Knock­ing on doors sends new­comer to state leg­is­la­ture

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On more than one oc­ca­sion, Chris Chyung had a front door slammed in his face while cam­paign­ing against state Rep. Hal Slager.

“They told me, ‘Go back to China!’ ” said Chyung, who was born in Mer­ril­lville and raised in Mun­ster. “I’ve never even been to China. My par­ents, who are both physi­cians, were born in Korea. So at least get your racism right.”

The 25-year-old po­lit­i­cal new­comer doesn’t take such slights too per­son­ally.

“I’ve lived my whole life in In­di­ana, so I’m used to be­ing the only Asian per­son in the room,” he said. “Any room.”

Chyung, who lives with his par­ents, beat Slager by 82 votes on Elec­tion Day in Novem­ber. He earned more than 12,000 votes the hard way, by pound­ing side­walks, meet­ing strangers, at­tend­ing com­mu­nity fo­rums.

“The no­tion that we could ac­tu­ally pull this off was un­fath­omable when we be­gan,” he said.

Slager, a long-term Repub­li­can from Scher­erville, served 10 years there as a town coun­cil­man and had three two-year terms as a state rep­re­sen­ta­tive. He had name recog­ni­tion, Gen­eral Assem­bly ex­pe­ri­ence and a much deeper war chest of cam­paign do­na­tions.

But the young Demo­crat from Dyer sim­ply out­hus­tled Slager, knock­ing on thou­sands of doors — some­times the same doors three or four times dur­ing his cam­paign — while surf­ing a small blue wave of vot­ers in the 15th House District, which cov­ers Scher­erville, Dyer, St. John and parts of Grif­fith.

“So far, ev­ery­one has been noth­ing but pleas­ant to me. But it’s still the hon­ey­moon pe­riod,” said Chyung, who be­gins his two-year term Jan. 3 when the Gen­eral Assem­bly con­venes in In­di­anapo­lis.

Chyung will be­come the first Asian-Amer­i­can state leg­is­la­tor in In­di­ana’s his­tory, ac­cord­ing to my re­search, a fact he’s fully aware of.

“It’s ab­so­lutely an Amer­i­can suc­cess story,” he said. “Still, at the end of the day, it’s all about get­ting busi­ness done for the state of In­di­ana.”

Chyung has been get­ting down to busi­ness by re­search­ing pol­icy top­ics, draft­ing bills, meet­ing with in­ter­est groups and lis­ten­ing to con­stituents. He’s been learn­ing about is­sues rang­ing from child ad­vo­cacy and Med­i­caid to tax­a­tion and the an­nual de­bate on our state’s time-change con­tro­versy.

“I’ve been su­per-busy,” he said when I caught up to him in be­tween ap­point­ments.

Chyung re­cently at­tended a crash-course ori­en­ta­tion hosted in In­di­anapo­lis by the Leg­isla­tive Ser­vices Agency, which of­fered one-hour primers on key is­sues. He is al­ready re­ceiv­ing calls and texts from con­stituents, ask­ing about con­cerns — ev­ery- thing from pot holes on their street to ed­u­ca­tion re­form.

“I’ve got a list of dozens of things to do be­fore I take of­fice,” he said, check­ing his smart­phone’s cal­en­dar.

Af­ter chat­ting with Chyung for more than an hour about his life as a rare Asian in a sea of Cau­casians in his vot­ing district, and his bright po­lit­i­cal fu­ture, I found him to be af­fa­ble, elo­quent, ar­tic­u­late and, more im­por­tant, hum­ble and hun­gry.

“I’m still di­gest­ing my vic­tory. And so is my fam­ily,” he said.

Chyung’s par­ents ar­rived in this coun­try dur­ing the af­ter­math of the Korean War, even­tu­ally land­ing in Chicago, where they com­pleted their med­i­cal fel­low­ships. They later moved to North­west In­di­ana, where they still prac­tice.

They con­tinue to hope Chyung will fol­low their ca­reer paths as physi­cians, sim­i­lar to his two sis­ters and his broth­ers-in-law.

“In grade school, I thought I would be a doc­tor, too, but I don’t like see­ing blood,” Chyung joked. “I have no plans for med­i­cal school at this time.”

He also never planned on be­com­ing a pub­lic ser­vant or state of­fice­holder. Raised in an up­per mid­dle class home, the Mun­ster High School graduate leaned more con­ser­va­tive than lib­eral. His par­ents typ­i­cally voted Repub­li­can in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions.

He dab­bled in real es­tate af­ter at­tend­ing col­lege in New York City to be­come an in­dus­trial en­gi­neer. He’s not mar­ried and doesn’t have chil­dren.

In 2016, when na­tional pol­i­tics be­came the daily con­ver­sa­tion, Chyung be­gan show­ing an in­ter­est in lo­cal pol­i­tics. He vol­un­teered for Habi­tat for Hu­man­ity and other en­deav­ors, even­tu­ally at­tend­ing meet­ings of the Lake County Young Democrats.

“My fam­ily and I be­gan self-iden­ti­fy­ing as Democrats,” Chyung said.

He learned that his district’s state rep, Slager, was “out of step” with its peo­ple. Chyung tried con­tact­ing Slager, who never re­sponded to him, Chyung said.

“A lot of peo­ple feel their rep­re­sen­ta­tive is not lis­ten­ing to them, and so did I,” he said.

Chyung tried sug­gest­ing that other Demo­cratic can­di­dates run against Slager, but no one stepped up.

“So I did,” Chyung said with a shrug, “even though I knew we would be out­gunned on many fronts by Mr. Slager and the state’s Repub­li­can Party.”

In 2017, at a lo­cal po­lit­i­cal fo­rum, a col­lege stu­dent from Crown Point asked about his cam­paign ef­forts. Af­ter talk­ing with him, Chyung brought on Sam Bar­loga as his cam­paign man­ager.

“Hon­estly, there were points in the cam­paign where I thought it was such an up­hill battle that it couldn’t be done. But we made a plan to stick with our mes­sage of trans­parency and good gov­er­nance, and bring that mes­sage to the doorstep of as many vot­ers as pos­si­ble,” said Bar­loga, who knocked on more than 10,000 doors.

With just over $100,000 in cam­paign funds, and a few high school vol­un­teers, Chyung was vic­to­ri­ous, stun­ning Slager and likely ev­ery­body else.

“Chris was quite the can­di­date,” Bar­loga said. “He had his heart in the right places, and vot­ers were quite im­pressed. They wanted a new voice in In­di­anapo­lis.”

It’s been al­most a month since the elec­tion and Chyung has yet to hear from Slager — to of­fer congratulations or to share of­fice de­tails.

Still, Chyung notes

Slager is a con­stituent.

“If he wants to talk with me about any is­sues on his mind or projects he was work­ing on, I’m avail­able,” Chyung said. “Just like for all of my other 65,000 con­stituents.”

DOUG MCSCHOOLER/POST-TRI­BUNE

In­di­ana’s new state Rep. Chris Chyung, D-Dyer, was among ac­tivists who par­tic­i­pated in the Jan. 20 march from North­west In­di­ana to In­di­anapo­lis for the sec­ond an­nual Women’s March.

POST-TRI­BUNE 2015

Ex­it­ing In­di­ana state Rep. Hal Slager, R-Scher­erville.

DARRON CUM­MINGS/AP

Chyung lis­tens dur­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion day at the state­house on Nov. 20 in In­di­anapo­lis.

Jerry Davich

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