His­tory could be made in this elec­tion

In a long­time Latino district, Robert Ahn aims to be first Korean Amer­i­can Demo­crat elected to Congress.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - CHRIS­TINE MAI-DUC chris­tine.maiduc @la­times.com Times staff writer Vic­to­ria Kim con­tributed to this re­port.

In a long­time Latino district, Robert Ahn aims to be the first Korean Amer­i­can Demo­crat elected to Congress.

This part of Los An­ge­les, where the flat­lands of Boyle Heights and the free­ways that dis­sect it give way to the gen­tle slope of the city’s north­east, has long been a land of op­por­tu­nity for po­lit­i­cally am­bi­tious un­der­dogs.

It was here that Ed­ward Roy­bal was elected Los An­ge­les’ first mod­ern-day Latino city coun­cil­man in 1949 and 13 years later was seated as Cal­i­for­nia’s first Latino con­gress­man since the 1800s.

Xavier Be­cerra, who in­her­ited most of Roy­bal’s district in 1992, be­came the high­est-rank­ing Latino in Congress be­fore be­com­ing Cal­i­for­nia’s first Latino at­tor­ney gen­eral in Jan­uary.

In a spe­cial elec­tion to re­place Be­cerra rep­re­sent­ing the 34th Con­gres­sional District on Tues­day, a dif­fer­ent set of vot­ers in this sto­ried Los An­ge­les district have a shot at mak­ing his­tory. In the runoff be­tween two Democrats, an en­thu­si­as­tic mi­nor­ity of Korean Amer­i­cans who live in the other end of the district are hop­ing to pro­pel at­tor­ney Robert Lee Ahn, 41, to vic­tory over Assem­bly­man Jimmy Gomez, 42.

Gomez, who has been en­dorsed by Be­cerra, would con­tinue a decades-long tra­di­tion of Latino rep­re­sen­ta­tion in a district where more than half of the vot­ers are Latino. Ahn would be the first Korean Amer­i­can Demo­crat elected to Congress, and only the sec­ond Korean Amer­i­can ever.

Ahn, who has pitched him­self as a new­comer who can shake up “ma­chine pol­i­tics” in Los An­ge­les, has also ap­pealed to Korean Amer­i­cans by say­ing he can be their voice on im­mi­gra­tion, health­care and the im­pend­ing cri­sis with North Korea. His so­cial me­dia posts note the elec­tion’s “his­toric” na­ture and some of his mail­ers speak of the chance for Kore­ans and other Asian Amer­i­cans to have a “seat at the ta­ble.”

His cam­paign has spent a lot on voter regis­tra­tion and turnout in Kore­atown. Last week, he at­tended a lun­cheon with Korean Amer­i­can pas­tors who bowed their heads and prayed for his suc­cess.

“The [Korean Amer­i­can] com­mu­nity is hun­gry for a voice,” Ahn said as he greeted din­ers at a Korean tofu restau­rant in April. “I think there’s a pal­pa­ble frus­tra­tion of not be­ing heard, of not be­ing prop­erly rep­re­sented.”

But in a district where nearly 60% of vot­ers are Democrats, the im­por­tance of mi­nor­ity rep­re­sen­ta­tion is com­pet­ing with the ur­gency of fight­ing the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“For me, it’s sig­nif­i­cantly im­por­tant to keep this a Latino district,” said Glo­ria Molina, a for­mer L.A. County su­per­vi­sor who spent years fight­ing for re­dis­trict­ing that gave Lati­nos more rep­re­sen­ta­tion on the East­side. “But I’m not go­ing to tell you that my daugh­ter knows this bat­tle, or that she has the same pas­sion I do for elect­ing a Latino,” Molina said.

Her daugh­ter’s cal­cu­lus, Molina sus­pects, is the same as many vot­ers’: “They want some­one who’s ef­fec­tive, and they want some­one who’s go­ing to move for­ward the is­sues they care about.”

Molina, the first Latina elected to the state Assem­bly, the L.A. City Coun­cil and the county board, was one of dozens of politi­cians who ben­e­fited from Roy­bal’s trail­blaz­ing. From his perch in Congress, Roy­bal built the in­fra­struc­ture to grow the ranks of Lati­nos in elected of­fice.

When Roy­bal an­nounced his in­ten­tions to start the Con­gres­sional His­panic Cau­cus, then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill asked if the few Lati­nos in Congress would be meet­ing in a phone booth. To­day, Lati­nos hold a record 38 seats in Congress, in­clud­ing 12 from Cal­i­for­nia.

Those are the kinds of num­bers peo­ple such as 56-year-old Ki Chul Jang dream about.

Jang, who runs a flower shop and cafe with his wife in Kore­atown, says it’s been too long since there was a Korean Amer­i­can on the fed­eral stage. “We need to have some­body pow­er­ful,” Jang said in Korean, as his son helped trans­late.

Jang, who came to the U.S. 28 years ago from South Korea, said he wielded a gun on a Kore­atown rooftop to de­fend against loot­ers dur­ing the 1992 L.A. ri­ots. “That was so painful, and I thought, Kore­atown needs to have po­lit­i­cal power.… So when those peo­ple run for of­fice, I want to sup­port them un­con­di­tion­ally.”

Jang can’t vote but says he has been vol­un­teer­ing for Ahn, de­liv­er­ing lawn signs like the one that’s planted out­side his store­front.

There’s some­thing as­pi­ra­tional about Jang’s ef­forts, too. “I al­ways prayed for my son, David — you might laugh — to be­come U.S. pres­i­dent, show them the power of Kore­ans,” he said, as the younger Jang shook his head. “Since it doesn’t look like my son will do it, I’m sup­port­ing Robert Ahn in­stead.”

David Jang, 18, says he doesn’t know much about ei­ther can­di­date and doesn’t see much point in vot­ing. “I only know [Ahn] from the bill­boards,” he said. “I feel like I’d be vot­ing for him just be­cause he’s Korean … and if his val­ues or po­si­tions aren’t the same as mine, there’s no real rea­son for me to.”

With few ma­jor pol­icy dif­fer­ences be­tween the two can­di­dates, Gomez has tried to cast his op­po­nent as too cen­trist for this deep blue district, while Ahn has said his lo­cal roots and pri­vate sec­tor ex­pe­ri­ence will help him bet­ter ad­dress the qual­ity-of-life is­sues res­i­dents face.

“Ev­ery eth­nic com­mu­nity wres­tles with that is­sue: Do you vote for eth­nic­ity or do you vote for qual­i­fi­ca­tions?” said Hyepin Im, pres­i­dent of the Korean Churches for Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment. “I don’t think it’s ever an ei­ther/or.”

Ahn’s can­di­dacy comes af­ter an im­por­tant vic­tory for Korean Amer­i­cans two years ago: the elec­tion of David Ryu, the first Korean Amer­i­can city coun­cil­man in Los An­ge­les.

Al­though a surge in Korean Amer­i­can vot­ers in the pri­mary helped Ahn break through a crowded field to make the runoff, they make up just 6% of the elec­torate. Even if the pri­mary’s low turnout holds for the runoff, it will be im­pos­si­ble for Ahn to win with just Korean Amer­i­can votes.

With Gomez tout­ing pro­gres­sive poli­cies he’s sup­ported in the Leg­is­la­ture and dozens of en­dorse­ments from the party es­tab­lish­ment and pro­gres­sive groups, Ahn has taken up the man­tle of a po­lit­i­cal out­sider who is an al­ter­na­tive to the per­ceived Latino po­lit­i­cal dy­nasty.

“Some might say this is a Latino district,” Ahn said. “But it’s also a low-in­come district, that’s an­other way to look at it.… At the end of the day ... they’re ask­ing me, ‘Do you, No. 1, un­der­stand my prob­lems?’ ”

He has ap­peared at events com­mem­o­rat­ing the 25th an­niver­sary of the ri­ots and an­nounc­ing en­dorse­ments from church lead­ers, in­clud­ing J. Edgar Boyd, pas­tor of the First AME Church, an iconic venue for the African Amer­i­can faith­ful. African Amer­i­cans ac­count for 5% of the district’s elec­torate.

Ahn’s cam­paign has reached out to other Asian Amer­i­cans, too, blan­ket­ing apart­ment build­ings with Man­darin-lan­guage fliers, and has even sent mail­ers to the district’s tiny Re­pub­li­can mi­nor­ity. And re­cently, he re­ceived the en­dorse­ment of for­mer L.A. Mayor Richard Rior­dan, a Re­pub­li­can.

Build­ing coali­tions has al­ways been the key to suc­cess in this area, said Ar­turo Var­gas, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Assn. of Latino Elected Of­fi­cials. Roy­bal won his first elec­tion by forg­ing an al­liance be­tween Lati­nos and the Jewish, Ar­me­nian and Ja­panese Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties in Boyle Heights, he said.

Gomez, on the other hand, has fo­cused on turn­ing out his most faith­ful sup­port­ers in north­east Los An­ge­les, which he has rep­re­sented in the Assem­bly since 2012. Among his ef­forts are mail­ers list­ing each voter’s re­cent vot­ing his­tory and mes­sages about the need to stop Trump.

“If we don’t vote, Don­ald Trump and the Repub­li­cans are go­ing to win,” Gomez said in Span­ish at a re­cent de­bate, ap­pear­ing to take pains to point out many District 34 neigh­bor­hoods be­yond his north­east base. “If I’m elected I’m go­ing to rep­re­sent ev­ery sin­gle com­mu­nity: Kore­atown, MacArthur Park, Pico Union, down­town L.A.,” he said, leav­ing north­east Los An­ge­les for last.

De­spite the can­di­dates’ mes­sages of unity, Ed­ward J.W. Park, a pro­fes­sor of Asian Amer­i­can stud­ies at Loy­ola Mary­mount Univer­sity, says nei­ther can­di­date has done much to motivate vot­ers out­side their bases. “It’s just so stri­dently and nar­rowly fo­cused on their spe­cific com­mu­ni­ties,” Park said of the cam­paign each can­di­date has waged.

Rep. Lu­cille Roy­balAl­lard (D-Downey), Roy­bal’s daugh­ter who was elected to Congress just be­fore he re­tired, said the en­thu­si­asm and ex­cite­ment Korean Amer­i­cans have for Ahn is “un­der­stand­able” and re­minds her of how Lati­nos felt af­ter her fa­ther’s ground­break­ing wins.

While Molina said it was “un­for­tu­nate” two eth­nic blocs were com­pet­ing over the same district, Be­cerra said he saw it dif­fer­ently.

“Only in Amer­ica, right? You’ve got a proud Latino and a proud Korean Amer­i­can run­ning to rep­re­sent a very di­verse part of L.A. That’s beau­ti­ful,” Be­cerra said.

Glenn Koenig Los An­ge­les Times

AT­TOR­NEY Robert Lee Ahn has pitched him­self as a new­comer who can shake up “ma­chine pol­i­tics.” He has ap­pealed to Korean Amer­i­cans by say­ing he can be their voice on im­mi­gra­tion, health­care and North Korea.

Michael Owen Baker For The Times

ASSEM­BLY­MAN Jimmy Gomez, who has been en­dorsed by Xavier Be­cerra, whom he hopes to suc­ceed, would con­tinue a decades-long tra­di­tion of Latino rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the 34th Con­gres­sional District.

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