If elected to represent downtown Los Angeles, Robert Lee Ahn would be the first Korean American member of Congress since 1999
Robert Lee Ahn doesn’t want to just be the Korean guy running for Congress.
Sure, the Los Angeles city planning commissioner has banked heavily on Asian-American voters in his underdog bid to win California attorney general Xavier Becerra’s former seat in the House of Representatives. The downtown Los Angeles district Ahn’s seeking to represent includes Korean, Chinese, Bangladeshi and Japanese ethnic enclaves. And if elected in a special election on June 2 runoff, Ahn would become the first Korean-American in Congress since 1999 (he finished a distant second in April’s first round.)
But that’s not enough. The district is also overwhelmingly Hispanic and Ahn is facing off against Jimmy Gomez, a California state assemblyman who has collected endorsements from Democratic powerbrokers including California Gov. Jerry Brown, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris and Becerra. The district has also been represented by a Latino-American since Ronald Reagan’s first term. “Korean-Americans are naturally excited because they haven’t had a voice in 20 years, but there’s more to the story than that,” Ahn tells Moneyish. “We’ve a message of putting people first again.”
If there are echoes of Donald Trump’s rhetoric in Ahn’s rhetoric, that’s no accident. Though he takes a more expansive view of Americans’ interests, Ahn too is running as a populist crusader against the establishment. “The biggest complaint I hear from voters is that there’s a disconnect with their elected officials,” he says. He then goes on his stump speech, pointing out that Gomez has received numerous contributions from lobbyists and other special interest groups, while painting himself as an advocate for the little guy.
Gomez’s campaign didn’t return a request for comment. Ahn has received some $50,000 worth of support from Mike Hong, a Korean-American chemical entrepreneur He is also being supported by former New Jersey Nets NBA star Jason Collins, his high school classmate. Federal Election Commission data show that Gomez has raised $1.32 million as of mid May, while Ahn has received $882,000 and loaned a further $490,000 to his campaign.
Ahn calls being assaulted as a kid in school for his race and the 1992 Rodney King Riots, in which many Asian American-owned stores were targeted, formative experiences. “Going through these episodes of prejudice taught me a lot about empathy, not just for Korean-Americans but all demographics, including the LGBT community and other immigrants,” he says. “We’re fighting the same fight and continue to fight for equality and fairness.”
The potential politico was born to Korean immigrants in the county he now seeks to represent and studied law at the University of Southern California before working as a public interest lawyer. He ran small businesses, which includes a milk tea shop and his private legal practice in the district, and was appointed to the L.A. Planning Commission. That entrepreneurship background is something that he is keen to point out.
“I’m the only candidate that has created jobs,” says Ahn, who says legislative priorities include strengthening the Small Business Administration and a long-awaited infrastructure stimulus bill . “I bring a sensibility of being accountable to taxpayers. Professional politicians who’ve never run a business lack that perspective.”
And Ahn has also jumped on North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un’s recent saber-rattling to highlight the need for a fluent Korean speaker to be involved in that debate. “It’s only a matter of time before he has a missile capable of hitting targets” in continental America, says Ahn, who calls Kim’s Korea a “rogue nation.” “That is not hyperbolic but something that will happen if we’re not diligent.”
On that, there’s bipartisan accord. “Being a Korean-American voice is not valuable just to Democrats but also to Republicans,” he says. “I understand the bridge between America and South Korea and that’s of tremendous value to any negotiation.”
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