Optometrist Dr. Jennifer Ong has officially announced her 2012 run for the 18th State Assembly District, becoming the first candidate to do so.
Ong, a Democrat, announced her intention to run last Friday at the Veterans Memorial Building in San Leandro.
Though she has never held public office, Ong is politically active at the state and local levels. She currently serves as treasurer of the California Democratic Party’s Asian Pacific Islander Caucus and the county version of the caucus. She also serves on Alameda County's Commission on the Status of Women, which works to eliminate sexual discrimination.
In addition, Ong coordinates Alameda County's Hepatitis B Free campaign and serves on the board for the Citizens Advisory Committee of Eden Township Healthcare District.
Ong ran last June for the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee, but came in 10th for six available seats.
She is the first person to declare a candidacy for the 2012 18th Assembly District race, a seat currently held by Mary Hayashi, D-Hayward. Hayashi, with whom Ong has worked to coordinate vision screening clinics, will be ineligible for reelection in 2012 because of term limits.
Ong said her run "will be my opportunity to repay California for all it has given me and my family."
She and her family immigrated to California from the Philippines 30 years ago and they settled in the Broadmoor neighborhood of San Leandro.
Ong graduated from San Leandro High School in 1986 before earning her undergraduate degree in health sciences at California State University East Bay. She earned her doctorate at the UC Berkeley School of Optometry in 1995 and opened a private optometry practice in Alameda a few years later.
Ong addressed a crowd of more than 50 supporters Friday at the Veterans Memorial Building in San Leandro.
"So what if I haven't run for office before?" she told them. "I've been busy!"
Ong said the three biggest issues facing the state legislature are taxes, lowering crime and creating jobs.
She said it is possible to balance the state budget without cutting funding for police by creating sustainable jobs. "With more people working, there are less people relying on the government," she said, "which is something the other side always complains about."
She also pledged to represent the voices of women, people of color and educators, and said she would continue to prioritize environmental issues (Ong serves on the Keep Hayward Green and Clean Taskforce).
Ong also said she has experience working with lawmakers to draft legislation pertaining to health and eye care through her work with local and state optometry groups.
Friend and colleague David Redman said that when Ong was elected to the board of the California Optometric Association in 2007, "right away she was making change."
When Ong left the board in 2009, Redman said she told him, "I don't know what it is yet, but I'm going to do big things."
The 18th District leans heavily Democratic and currently contains about 30 percent of Alameda County, including the communities of San Leandro, San Lorenzo, Hayward, Ashland, Cherryland and Dublin, plus portions of Castro Valley, Pleasanton, Sunol and Oakland.
However, a statewide, voter-approved citizens' redistricting commission could alter the district's political boundaries. The first drafts of the new assembly district maps (as well as those for Congress and the state senate) are expected to be unveiled June 10, with the districts finalized in August.
Hayward Councilmember Bill Quirk said he is also planning to run for the 18th District seat but won't officially kick off his campaign until after June 10.
Quirk, a retired physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said he wants to wait until he has "a better idea of who's going to be in the district and who isn't." In the meantime, he's raising money and has assembled a campaign committee.
Another suggested candidate in the race for the 18th Assembly District is educator and Dublin Mayor Tim Sbranti.
But Sbranti said he hasn't decided one way or the other whether to run or not, because redistricting could mean Dublin isn't in the district anymore.
Sbranti said he understands why candidates are getting in the race early to start raising money, but he said for him, "It's a little bit premature."
"My own political future is not a high priority for me right now," he said. "If I'm in the 18th district, it's something I'll consider then."
Among those who turned out to support Ong last Friday was State Assemblymember Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo. Buchanan said Ong knows what it means to run a small business and take care of others and would work hard to represent her supporters if elected to the assembly.
But Buchanan said given the political climate in Alameda County, it will be a challenge for a newcomer like Ong to secure the 18th district seat.
"This is going to be a very, very difficult election," she said. "But it's not impossible" if Ong builds enough support around her.
"We have to turn this ship around," including rebuilding the middle class, increasing funding for education and providing opportunities for all Californians, Buchanan said.
"I can't think of someone who could do that better than Jennifer Ong," Buchanan said. Ong volunteered for Buchanan's reelection campaign for the 15th State Assembly District seat in 2010.
Zoe Dunning, noted for her work to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and for being the first and only openly gay person allowed to remain on active duty in the military under that legislation, also attended Ong's announcement to voice her support. Dunning and Ong graduated from Emerge California leadership training together in 2010.
San Leandro School Board Trustee Hermy Almonte helped organize the event for Ong, securing the location. He also worked with her during a to honor accomplished Filipino boxer Nonito Donaire.
Almonte said Ong is "ready and highly qualified" for the job and has the "passion to turn challenges into opportunity."
Other local leaders who turned out to support Ong included City Councilmember Pauline Cutter and former school board trustee Ken Pon, who serves with Ong on the Asian Pacific American Democratic Caucus of Alameda County.
The 2012 statewide primary election will be on Feb. 7.