by JIMMY LEE
Pictured above: Young Kim (left) and Michelle Park Steel, who won their respective races. (Photo courtesy of Young Kim for State Assembly)
Early last week, at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Normandie Avenue in the heart of Los Angeles’ Koreatown, a few hundred people gathered at the trendy Line Hotel to recognize a handful of individuals who are emerging as the next leaders of the Southern California Korean American community.
Guests dined on a banquet menu consisting of chicken, salmon and roasted carrots from a menu by celebrated chef Roy Choi as they listened to a seemingly unending number of speeches from the guests of honor—a roster of notable politicians.
The more succinct remarks of the evening came from the three U.S. Congress members in attendance—Democrats Judy Chu and Mike Honda, and Republican Ed Royce—each of whom received leadership awards from the Korean American Economic Development Center, which sponsored the event along with the Bright World Foundation and Korea Times.
But the true VIPs at the 4th Korean American Political Conference & Next Generation Leadership Forum (KAPOL) were the Korean Americans who won tightly contested races this November midterm election.
At the $40-per-person ticketed dinner, attended by young professionals and older Koreans alike, these victorious pols were touted as “Rising Stars.”
There was just one problem: the politicians did not represent the districts of the majority of those in attendance.
That’s because the list of honorees included Irvine Mayor Steven Choi, Cypress School Board member Sandra Lee, Orange County Supervisor Michelle Park Steel and California Assembly member Young Kim.
In the city of Los Angeles, Korean Americans running for office over the last two decades have failed, for the most part, to win over voters. While there is no lack of passion or desire to represent a place that is often considered the heart of the community’s social, cultural and economic existence, campaign execution has been deficient.
Just look at recent history as evidence: in the 1990s, Andrew Kim, an attorney, failed multiple times to win a seat to represent Koreatown in either the city council or the state Assembly. In 2013, three candidates—John Choi, Bong Hwan Kim and Emile Mack—threw their hats into the race for the same Los Angeles Council district, dividing the Asian American voting bloc.
Although Choi eventually made it to a run-off election, he lost to Mitch O’Farrell.
But if this past midterm election is any indication, in the suburbs of Orange County, a growing number of Korean Americans is gaining traction with voters—most notably, Michelle Park Steel, who has traded one elected post (eight years on the California Board of Equalization) for a seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors, and Young Kim, who will represent the district that includes her hometown Fullerton, in the California Assembly.
Steel, a Republican who is married to California Republican National Committeeman Shawn Steel, will help govern a county of approximately 3 million people and which has an annual budget of more than $5 billion. Kim, a Republican who previously served as Director of Community Relations and Asian Affairs in Rep. Royce’s office, is now one of four Asian American freshmen in the lower house of the California legislature.
Both Steel and Kim have been involved in community work and politics for more than 25 years.
“I never liked meeting people; I was a very shy person,” Steel told KoreAm at the dinner. “[But] while you’re running, you build your own strength.”
As for her fellow victor, Steel added: “Some people think, ‘Oh my god, Young just came out of nowhere [to win].’ [But] we’ve been preparing for where we are at. I think of it like the swan — underwater moving really hard, but on the surface so peaceful. Nobody knows how much work we’ve been doing to get here.”
Young Kim at her election party in the Coyote Hills Country Club
(Photo courtesy of Marisela Gonzalez/Daily Titan)
Kim’s victory against Democratic incumbent Sharon Quirk-Silva, meanwhile, helped prevent California Democrats from obtaining, yet again, a supermajority in the state house. In a brief interview with KoreAm at the dinner, she said she sensed the pressure.
“I’m from a minority community, and I’m also a minority in the sense that I’m one of the very few women legislators,” Kim said. “I do represent the new face of [a more diverse Republican] party, something they’ve been touting for over two decades, but have not been successful with, until now.”
“That is a huge responsibility. … I do feel that I need to do everything I can to meet that expectation,” she added.
The recent twin victories by Kim and Steel may indicate that the new political center of gravity for the Korean American community is moving away from Los Angeles—and into Orange County. That is, unless the two Korean Americans running for Los Angeles City Council in 2015, Grace Yoo and David Ryu, have something to say about that.