by JIMMY LEE and SUEVON LEE
A few minutes after 11 p.m. on Tuesday, David Ryu stood on a raised platform in the patio of a Sunset Strip restaurant, in front of dozens of his supporters, and told them what they did not want to hear.
“It’s not over yet. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” proclaimed Ryu, as his run-off election against a heavily favored opponent was slowly drawing to a close.
With more than 50 percent of the ballots tallied and Ryu leading past Carolyn Ramsay, who was endorsed by all 14 other councilmembers and Mayor Eric Garcetti, by more than a thousand votes, there was a charged excitement of inevitability emboldening the multiculturally-mixed crowd. And so they chanted, “Da-vid! Da-vid!”
The anticipation was getting to Ryu, as well. “I had a speech prepared … but I can’t remember anything right now,” he said, as the election results were projected from a laptop onto a screen nearby.
By midnight the outcome was no longer in doubt. Ryu had won the seat for Los Angeles City Council District 4. And in doing so, he became only the second Asian American, and the first Korean American, to gain a spot on the 15-person governing body of the second-largest city in the country.
Throughout his campaign, Ryu has stressed that he is a candidate for all, not just for Asian Americans. And he continued to relay that populist message on election night.
“Today, it’s historic not because I’m Asian American. It’s historic because we’re finally telling City Hall that we do not like business as usual,” said Ryu. “Yes, I’m not going to change things overnight; it’s going to take some time. But it’s the start. It’s about shaping the new City Council. And if we can do what we did today, what can’t we do together?”
But for the Korean Americans in attendance, who have been desperate to gain representation in city government, Ryu’s victory is truly momentous. “The fact that David won is a huge boon for the psyche of the API (Asian-Pacific Islander) community for Los Angeles. It’s been too long,” said Grace Yoo, who also tried to join Ryu on the council this year. Her attempt to unseat Council President Herb Wesson failed in the March primary.
“I am delighted David was able to win, that the outsider beat the insider,” Yoo added. “David will now have the opportunity to represent all of the communities, and not just those that have been represented in the past. I am delighted that David will be able to take a stand on behalf of everybody, including the Korean American community.”
In the end, the 39-year-old Ryu had edged out his opponent by 8 percentage points – 54 percent to 46 percent – without ever trailing behind, to claim the seat for Council District 4, an irregular lobster-shaped area that stretches from Silver Lake to Sherman Oaks and includes parts of mid-L.A.
Ryu, the eldest son of Korean immigrants who came to the U.S. at age 6, embarked on what many saw as an improbable run to defeat Ramsay, the former chief of staff to Tom LaBonge, who occupied the seat for 14 years and was barred by term limits from running again.
Ramsay and Ryu finished a respective one-two in the March 3 primary by a slim vote differential to advance to Tuesday’s general election. Ryu will be sworn in July 1 to begin his four-year term.
While not much separated the two candidates’ positions on issues such as the need for city repairs and tempering gridlock, Ryu emphasized his non-establishment ties and outsider status when appealing to voters.
The UCLA grad and former director of development at a nonprofit health center garnered 11,269 votes compared with Ramsay’s 9,657, according to unofficial election night results from the city clerk’s office. There were nearly twice as many votes cast by mail-in ballot than at the polls.
The one other Asian American to serve on L.A.’s City Council was Michael Woo, from 1985 to 1993. In a phone interview with KoreAm Wednesday morning, Woo said the relatively large margin by which Ryu won—1,500 votes—could reflect a combination of factors: high turnout by Korean American and other Asian American voters; Ryu’s emphasis on his outsider status and anti-developer campaign theme; plus voter fatigue with the establishment.
“I think it’s a major landmark in the coming of age of the Korean American community in Los Angeles,” said Woo, who is Chinese American. “I know people have talked about this for years, but David was the first one who was actually able to get to the top of this mountain. I think it’s extremely important, historically.”
All images courtesy of Jimmy Lee/KoreAm
Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of a story that was posted earlier today.