Asian Community ‘Mentor’ for Fairness — and Builds Clout

Sandra Otaka was widely praised for her legal and community work long before she became a Cook County judge. But “her first priority is that she’s Jeffrey’s mom, and that’s what’s so powerful about her,” says Linda Lu, president of the Asian American Bar Association of Greater Chicago. (Photo by Christopher B. Santiago)

Sandra Otaka wasn’t going to leave anything to chance. It was March 19, the day of the Illinois primary election, and she was running for Cook County judge against six other candidates. Otaka had already been serving as a judge for nearly two years, since she was appointed to fill a vacancy. But a win would put her in line to become the county’s first Asian elected judge.

Otaka was driving through neighborhoods in the north suburbs with her long-time friend and campaign chair, Ann Kalayil. The judicial district she was running in, the 9th Subcircuit, stretches from Chicago’s North Side to suburban Wilmette, and from the lake west to Glenview and Niles. Otaka and Kalayil were looking for places where Otaka could shake a few more hands before the polls closed.

At stops in Skokie and Niles, they saw yards littered with signs that had Otaka’s name emblazoned on them, and people told them they had already voted for her. By the time they stopped at a traffic light in Morton Grove, a funny feeling began to well up within them: Otaka was on her way to winning.

Their instincts proved correct. Otaka, a 50-year-old Japanese American, won the primary with 41 percent of the votes. Her closest opponent, Larry G. Axelrood, garnered 15 percent.

“We never thought we would win by such a large margin. We braced ourselves for a very tight race,” Otaka said.

She ran uncontested in the general election in November.

Otaka won with the respect and backing of the Asian community, whose leaders say the victory was a monumental step in building political clout for Asians in the metropolitan area. But to win in a majority-white district, Otaka had to earn support beyond the Asian American community.

Those who know Otaka say her victory is part of a life’s work of championing fundamental fairness. She gained a reputation for taking on causes that she believes in, regardless of their popularity–”like fighting to legalize acupuncture, tangling with politicians over the land rights of a Cambodian temple, and helping to draft the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance.

In these and other crusades, Otaka built coalitions across ethnic lines and became politically savvy.

“She was somebody working within the community, building bridges–”not only within the Asian American community but with the African American and Latino communities,” said Vida Gosrisirikul, a partner with the Chicago law firm Mondero Rim D’Souza & Gosrisirikul, and former president of the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Chicago Area. “She’s always been someone who is plugged in, and she doesn’t forget about people.”

Otaka is widely seen as a guardian of the rights of Asian Americans, a group not typically viewed as disenfranchised.

“Being of Asian descent, she represents a community that has not received its just deserts,” said Bernard L. Stone, alderman of the 50th Ward, which is on the far North Side.

But it’s tough to do in a community where groups speak different languages and practice different cultures, said Gosrisirikul, who is of Chinese and Thai descent. “In the Asian community, to gain support, you can’t just rely on your own ethnic community to make something happen–”it has to be a broad base of support.”

“She’s like the community’s mentor,” said Sandra S. Yamate, a founding member of the Asian American Bar Association and former president of the Japanese American Service Committee, a social service organization.

Many say her election succeeded in bringing the Asian community together for a common goal.

“It shows that the Asian American community can gather as a group and have a voting voice,” said Linda Lu, current president of the Asian American Bar Association. “But it’s also a message saying to other politicians and to other electoral bodies that the Asian American voice is worth going after.”

Years of serving in government agencies, bar associations and political organizations have not only helped Otaka influence public policy, but also afforded her the opportunities to meet and work with some of the state’s and city’s most influential people. And many feel that exposure helped generate Otaka’s wide support.

“Sandra Otaka has the ability, she has the background in law, she has the judicial temperament to serve, and has proven that –¦ by the service she has already performed,” Stone said.

Ross Harano, chair of the Asian-Pacific Democratic Council of Illinois and president of the World Trade Center Chicago, an international business organization, called it “building the trust through paying her dues.”

Still, as a judge, Otaka will not be able to shape public policy. The Asian community needs to build on her election by getting more leaders involved in the political system, Harano said.

“With Asian Americans, the issue becomes, –˜Are we a paper tiger?'” he said. “We need to get people involved at the ward level.”

Otaka believes people should view her election as an example of how “the Asian community can and will unite behind a candidate that they believe in. And they will support this candidate, economically, with volunteers and contacts and influence.”

Yet she sees her work as transcending race. “Many of the issues I have taken on have some standard or belief that I just feel goes beyond an ethnic group,” she said. “If you see that something is wrong, then you say, –˜I have to do something about it.'”

Cook County circuit Court Judge Sandra Otaka speaks to Chicago’s Indo-American Democratic Organization this fall. Otaka, a Japanese American, has won support across ethnic lines in the area’s Asian community.

Striking Moments

Otaka is a third generation Japanese American–”a Sansei, as they call themselves. Born in Brawley, Calif., a middle-class community tucked away in the southeastern corner of the state, Otaka was raised by her mother and grandparents, who had been held in internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II. She was the second of three children.

She didn’t know her father or relatives from her paternal side of the family. “The most I knew –¦ was that he was half Caucasian and a quarter Native American, and that my mother loved him,” but things just didn’t work out, she said.

Otaka likes to joke that she didn’t know any lawyers growing up. Her grandmother owned a flower shop, and her mother was a nurse.

After finishing high school, Otaka didn’t feel ready to go to college, so she spent nine years “exploring”–”doing things like traveling, working as a waitress and protesting the Vietnam War.

In 1980 she enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley as a psychology major. As a junior in 1983, Otaka heard about volunteer opportunities with Minami, Turmona and Lu, an Asian American law firm.

At the time, the firm was working to overturn a 40-year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision, Korematsu v. United States. In 1944, Fred Korematsu, a Japanese American shipyard worker from Oakland, Calif., was convicted of violating the federal law requiring Americans of Japanese descent to report to internment camps.

Otaka said she performed mostly clerical tasks at the firm, but was “privileged” to be at the federal courthouse in San Francisco when the Korematsu case was overturned.

“There was the silence after that–”you could hear a pin drop in that room. And I mean I was on the verge of tears. I was choked up,” Otaka said. “It was one of those moments where justice was done, and it wasn’t just done for an individual case–”it had so much meaning and value to our community.”

“Here was a federal district court judge in her own way making right a wrong,” she added. “It was just one of those moments that was striking to me. … It was like [an example of] what law can do, to help a community, to help people who are disenfranchised.”

Otaka had planned to get a Ph.D. in psychology after she graduated from Berkeley. But she was getting a divorce during that time and began having second thoughts about a long-term commitment to graduate school.

“So then I sort of thought, –˜Let’s try this lawyer thing,'” she said. She attended law school at the University of California, Los Angeles from 1984 to 1987.

During her last year, the university announced plans to scale back its affirmative action program. As a member of the Asian Pacific Islander Law Students Association, Otaka joined a coalition fighting the proposed cutbacks.

Otaka was concerned that some low-income Asian students would be hurt. “We knew that there were all these other groups, such as Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Laotian, [and] Southeast Asian, and people with poverty rates then in excess of 30 to 45 percent,” she said.

In May, she and other members of the association led a demonstration in which they ended up taking over the records office of the university administration building.

But campus police broke up the demonstration, and the university went ahead with the cuts.

“We fought it tooth and nail and we lost,” Otaka recalled. Still, she said, because of the demonstration, the university had been put on notice that Asians weren’t afraid to act.

Rare Quality

When the phone rang Dec. 7, 1989, Otaka–”then a cub attorney at Sidley & Austin in Chicago–”was thrown into the kind of fray she would not have expected to encounter a generation after World War II.

Earlier that day, in observance of Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, veteran Cook County Circuit Court Judge Gerald S. Murphy gave a short courtroom address. According to press reports, Murphy said the “treacherous, no-good Japanese” had killed many of his former Navy shipmates in the attack.

The courtroom incident quickly drew the ire of the Asian community and the interest of the media. Reporters were quick to seek out Otaka. As co-chair of the judiciary committee of the Asian American Bar Association, Otaka had been spearheading an aggressive push to get the state of Illinois its first Asian judge.

A couple days later, Otaka gave Murphy a call.

“I tried to give him an opportunity,” she recalled. “I said, –˜I understand that you may not have intended to indict a whole race. But we would appreciate an apology for the unintended effects of your remarks.'”

But Murphy didn’t bend, Otaka recalled. “He refused, and that was basically it.”

Otaka handled the situation with grace and fairness, said Frederic Artwick, a litigation partner at Sidley Austin Brown & Wood, as the firm is now known. Her handling of the matter “showed me a lot about who she was,” he said.

“We didn’t pound the table,” Otaka said. “You have to determine if something is true. And then –¦ you have to treat the person with respect and courtesy and then give them an opportunity to cure, to apologize, to explain maybe a context you wouldn’t have understood. That was how I handled it.”

Asian leaders made sure Murphy’s behavior was discussed at community meetings, Yamate said. They emphasized that he was up for retention the next year.

Murphy failed to win the 60 percent of the vote he needed to stay on the bench. He died in 2000.

Through 1992, Otaka remained entrenched in the bar association’s campaign to put Asians on the bench. Illinois had the country’s fifth-largest Asian population, but no Asian judges.

At the time, “I didn’t even know how people became judges,” Otaka said. “I said, –˜This is wrong–”we’re going to change this.’ I started knocking on doors. I set up meetings with every [state] Supreme Court justice from Cook County.”

She wrote letters to newspapers and talked to elected officials, she said. Some people were surprised, and others weren’t sympathetic. Even when people were receptive, “It didn’t always lead people to action,” she said. “There were ups and downs.”

The message got through. In 1991, Lynne Kawamoto, an assistant Cook County state’s attorney, was named an associate judge in Cook County. Many in the Asian community credited Otaka. “She was very instrumental,” said Lu.

Otaka moved to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1990 and spent the next 10 years as a litigator there. She stayed involved in other community and political issues.

In 1992, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Miller appointed her to the Solovy II Commission, an advisory panel that studied the state’s judicial system and recommended reforms. She was the commission’s only Asian American.

Otaka suddenly had an opportunity not only to help influence public policy, but also to meet with some of the most powerful legal figures in Illinois.

“I was only a pup,” she said. “I’d been practicing for four years.”

Community Mentor

In the fall of 1993, Otaka adopted a child. Earlier that spring, her older brother, who had health problems, had asked Otaka if she would take in his newborn son, Jeffrey. Otaka’s brother died of cancer six years later.

“I can honestly say that Jeffrey is the best thing that has happened in my life,” she said.

In 1996, Asian acupuncturists asked for Otaka’s help. They wanted to ask then-Gov. Jim Edgar to support a bill classifying acupuncture–”used in eastern Asia to cure illness and fight pain–”as a legitimate medical treatment. Acupuncture, Otaka said, was simply “important to many Asians in the community.”

Mei Ling Qian, who practices acupuncture in the Bridgeport neighborhood, said she and other acupuncturists sought Otaka’s assistance because she had a reputation for helping others in the Asian community. “She helped a lot. –¦ She stood up and talked [for us],” Qian said.

Otaka called and e-mailed Asian officials in Edgar’s administration, asking for help in getting the governor’s support, said Christine Takada, who had just left her post as special assistant to the governor for Asian American affairs.

Otaka and others talked with the Edgar administration to stress the importance of the bill to the Asian community. Edgar signed the bill, and it became a law in 1997.

Around that time, Otaka also stepped in to help Rena Van Tine get appointed to the circuit court–”making her the first Indian American judge in Illinois.

Van Tine, who was born in Bangalore, India, had served as an assistant Cook County state’s attorney since 1987.

“When I decided I wanted to become a judge, everyone told me, –˜Talk to Sandra,'” Van Tine said.

Getting Sandra’s backing all began in Otaka’s living room, Van Tine recalled. “Sandra said to me, –˜I don’t really know you that well. What have you done for the [Asian] community?'”

Van Tine said Otaka drew her more into the community by inviting her to professional and political functions. Otaka placed phone calls to Cook County judges and talked up Van Tine’s accomplishments, legal experience and other qualifications.

It took years, but Van Tine finally made a list of finalists that Cook County judges use to make judicial appointments. In June 2001, she was tapped to be an associate judge.

Otaka’s “drive has always been to make sure the community’s perspective is heard,” Van Tine said.

Meanwhile, in 1999, Otaka decided she wanted to be an associate judge and submitted her name to the Cook County Circuit Court. She was not selected. The next year, though, she submitted her name to the Supreme Court of Illinois to be considered as a replacement for a departing Cook County Circuit Court judge. She was appointed in July 2000.

After a few months in traffic court, Otaka moved to the Child Protection Division in juvenile court. Colleagues have been impressed with her work.

“To have a judge who’s willing to look beyond the four corners of a case to try to understand how the decisions can impact our ability to further help families–”it’s pretty impressive to me,” said Patricia Martin Bishop, presiding judge of the Child Protection Division.

But Assistant Public Defender Kent Dean, who practiced in Otaka’s courtroom from December 2000 to October 2001, said Otaka sometimes took too long to make decisions on cases.

“She works in a system that promotes conservatism among its judges because the consequences are so dire,” he said. Still, “at some point, any judge needs to say, –˜I’ve done all I can do with this case. –¦ Let’s wrap this up.’ Things just move really, really slow in that courtroom.”

Otaka counters that she has to be “careful and considerate” in court. “This is not knee-jerk, quick reaction stuff. This is stuff where you need to review all the evidence carefully, not just for the child’s sake but for the whole family’s sake.”

Since taking her judicial seat, Otaka has had to curb her activism. Judges are forbidden from lobbying or fundraising for political causes.

Kompha Seth, executive director of the Cambodian Association of Illinois, said part of him wishes Otaka were still in a position to directly fight battles for the community. “I wish she had more power, but I recognize she will be limited as a judge,” he said.

Four years ago, Seth sought Otaka’s advice when a Cambodian Buddhist temple in Uptown got tangled up in a property tax snafu. Due to the 16-year-old error, a Chicago developer reclaimed and sold a parcel of temple property, including a small garden used for prayer and meditation by temple monks.

“Her compassion, her patience and her willingness to work with us gave some hope to the Cambodian community,” Seth said.

But Otaka’s involvement had to cease when she became a judge.

It was tough to step aside, she said. “But I always felt that the larger good of our community would be better served by me becoming a judge.”

The temple kept up the fight. In 2002, the land was donated back.

Party Support

Since the 1980s Asians in the metropolitan area have battled for access to public office at every level of government.

So far, many Asian Americans have been appointed to government commissions, advisory councils and community liaison positions. But that’s not enough, said William Yoshino, Midwest director of the Japanese American Citizens League, a civil rights organization.

“What we lack at this point are individuals who are actual representatives –¦ elected into positions,” Yoshino said. “And that becomes very important, because if you always have to rely upon the goodwill of others rather than having individuals who intuitively know what the concerns of the community are, then it’s very difficult, and you’re sort of playing it by chance.”

Otaka had to build support from outside the Asian community to win one of the two open judicial seats in the 9th Subcircuit. The district is about 13 percent Asian and 59 percent white, according to 2000 census data.

From July 2001 to June 2002, Otaka raised $82,631 for her campaign. Axelrood, Otaka’s closest opponent, raised $54,508.

But Kalayil, her campaign manager, said Otaka didn’t raise as many funds as they’d hoped. “Not having the Cadillac version of a campaign budget, but more of a Geo Metro-type budget, Otaka chose to work through the Democratic Party,” Kalayil said.

“It’s always very helpful to have the support of the party, because you get all the people that come with it: the volunteers, the advice and everything else,” said David Fagus, Democratic committeemen for the North Side’s 49th Ward. “Traditionally, if you have the support of the committeemen, it gives you a very strong leg up on other people.”

Stone, the 50th Ward alderman, said he supported Otaka despite not being familiar with her community activism. “She impressed me immediately,” he said. “The very fact that she came in [my office] with all these representatives from the Asian community who I happen to be very familiar with would indicate her activism and support.”

Stone said Otaka was well qualified. And it was important to him that Otaka was Asian American. “I had been concerned that there was no Asian representation on the court,” said Stone, 75, who will seek his ninth term as alderman next February. “I’m no dummy. Asians in my community have supported me for years, and so why wouldn’t I do the same for them?”

Democratic committeemen in the subcircuit endorsed Otaka in October 2001. She also received full support from both Stone and 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore, who is also up for re-election in February.

“Sandra’s election was won back in October [2001],” said Harano.

On Nov. 5, the day of the general election, Otaka had a “very low-key evening,” she said. Her victory certain, she played with Jeffrey and watched some early election returns on television. After she put Jeffrey to bed, she went downtown to stop by the victory party for state Sen. Lisa Madigan, who had just been elected Illinois Attorney General. Otaka left by midnight and returned home, checked in on Jeffrey and gave him a good night kiss.

“Congratulations, mom,” he said.

Dominick Basta and Steve Sierra helped reserach this article.

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