Photographs by Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times - At least two Korean-Americans are running for the City Council seat of John C. Liu in Flushing, Queens: Ronald Kim, left, and S. J. Jung
May 6, 2009
Korean New Yorkers Hope for Council Seat in Queens, Their First
By KIRK SEMPLE
You hear it a lot these days among New York’s Korean-Americans, a heady declaration of political entitlement: “It’s our time.”
Korean-Americans number more than 132,000 in the state, according to the latest census figures, and have become a significant economic force in the New York region. Yet none have ever been elected to the New York City Council, the State Legislature or any statewide office.
But now that John C. Liu, a Chinese-American who represents Flushing, Queens, on the City Council, is running for city comptroller, many Korean-American civic leaders and political operatives say this is the opportunity they have been waiting for.
Two Korean-American candidates have announced they will run for Mr. Liu’s seat: S. J. Jung, a community organizer, and Ronald Kim, Gov. David A. Paterson’s regional representative for Queens. A third, John Choe, Mr. Liu’s chief of staff, said he might also jump into the fray, and there has been talk of still others.
The growing field mirrors the increasing visibility of Koreans — not just in Mr. Liu’s ethnically diverse district, where a Koreatown of restaurants, shops and other businesses thrives, but also across the region, where the contest is drawing interest and money from Korean-Americans. Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, said this could be “a decisive moment” in the political maturation of the Korean-American community.
“They’re exploding onto the scene,” said Ms. Hong, who is Korean-American. “I think the Council race is only one manifestation of that.” (Ms. Hong has thrown her personal support behind Mr. Jung, though her organization is nonpartisan.)
For all the excitement, victory for a Korean-American candidate is far from guaranteed. With the primaries still more than four months away, the contest to succeed Mr. Liu in the overwhelmingly Democratic 20th Council District is already shaping up as one of the season’s most dynamic and intriguing local races.
The field is crowded. Three Chinese-Americans — a community activist and former teacher, a Queens Democratic Party district leader, and a businessman who is the only Republican running so far — have announced their candidacies, as have a Greek-American college student and a civic activist and retired cancer researcher of Sephardic Jewish heritage.
The ethnic diversity of the district, which covers a swath of northeast Queens, is reflected in the voice-mail greeting on Mr. Liu’s office phone: “Thanks for calling,” Mr. Liu, who was born in Taiwan, says on the message. “For English, press two; Spanish three.” He then cycles through options in Korean, Chinese, Russian and Greek.
The Asian-American population in the district has grown rapidly over the last three decades, to more than half of the total population. Residents of Chinese descent are by far the largest ethnic group, composing about 32 percent of the population and outnumbering Korean-Americans by roughly 2.5 to 1, according to calculations by Andrew A. Beveridge, a Queens College demographer, based on the latest census statistics.
The election of Mr. Liu, in 2001, was hailed as a watershed for the Chinese-American community, which had long been shut out of the political mainstream. Mr. Liu, the only person of Asian descent ever to sit on the City Council, easily won re-election in 2003 and 2005.
The number of Korean-Americans in the district has actually declined slightly over the last decade, but the number in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut has increased by about 19 percent, according to census data.
Korean-American leaders say that larger community is now politically mature and organized enough to elevate one of its own.
Ms. Hong said that in recent years, a variety of Korean-American advocacy groups around the region had become more politically active and sophisticated, learning how to mobilize their community and lobby elected officials on welfare and immigration matters. They have forged ties with more-established civil rights and immigrant rights groups.
Yonghwa Ha, president-elect of the Korean-American Association of Greater New York, said a record voter turnout in late March for the association’s presidential elections reflected the increasing political participation of the community. In that election, more than 15,000 people voted in New York City and New Jersey.
Though anyone of Korean descent was eligible to vote, regardless of legal status, Mr. Ha said he hoped to harness that enthusiasm and register more Korean-American voters in time for the City Council election. “I want that fever,” he said.
Community leaders say Korean-American money from around the region has already been flowing into the candidates’ campaigns in District 20.
But political analysts say it is unlikely a candidate can win without cobbling together broad support spanning various ethnic and racial groups. According to Evan Stavisky, a Democratic political consultant who lives in the district, about 35 percent of the registered voters there are Asian-American, a roughly equal number are white, 20 percent are Latino and 10 percent are African-American.
“In communities like Flushing, there’s no one single group that’s capable of delivering an election to their favorite son or daughter,” Mr. Stavisky said. “Instead, you not only must galvanize your own constituency but you need to be able to break through to other groups, putting aside any historic differences or tensions between the communities.”
In interviews, some Korean-American candidates took pains to distance themselves from ethnic labels.
“I’ve been a bridge builder,” said Mr. Jung, who showed up with a multiethnic, multidenominational group of supporters to celebrate his campaign’s start in April. “I’ve worked with diverse communities.”
Mr. Kim, Governor Paterson’s representative, said he was “not just running as a Korean person.”
“I’m just a local kid from Queens,” he said. “I just want to represent the district and want to represent everybody in that district.”
Still, they will have to win Korean votes. And community leaders intent on electing one of their own admit that the more Korean-Americans in the race, the less likely it is that any one will win enough of that natural base to prevail. Indeed, if the field still remains crowded come Primary Day, Sept. 8, the Korean-American community may well find that it has been too successful in spurring political involvement.
“If three Koreans come out, you have no chance,” declared Fred Fu, a prominent Chinese-American member of the Flushing business community. “When you say this is the year for a Korean, you say ‘Korean,’ not ‘Koreans.’ No ‘s!’ ”
Few forces could break a logjam of candidates like an endorsement from Mr. Liu. The councilman said in an interview last Wednesday that he would probably “weigh in,” but would hold off until the roster of candidates crystallized, perhaps at the beginning of June.
“It’s definitely fever pitch among the Korean-American community to once again make history in Flushing,” he said. “The community is organized and galvanized.”