John Choi addresses supporters after the primary for the L.A. City Council District 13 seat.
The Race Within the Race
A Korean American has never been elected to Los Angeles’ city council. After a primary that saw the community split over two KA candidates, John Choi has advanced to the runoff. But will the community now unite behind him?
story by JIMMY LEE and EUGENE YI | photographs by JIMMY LEE
A pathetically low 20 percent of registered voters in the City of Los Angeles made it to their localpolling place in last March’s primary election for the next mayor of the second largest municipality in the country. While interest citywide was abysmal, the race for the empty seat on the Los Angeles City Council representing the 13th District, which includes Hollywood, the hipster trifecta of Silver Lake/Los Feliz/Echo Park, and the northeastern sliver of Koreatown, was being closely watched by Korean Americans.
Among the 12 vying for the seat were two Korean Americans. The hopeful whispers among Korean Americans became nearly audible: Could one of us finally ascend to elected office in L.A., the spiritual capital of Korean America?
We’re halfway to finding out, now that one of the two, John Choi, has made it past the primary and will face Mitch O’Farrell in the runoff election later this year.
This local race, for many in the Korean American community, marked a major milestone in its political coming of age. Finally, in 2013, there was a local election with no false pretenders—no one like Andrew Kim, a lawyer who seemingly ran for every political office during the 1990s and early aughts, including City Council. With minimal to nonexistent campaigning, Kim’s efforts were largely seen as a joke—the races were mere opportunities for him to plaster his name all over Koreatown with posters.
Rather, for the contest for District 13, it looked like there were going to be three legitimate KA contenders, each with extensive — albeit varied — experience in Los Angeles city governance. BongHwan Kim was the head of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa after years of leadership positions at various nonprofits. Emile Mack, a deputy fire chief, ran on his compelling backstory as the Korean adoptee of African American parents, and as a firefighter during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. And Choi, whose resume includes stints with the mayor, a councilman and the city’s Public Works Commission, was a relatively unknown but well-connected, young lawyer who had amassed the biggest war chest of any candidate in the race.
By the end of 2012, Kim had exited the race and taken a job in San Diego, leaving Choi and Mack to split the votes of Korean Americans. Coincidentally, both held their respective campaign kickoffs on the same Saturday in January, allowing a few reporters to do an easy compare and contrast.
Mack held his kickoff in a dilapidated second-floor office of a building on an anonymous stretch of boulevard between downtown and Pico Union, an area just barely feeling the effects of the gentrification of surrounding neighborhoods. It was difficult to find the door. About a dozen people showed up to a small office. About half were a diverse set of clean-cut college students, and the other half were heavily tattooed young Latino men. After a rally-the-troops speech by an elderly Korean American lawyer, the group set out to canvass.
Choi’s event took place in the street-level cornerstorefront at an intersection in East Hollywood, close to trendy cafes and bars. Hundreds showed up, including community leaders, union members wearing purple SEIU (Service Employees International Union) T-shirts, and a healthy sampling of politically active Korean Americans, many of them familiar from last year’s fight over the redistricting of the council’s boundaries.
Both candidates, along with Filipino American Alex de Ocampo, had been invited to a Korean American Democratic Committee (KADC) event to field questions from the organization’s board. Some board members who declined to be identified said they were unimpressed with Mack’s answers, while Choi and de Ocampo provided more polished responses (though both Choi and Mack apparently whiffed at a softball question regarding favorite restaurant in the district, while de Ocampo did fine. Not surprising, since Ocampo grew up in the district, while Choi and Mack both moved there to run.)
A few weeks afterward, the board of KADC, one of the primary organizations involved in the redistricting battle, endorsed Choi over Mack.
“We thought he had the most relevant experience, instead of just in one department, and we also felt his future was brighter in allowing or helping the Korean American community, not just with allocating resources but also with allocating and identifying other KAs to get elected to office,” said Matthew Yang, executive director of KADC.
The endorsement by the organization, made up of mostly 1.5- and second-generation Korean Americans, reflected an overall trend among the community’s voters.
“Younger Korean Americans are supporting John [Choi], but then, when it comes to the first-generation Koreans, I heard quite a few people are supporting Emile [Mack],” said Yonah Hong, a local community activist. “I hate that our community is split.”
John Choi talks to a resident about his candidacy.
Mack said this reflected some of the fissures in the community that had emerged during last year’s highly contentious—and headline-making—redistricting debate. At the redistricting commission’s first few public hearings, a relatively united Korean American community appeared, calling for Koreatown to be drawn into a single council district to maximize its political clout. But after early draft maps showed the neighborhood still divided, some disappointed second-generation advocates started publicly airing some dirty laundry regarding Koreatown’s cozy relationship with City Council President Herb Wesson, who represents most of the neighborhood, and counts on Korean Americans for a third of his political contributions. Unproven allegations included stories of small business owners being strong-armed into donating to Wesson.
An old rift emerged in the community, as many prominent Korean Americans with business interests in Koreatown—primarily first-generation immigrants—had long-established relationships with Wesson. Mack said when he first decided to run for office, he had sought the help of two Koreatown figures: Grace Yoo, the outspoken executive director of the Korean American Coalition, and Chang Lee, the former head of the Koreatown Chamber of Commerce with the perfect salt-and-pepper high-and-tight coiffeur, as well as with the rumors of a close relationship with Wesson. Yoo went on to become one of the leaders in the redistricting fight, while Lee worked in the background to smooth over relations with Wesson and publicly decried the activists’ efforts.
Mack ended up siding with Lee. And the former candidate thinks that cost him the support of many second-generation Korean Americans.
DURING THE FINAL weekend before the March 5 vote, Mack and Choi did what candidates do when running for local office: canvass the neighborhood, pleading for votes.
And on March 2, Mack was joined by his wife Jenny and their 3-year-old Miya while walking door-to-door in East Hollywood. Mack has a disarmingly personable demeanor, and the sight of father and daughter canvassing together could win over any voter’s hearts. But with Mack getting little attention from the mainstream press, Mack’s hopes were faint, especially with a crowded field of 12 candidates.
Meeting people and getting “to see people’s beliefs and hopes” made the whole campaign experience worthwhile, said Mack after the election.
Being in the conversation was not an issue with John Choi, who had raised the most money of the 12. Multiple articles in the Los Angeles Times and the L.A. Weekly had emphasized — and criticized — Choi’s support from labor unions, which helped to finance his campaign. The implication was that he would be in labor’s back pocket if elected, and these stories were clearly a source of irritation while he canvassed the neighborhood of Atwater Village on March 3.
Then, as if on cue, the next house was answered by a man who told Choi that he won’t get his vote because of the labor support. To other Atwater residents, he spoke passionately on how his relationships with the unions would be helpful when it came time to mediate the city’s budget problems.
“I can’t just be pro-labor, or else I know [the other councilmembers] won’t take me seriously,” said Choi.
Emile Mack canvassed neighborhoods with wife Jenny and daughter Miya in tow.
It’s understandable where Choi’s sympathies lie, since he worked for one of the biggest unions in the region, the County Federation of Labor, as its economic development director for two years. For him, union backing meant having the support of the firefighter, construction workers and the health caregivers who make up these groups, and Choi was proud to have it. They would help him nab second place, with 4,008 votes, and a spot in the runoff.
For his election night victory speech, Choi relayed the story of a female union member who worked at a downtown hotel.
“She told me, ‘I bought a house because I had a good job; I had a union that fought for me. I had hope and a dream and hard work,’” said Choi. “That’s the story of why I’m running for city council. That’s the kind of opportunity I want to create for everyone in the 13th District and the entire city of Los Angeles. That’s the story of my family.”
Emile Mack finished 10th, with 845 votes. A few days later he was back at his job with the L.A. Fire Department. And he had no regrets. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Mack, who has no plans to run for office again.
Mack will endorse Choi. “His political background will benefit us” living in the 13th, Mack said of his former opponent. But more importantly, Mack wants the primary competition to be a precursor to other Korean Americans getting elected. “One of the reasons why I decided to run was for [more] Asian American representation,” he said. “Seeing the two of us going the distance in the primary, I hope, will show other Korean Americans that they can run for office, too.”
If Choi wins on May 21, he will be the first Asian American on the City Council in 20 years. Michael Woo, a Chinese American, once held that same District 13 seat.
He faces a tough runoff, though. His opponent, Mitch O’Farrell—who used to work for former 13thDistrict Councilman Eric Garcetti, now a mayoral candidate—won the primary with 4,530 votes. But with endorsements from the likes of Mayor Villaraigosa and the L.A. County Democratic Party, Choi boasts some powerful backers, too.
Without a national election to spur interest, the runoff will likely have a similarly low turnout as the primary. It’ll be a game of inches, not feet. It is, in short, the kind of race that a small and vocal minority group can sway. Whether the Korean American community unites behind Choi and plays this role in the election remains to be seen.
This article was published in the April 2013 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the April issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).