Looking Ahead

Sandy Kim, the executive director of the Korean American League for Civic Action, in the organization's offices.

Sandy Kim, the executive director of the Korean American League for Civic Action, in the organization's offices.

BY JONATHAN SHIA

It’s nearing 11:00 PM on Election Night in New York City, 2009. Kevin Kim, a Democrat running to represent Bayside and Whitestone in northeast Queens in the City Council, is conceding defeat, surrounded by volunteers, supporters, and his boss, Congressman Gary Ackerman. The election has been too close to call since the polls closed, with Kim trading the lead—one that dwindles to tens of votes at times—with his Republican opponent Dan Halloran. There is a palpable feeling of defeat in the room. Kim’s loss is the fourth in a row for Korean-American candidates for City Council, and that’s just this year.

But by the bright light of morning, some Korean-American activists began taking a longer view. The increased visibility of Korean-Americans in the local political arena helped establish a foundation for successful runs in the future, said Sandy Kim, the executive director of the Korean American League for Civic Action, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that works to promote Korean-American participation in public service. Kim pointed to the coverage of the four candidates’ races in the Korean media as only the most obvious benefit of this year’s election cycle.

As the only full-time employee of KALCA, Kim faces a constant battle for visibility. Until younger Korean Americans begin to see people who share their same cultural background achieve success in the worlds of public service and politics, she said, they are often hampered by a hesitancy to enter those fields. By that measure, 2009 was a banner year of sorts. Despite their losses, many in the Korean-American community now believe that the exposure of younger Korean-Americans to the possibility of politics was an achievement on its own. Their elders hope the message is clear: While success is not yet theirs, they are moving towards it.

“Can a Korean American be a viable candidate citywide or somewhere Koreans aren’t predominant?” Kim asks. It’s a question on the minds of the city’s Korean-American political establishment this year. A month after the Chinese-American politician John Liu won the race for City Comptroller with a landslide margin and became the first Asian-American elected citywide, there is both hope and worry in Sandy Kim’s thoughts. Liu’s success was reassuring and inspiring, she said, but the defeat of all four Korean-American candidates who ran for City Council was both disappointing and unexpected.

Sandy Kim pointed to a pattern of political representation coming approximately 30 years after a critical mass of immigrants from one ethnic group enters the United States. The Irish did it, she said. So did the Italians and the Jews. By that standard, 2009, with its appropriate distance from the surge of Korean immigration in the late ’70s and early ’80s, looked promising. According to the 2000 Census, there are 88,162 Korean Americans living in New York City, or about 1 percent of the total population in the five boroughs. Four Korean-American candidates, each of whom immigrated to the United States at a young age, ran for City Council this year, more than ever before. By many accounts, either John Choe or SJ Jung had the best chances, running to succeed Councilman Liu in Queens’ District 20, a heavily Asian-American area that contains Flushing—and yet neither made it past the Democratic primary. Democrat PJ Kim, who ran to represent District 1 in Manhattan, covering a swath of downtown that includes Chinatown, Tribeca and the Financial District, lost in his primary to Margaret Chin, a Chinese immigrant who became the first Asian-American woman elected to the City Council. Kevin Kim lost by about 5 percent of the vote.

The Korean American League for Civic Action was founded less than a decade ago by Jun Choi, the mayor of Edison, New Jersey, since 2005, when he became the first Korean-American mayor in the continental United States. Although the group’s focus is technically on public service, the interests of the founding members skewed the group’s orientation towards politics. The organization last year reported annual expenses of less than $150,000. The AP eleven board members and 16 members of the advisory committee assist on a voluntary basis, providing advice and networking to the group’s roughly 1,400 members.

Sandy Kim has been the executive director since last November, and her personal centerpiece is an improvement in the organization’s educational message. For her, the league’s most important cause is exposing the younger generation of Korean Americans to the many opportunities that are open to them in the fields of service and advocacy. To that end, she created a series of career panels—six so far—bringing speakers in the fields of, for example, microfinance and media and communications, together with young adults to encourage networking and an awareness of their options. Kevin Kim, the former City Council candidate who is also a member of the league’s advisory board, supports her approach: “A lot of talented young people out there don’t know what all the options are, and until they meet people who live one of their prospective options, it’s hard for them to imagine what that sort of future really entails.”

PJ Kim’s run this year serves as the clearest example of the success of the organization’s program encouraging younger Korean Americans to pursue careers in public service. As a junior at Princeton in 2000, his success as class president gained the attention of Choi, who asked him to join the organization’s board of directors. Since then, PJ Kim attended Harvard Business School and worked as a community organizer before deciding to make his first run at political office this year. He said the networks he built through the Korean American League were crucial to managing his campaign. “During the campaign period, board members both past and present were very supportive,” he said, referring to donations of time and money as well as much-needed wisdom for the freshman candidate. “Jun came up a couple of times and offered a lot of advice.” PJ Kim said that he sees Choi as both a mentor and a friend, after having gotten to know him better while working on his campaign in 2005. Seeing Choi’s success in New Jersey, PJ Kim felt encouraged to run. “It was very cool to know that that was possible,” he said.

After PJ Kim’s loss in the primary, PJ Kim joined Kevin Kim’s campaign in Bayside, really “throwing himself into it,” in the words of the latter. The two have been friends for years, working together closely with the league, and, according to both men, they had an agreement that should either of them lose before the general race, he would work for the other campaign. PJ Kim said that the two men, both first-time candidates, shared important information and strategies in their runs. Though both were disappointed by their losses, Kevin Kim said the experience gained this year will help them in the future, and the larger payoff may be in what they can pass on to the next generation.

Amid all the attention being paid to the political campaigns this year, the league continues to focus on educating young Korean Americans about public service, including politics. The group’s college internship program is one of the most important facets of that drive. It includes job training, career panels and a mentorship program to mold promising youths into leaders. This past summer, the four interns chose their jobs based on their interests: Two worked on Liu’s campaign for comptroller, a third volunteered at the City Bar Justice Center and the fourth at Channel 13.

Harold Kang, currently a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, was one of the interns who worked on the Liu campaign. He said that the most important message he discovered through the experience was the flexibility he had in his future. “I always thought a career was a one-time thing,” he said. “You choose a job, you stick with it, you work hard, you make money and then you go to the next step. But what I learned was that you really have so many options and you can choose between these different choices.” A participant in student politics, Kang also said that the lessons—both the technicalities of running an election and the larger messages about the value of public service and giving back to the community—have made him consider a run for political office. “He’s really a role model in a sense,” he said, referring to the comptroller-elect. “Just as I want to give back to my community, I’m watching him give back to his.”

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