PROVIDENCE — Since its founding, Rhode Island had never elected a state legislator who identified as Asian American. But on Tuesday, it elected not just one, but two Asian Americans to the state Senate.
Linda L. Ujifusa, a Portsmouth Democrat, won the Senate District 11 seat that Democratic Senator James A. Seveney is vacating. And Victoria Gu, a Charlestown Democrat, won the Senate District 38 seat that Senate Republican leader Dennis L. Algiere is vacating.
In the closely watched Second Congressional District race, Allan W. Fung lost his bid to become the first Asian American to represent Rhode Island in Congress. And two other Asian American candidates for the state Senate — Giang “Jenny” Bui and Robin N. Xiong — lost their races.
But Ujifusa, whose grandparents were born in Japan, and Gu, whose parents were born in China, made history.
Ujifusa’s mother was placed in a US internment camp during World War II even though she was a legal US citizen.
“If you had told my mother and her family in the internment camp that their daughter would be going to Harvard and running for office in Rhode Island and winning, I don’t think they would have believed it,” Ujifusa said. “But now that I think about it, they had tremendous faith in this country.”
Ujifusa’s father volunteered for the US Army after Pearl Harbor and served in the China Burma India Theater along with many soldiers from the Midwest. After the war, one of them asked her father to go into business with him, she recalled. So while her family witnessed dark moments in the country’s history, it also found good people and reason to hope, she said.
She said she hopes her victory will inspire not just other Asian Americans in Rhode Island but anyone with a hard-to-pronounce name. “I hope it encourages people to think that anything is possible,” she said.
Ujifusa said she doubts that her Asian American background played any role in her election. “For the vast majority of voters, they were 100 percent looking at my policies and my party affiliation,” she said. “But also they were sizing me up at the doors — they just want to see you and hear you.”
Ujifusa has been on the Portsmouth Town Council since 2016 and is past chair of the Aquidneck Land Trust board. She is a former US Environmental Protection Agency and private sector attorney who graduated from Harvard and from the New York University law school.
“I’ve known people in town for years and years,” she said. “The past told them what I would act like in the future.”
Ujifusa ended up with 54.8 percent of the vote, topping Republican Kenneth J. Mendonca at 38.4 percent, independent candidate Andrew V. Kelly at 3.6 percent, and independent candidate Mario J. Teixeira at 3.1 percent, according to the state Board of Elections.
In the Senate District 38 race, Gu received 46.1 percent of the vote, topping Republican Westin J. Place at 27.8 percent and independent candidate Caswell Cooke Jr. at 26.1 percent.
“I think it’s a moment where we are starting to see more diverse perspectives in the state legislature,” Gu said. “That will add to our ability to make good decisions and make sure everyone is included in the decision-making process.”
She noted that anti-Asian racism began to spike in 2020 amid fears about the pandemic.
“After 2020, with a lot of anti-Asian hate and everything going on, people realized there is still a lot of work left to do in terms of trying to combat all the anti-Asian sentiment,” Gu said. “The community realized it was important to have Asian voices at the table and Asian American people in leadership positions.”
The latest census data show that the number of Rhode Islanders identifying as Asian American grew by nearly 28 percent over the past decade — rising from 2.9 percent of the population to 3.6 percent.
Gu, who graduated from Harvard University, works as a software engineer and data analyst, and chairs the Climate Resiliency Commission in Charlestown.
This year, four Asian Americans ran for state Senate.
Bui, a West Greenwich Democrat, lost her challenge to Senator Gordon E. Rogers, a Foster Republican, in Senate District 21. Rogers received 64.6 percent of the vote, while Bui received 35.3 percent.
And Xiong, a Providence Democrat, lost a Democratic primary in September to Senator Samuel D. Zurier, a Providence Democrat, in Senate District 3. Zurier received 73.5 percent of the vote, while Xiong received 26.5 percent.
But Gu said the victories by her and Ujifusa are bound to encourage other Asian Americans to run for office. She said Asian American high school students volunteered to help her campaign.