SACRAMENTO -- When California Gov. George Deukmejian (R) named Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Calif.) last fall to fill the vacant state treasurer's post, few people here had heard of Donald Tamaki, Henry Der, John Ota or Hoyt Zia, and fewer predicted that Lungren would have confirmation problems.
Yet Lungren, a conservative from Long Beach, is in a pitched battle for the job, almost solely because of the efforts of Tamaki, Der, Ota, Zia and dozens of other Asian-American political activists.
In the last few months, they have revolutionized the political image of what once was California's quietest minority.
The sudden emergence of Asian-American influence in the Lungren controversy is the most obvious of several signs of growing political clout for a minority with only 7 percent of the state's population but disproportionate numbers of its college students, scientists, engineers and successful business men and women.
Tamaki, a San Francisco attorney, acknowledged that, in November, Lungren's prospective ascension to the job left vacant by the death of Jesse Unruh "was basically seen as a slam dunk."
Last week, however, Lungren lost a key state Senate committee vote, and he is thought to have no more than a 50-50 chance today of winning the required majority votes in each house of the state legislature.
Wealthy Asian Americans, distressed by Lungren's outspoken opposition to reparations for Japanese Americans interned during World War II, have lobbied against his confirmation, a rare move for persons who usually ask little more than a favorable attitude toward business among politicians they generously support with contributions.
The activists have flooded other civil rights and interest groups with detailed accounts of Lungren's voting record on defense, the environment and women's issues, giving the opposition a base much wider than the reparations issue.
"In the future, I don't think politicians are going to take the Asian-American community as lightly as Lungren did," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.), who violated an unwritten rule of congressional collegiality in publicly opposing a fellow member of the California delegation.
Lungren, interviewed Tuesday after a 10-to-9 Assembly committee vote in his favor, said the rising influence of Asian Americans is clear "to anyone who knows anything about California politics." Despite critics of his opposition to reparations, he said he has many strong supporters in the Asian-American community, particularly among Indochinese immigrants in his district.
Deukmejian's press secretary, Kevin Brett, noted that Lungren served two years on a congressional commission studying the reparations issue and has supported a public apology and a $50 million educational program to heal relocation wounds. Brett said Deukmejian feels that objections to Lungren come mostly from highly partisan Democrats and that his support elsewhere in the Asian-American community is strong.
The state legislature has no members of Asian ancestry, and only two ethnic Asians from California, Matsui and Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D), serve in Congress.
Asian-American candidates in both parties have launched early campaigns to win congressional primaries. Former Monterey Park mayor Lily Lee Chen is challenging Rep. Matthew G. Martinez (D), and real estate developer Sang R. Korman is challenging Rep. Elton Gallegly (R).
Chen, born in China, and Korman, born in Korea, speak accented English, a sign of the growing involvement of immigrants at a time when people from Korea, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China are pouring into the state. Unlike most other immigrant groups in the nation's history, many Asians arrive with college degrees and financial resources that quickly make them professional and business leaders.
Contributions from the Asian community have been important in the election victories of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. To ensure that complaints receive quick attention, he employs one liaison official for each of the major Asian communities -- Chinese, Korean, Filipino and Japanese.
Fred MacFarlane, Bradley's press secretary, said the mayor's Asian-American constituents are distinguished by "their willingness to make a lot of sacrifices and put forth a lot of effort to ensure their financial security and educate their children."
Maeley Tom, who with Georgette Imura handles Asian-American affairs for state Senate President David Roberti, recently listed several developments highlighting this new political clout:Three Democratic presidential hopefuls attended a meeting of Asian and Pacific American Democrats, and two promised appointments of Asian Americans.
Asian political groups began to collect pledges and commitments for unity on supporting one presidential candidate.
The first Asian American was appointed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The activists' ranks are diverse. Tamaki is former executive director of the Asian Law Caucus, Der is executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, Ota represents the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations and Zia is president of the Asian Pacific Bar Association.
A sign of their potential, many of the activists have said, is the problems they have caused for Lungren.
Tamaki said the effort began with about two dozen persons in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sacramento who had watched with mounting anger as Lungren attacked the reparations bill. Lungren said having Japanese Americans put a monetary value on their wartime sufferings was demeaning. "It is a regrettable commentary on society when everything has to be translated into the coin of the realm," he said.
The Supreme Court decision legalizing the relocations led a generation of Asian Americans to conclude that "to get along and survive, you keep your mouth shut and don't make waves," Tamaki said.
Born after the war, Tamaki said he saw this attitude in his family and blames it for the slow development of political activism in the Asian-American community.
According to William Wong, assistant managing editor of The Tribune in Oakland, no matter how the Lungren vote turns out, "it will be difficult for the California political community to ignore the potential and the skills of Asian-American political activists."