why we need to continue empowering all these people who can say I’m one of you now, but I used to be one of them back then, like my parents. And don’t forget, you probably had the same history. You’re just forgetting where you came from.”

Invariably, what Ong is really talking about is the American Dream. That uniquely American ideal means many things to many different people, but in her case, it means working hard, gaining respect and become part of the team. “It means getting your ass kicked,” I added.

“Yeah, that’s part of the American Dream,” she said. “You get your ass kicked and then you work your way up. C’mon! What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. In this country it works. In another country, yeah, it’ll probably kill you.”

Categories: AD 20, Assembly, chinese, Jennifer Ong, Mary Hayashi, profile

13 replies

  1. She needs to pay her dues at the local level first, then move to somewhere else. She said there are many assembly members who went straight up. No wonder they don't know what is going on with the local communities. And that is why there is a patch work of laws in the assembly.We need to consider the qualification,not the last name or ethnicity etc. Oh well people are …


  2. I'm sold. She's better than 99% of politicians because she's genuine


  3. I am not sure what she stands for but I am going to vote for her because I am Filipino and she looks good.


  4. Dr. Ong has helped draft, garner support, and pass legislation more than some, if not all other candidates in this race. She definitely knows her local community because she's in the community and has been consistently for decades.

    I met with Dr. Ong a few days after my brother was mugged at gunpoint in our driveway in front of our house by Chabot College. She listened to my story and asked if there's anything she can do. I mentioned that the streets are only lit on one side going into our neighborhood and the current lights are dim and must be old. Students are being followed and targeted for their valuables walking home or to their cars from the school along the dark streets.

    Less than a week later, the lamps in our neighborhood were replaced. It didn't take for her to be an elected official to get things done. This was years ago, when she wasn't even campaigning. That's just how she operates…


  5. Wow! I am definitely voting for Jennifer Ong!


  6. I really think out of the 5 people running she is the least qualified. I have watched her in the past 4 forums and she is very inexperienced and comes across just very ignorant on budget and political issues. She will be a complete embarrassment to our Asian community. In reading the comments here. One person will vote for her while NOT knowing anything of her and just because she is filipino and looks good…wow give me a break. We need to stop sending unqualified people to Sacramento. She will NOT get my vote.


  7. WOW, how has her lackluster campaign earned her this many column inches? She participated in the optometrists' annual lobby day — that doesn't count for twenty year's legislative experience. The only mail we've gotten “from” her was from the insurance companies and doctors' PACs who want to protect the malpractice cap. They will get mean on Quirk soon enough and let sweet Jennifer keep her hands and image – as well as her record of accomplishment clear.


  8. I tought Big Shot Nick was going to run? What's the matter Big Mouth?


  9. How disgusting.. I just got a pot holder from Jennifer Ong. Ong must be desperate and trying to bribe her way in. Jennifer Ong is so out of her league that she can only get a vote by giving away pot holders…how pathetic. Has anyone told her she does not have what it takes for the race. Ong is too amateurish and awkward …hmm maybe too incompetent..she reminds me of Hayashi.


  10. I am going to vote for Dr. Ong because she gave sent me a pot holder.


  11. Just because I am Asian now get more literature from Jennifer Ong. Hey now I have gotten 4 mail fliers from Jennifer Ong in the past week alone. She must not be doing so good in her own polls. Someone so unqualified like Jennifer, the only way they will get elected is by giving pots and potholders in exchange for votes. How embarrassing that we have so unqualified people trying to go to Sacramento. Please no more Hayashi clones. Just because I am a democrat business owner and Asian I refuse to vote for someone so ignorant on budget and economy. Jennifer please stop insulting us in the Asian community and pull out of the Assembly race. I am throwing the potholder and the pot in the garbage. I refuse to sell my vote for your cheap gifts.


  12. All that money cannot improve the misgivings of what the bloggers mentioned “unqualified jenifer ong”. I had the misfortune to hear her speak too and all she talks about is hotdogs and her parents. Jennifer Ong's assembly campaign must have no substance if she resorts to vote bribes.

    Hey Steven Tavares?? Where is the community besides this blog challenging her shower of gifts to the community for votes??


  13. Funny. Hotdogs, hotdogs, get your hotdogs from Jennifer Ong. Oh and your potholders, and ovenmitts.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: