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Korean-American Candidates Enter ‘Final Frontier’

Only one Korean-American has ever served in Congress

UC Irvine law professor Dave Min, left, is running to unseat Republican Rep. Mimi Walters in California’s 45th District, while Robert Lee Ahn is in a runoff for California’s open 34th District seat. (Photos courtesy Dave Min for Congress, Robert Lee Ahn for Congress)
UC Irvine law professor Dave Min, left, is running to unseat Republican Rep. Mimi Walters in California’s 45th District, while Robert Lee Ahn is in a runoff for California’s open 34th District seat. (Photos courtesy Dave Min for Congress, Robert Lee Ahn for Congress)

Two candidates running for Congress in California are entering what one calls a “final frontier” for Korean-Americans. 

The only Korean-American elected to Congress was Jay Kim, a California Republican who served three terms from 1993 to 1999. 

On April 4, Robert Lee Ahn, a former Los Angeles city planning commissioner and a first-generation Korean-American whose father serves as president of L.A.’s Korean American Federation, qualified for the all-Democratic runoff in the special election in California’s 34th District to replace former Rep. Xavier Becerra.

And in California’s 45th District, Dave Min, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and another first-generation American whose parents immigrated from Korea in the 1970s, is running as a Democrat to challenge incumbent Republican Rep. Mimi Walters.

Ahn said in an interview that Korean-Americans have already seen success in other areas of American life such as business, medicine and law.

“Politics in some ways is the final frontier,” he said. “There’s a growing, I think, hunger to have that voice.” 

“Korean Americans have made a contribution to this country and I believe we deserve a seat at the table,” he added.

The Korean-American population has more than tripled since 1980, according to the Pew Research Center. The research group East-West Center estimates that 1.7 million Korean-Americans live in the United States.

California has the second-highest concentration of Korean-Americans after Hawaii, with 1,356 Korean-Americans per 100,000 residents. The Hawaii percentage is twice as much.

Other states with high Korean-American populations include New York, New Jersey, Texas, Virginia and Washington. 

“Outside of [Los Angeles], Korean-Americans simply do not have the numbers to make a run for a congressional seat, if having substantial support from Korean-American voters is a key to electing a Korean-American representative,” said Taeku Lee, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

“There are only about a dozen congressional districts where Asian-Americans make up even a quarter of the citizen voting-age population, and in most of those, Korean-Americans are not the largest Asian American ethnic group,” Lee said.

John Yi, president of the Korean American Democratic Committee, said the increase in political involvement is a sign that children of Korean immigrants are coming of age and wanting to represent their communities.

“You have these young kids realizing they want to get into politics,” he said.

While the 34th District where Ahn is running is nearly two-thirds Latino, close to 20 percent of its residents are Asian-American and the district includes Los Angeles’ Koreatown.

In contrast, the 45th District where Min is running has a white majority. But about a quarter of its population is Asian-American with Latino residents of any race at 18 percent.

Yi said that a reason for the excitement around Ahn’s candidacy is the 2015 election of David Ryu to the L.A. city council, a first for a Korean-American.

“Before there was Robert Ahn that was David Ryu,” Yi said. “When he won, they thought, ‘We can actually do this.’ I think the community saw it and could taste it.”

Both Ahn and Min say they are alarmed by the anti-immigration rhetoric coming from Republicans such as President Donald Trump. 

“We’re very closely tied to the immigrant experience,” Ahn said.

Min said Walters, a two-term Republican, was complicit in Trump’s actions. He pointed out that when the administration issued its first temporary travel ban on several Muslim-majority nations, Walters put out a statement that neither supported nor condemned the ban.

Both Min and Ahn also have concerns about international relations, particularly when it comes to North Korea.

“We need a Korean-American voice with all the things happening in the Korean Peninsula,” Ahn said.

Min was also apprehensive about the rhetoric on North Korea.

“What’s happening in Asia is very alarming,” he said. “The over-aggressiveness and bellicosity, I think, has been frightening.”

Recent tweets by Trump have alarmed Korea watchers. Last week, the president said that “North Korea is looking for trouble,” and that if China was unable to “properly” deal with North Korea “the U.S., with its allies, will!”

And looking beyond Ahn and Min, Yi said creating the right support structures to help future Korean-American candidates mount campaigns was important. 

“We’re looking for good candidates, also making sure there are good political operatives,” he said.

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