Making history: Three Korean American women win seats in Congress

By Anh Do, Los Angeles Times, Nov. 15, 2020

Anh Do is a Metro reporter covering Asian American issues

By text, by phone and by social media, they trumpeted the news from California to Asia: Young Kim and Michelle Steel helped Republicans push back against the blue wave. The two Orange County Republicans will be sworn into office in January alongside a third Korean American congresswoman-elect, Marilyn Strickland, a Democrat from western Washington state.

“How cool is this?” said Ellen Ahn, executive director of the nonprofit Korean Community Services, the largest Korean American social services agency in Orange County.

For Steel and Kim, the victories could offer the GOP a way forward, post-Trump, to appeal to voters outside the white, suburban Republican base.

Asian Americans backed Joe Biden over President Trump.

“It looked like [Democrats] were taking Asian votes for granted in the past, so they had to start paying more attention to the communities,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy and political science at UC Riverside.

Kim, a former state Assembly member, defeated Gil Cisneros with 50.6% of the vote in the 39th District.

Steel triumphed over incumbent Harley Rouda with 51.03% of the vote in the coastal 48th District.

The contests were among the most closely watched battles for the House, and coverage in Korean-language media was intense.

Kim posted a message on her Facebook page Friday evening. “As an immigrant to America, I know that the promise of America is alive.”

Kim, born in Incheon, South Korea, grew up in Guam before moving to Hawaii, then went to USC.

Steel signaled her intention to continue creating “stepping stones” to public office for young Asian Americans.

Steel’s mother and Kim’s father-in-law taught at the same high school in South Korea.

Steel is the daughter of a diplomat who moved the family from their native South Korea to Japan. She immigrated to the United States to attend Pepperdine University and USC.

Ahn said, “Having a person who looks like you and having a seat at the highest level of government can be a game-changer. I hope they don’t forget the issues that affect people of color, and healtcare tops that list.”

Strickland, who served as mayor of Tacoma from 2010 to 2018, said, “It’s hardly easy running for national office and, as a woman, just think of the calculations we make before we can jump in.”

Like Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Strickland is of Asian and Black heritage.

“There are still issues of inequities we need to resolve,” she said, “I understand my duty to my past.”

The rise of Korean Americans in Congress is partly the result of significant investment by the GOP to diversify its ranks and launch targeted outreach at Asian American voters.

Some of those efforts have been obscured by Trump’s actions and caustic comments about immigrants, rhetoric that critics say fuels racism and violence.

Steel was the only elected official to greet Trump on his first trip to California as president.

Kim publicly criticized the commander-in-chief’s use of the term “kung flu,” saying such language incites hate against Asian Americans.

Ramakrishnan said the GOP’s Growth and Opportunity Project has aimed to transform the party — it set aside $10 million to create better connections with minority communities and spur efforts to recruit and back Asian American candidates.

Steel’s 48th District is 71.8% white, 15.9% Asian, 11.8% Latino and 0.5% Black; and Kim’s 39th District is 49.4% white, 25.7% Latino, 24.1% Asian and 0.8% Black.

Steel’s core support came from affluent white neighborhoods, according to the Orange County Civic Engagement Table.

Jonathan Paik, the group’s executive director, said, “The questions remain for any of the winners: How committed are they to better listen to Asian American voters? Are they still going to represent the most vulnerable communities, the ones most struggling and the undocumented? We’ll all be watching.”

Tammy Kim — the top vote-getter in the Irvine City Council election — said Cisneros was “shut out by Korean media, though he was a strong advocate for the Korean community through his term and did so much for Korean veterans and adoptees through legislation.”

Some immigrants believe that what helped Kim and Steel cement their victories was a mistake made by Jeff LeTourneau, the vice chair of the Orange County Democratic Party, who shared a Facebook post glorifying Ho Chi Minh.

“Again, Asian American voices are becoming more dominant, as they should be,” Tammy Kim said.


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Republican Young Kim supports Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients – “Dreamers”. She supports chain migration. She backed a resolution in the Assembly that established June as Pride Month and recognized same-sex marriage. She is a fiscal conservative. Kim’s husband was a founder the Black-Korean Alliance.

Republican Michelle Steel’s platform included opposition to abortion, and to same sex marriage, and to a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants. In 2014, in a speech, she claimed that she had withdrawn her daughter from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and had instead sent her to Loyola Marymount for a “brainwash”, after her daughter expressed support for same-sex marriage and for Barack Obama.

Democrat Marilyn Strickland’s Negro father was a soldier stationed in Korea in the early 1960s. She was the first Asian-born elected mayor of Tacoma, as well as the first African-American woman in that office. Strickland used connections in China and Vietnam to draw foreign investors, culminating in the visit to Tacoma of Chinese President Xi Jinping. In 2010, the Tacoma Board of Ethics sanctioned Mayor Marilyn Strickland for accepting frequent flyer miles from a local businessman.

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