Aruna Lee, New American Media
SAN FRANCISCO—Jane Kim’s recent win in the race for San Francisco’s District 6 supervisor was groundbreaking. At 33, she’s one of the youngest, and is the first Korean American to be elected to the Board of Supervisors, and she did it without the backing of the powerful Democratic machine in the city. Kim’s victory in the ethnically and socially-diverse district—which includes the Tenderloin, North Mission, Treasure Island, and South of Market neighborhoods—highlights the success of her grassroots outreach to diverse residents.
For Korean Americans in San Francisco, Kim’s victory also marked a coming of age for the community, as one of their own succeeded by drawing on a broad and multiracial base of support.
“I’m glad she received support from beyond the Korean community,” said Korea Times editor Tae Soo Jung, adding that Kim’s “vision and experience will help open doors to those who have been shunned or forgotten in our society.” Jung also noted the traditional insularity of Korean communities in the United States, saying that Kim’s ability to reach beyond this natural support base signifies a real shift toward greater integration of Koreans into broader society.
Kim’s campaign, in fact, drew very little support from resident Koreans, according to Sang Un Kim, who heads the city’s Korean Community Center.
“There was very little participation among Koreans in Jane’s campaign, especially in the form of financial support or volunteer efforts,” said Sang, who noted that fewer Korean Americans participated in this year’s midterm elections in general.
Still, he says, the community feels reassured to have a Korean American in office, providing a channel through which their concerns can be heard. Like Jung, he says more Koreans need to get involved in local politics.
In many ways, Kim’s win reflects the changing demographics in the district, where nearly one quarter of voters is Asian American. The Tenderloin has become a hub for Southeast- Asian and Chinese-American families.
Early on in her campaign, Kim reached out to Chinese- American voters, and they provided an important source of support for her. According to the Chinese-language Sing Tao Daily, some 200 members of the Community Tenants Association (CTA) gathered in Chinatown to celebrate Kim’s victory. CTA Vice President Liang Rong Hao called it a victory for grassroots power. He said several hundred CTA members, most of them seniors, had volunteered in Kim's campaign, passing out flyers, making calls and visiting residents on a daily basis.
San Francisco attorney Su Jung Kim says this support comes from Kim’s years of work as a community organizer in the city’s Chinatown neighborhood. During that time, she gained a large following among younger voters, spanning a wide range of social and economic backgrounds.
“I was really struck with how many youth were galvanized for her all across the city and across different races,” she said. “As a virtual unknown, it was amazing that she ran a citywide campaign and won without any previous political campaigning experience.”
Su also expressed a measure of pride in Jane Kim’s ethnic background, noting that the Korean community has often taken a back seat to the more visible Chinese and Japanese residents of the city.
“Jane has also always been supportive of the Korean Immersion Program and of other Korean-American organizations in the city,” she said.
In a similar show of pride, the Korean-language Korea Daily published a feature story, highlighting Kim’s family’s long history of public service. Kim’s grandfather served as a district head with the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Seoul, while her father was a prosecutor with the District Attorney's Office in New York. Kim, who is a civil rights lawyer, formerly served as president of the San Francisco School Board. The feature highlighted her connection to her culture, including a black belt in the Korean martial art Taekwondo and several trips back to Korea to reconnect with her heritage.
Kim won the support of a broad spectrum of voters, from homeless advocates in the Tenderloin to business owners and young professionals in more affluent neighborhoods including Pacific Heights and Treasure Island. But those same demographics will present some unique challenges for the new supervisor.
In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, she said her top priority is job creation and promoting greater opportunities for individual entrepreneurs.
“In recessions, small businesses provide 60 to 70 percent of new jobs. It is often during these times that individuals are most creative and open innovative businesses, which cater to neighborhoods, build community, and make our streets more unique and safe,” she told the newspaper.
Kim acknowledged the city’s longstanding issues around homelessness, and said it is often a divisive issue that pits the business community against advocates of the homeless.
“Homelessness in San Francisco is an issue that involves many factors,” she told the Chronicle, “including lack of mental health services, high housing costs, and a criminal justice system that processes homeless individuals without addressing their underlying needs.”
Kate Choi, the manager of a Korean restaurant in the Tenderloin, a district known for its high crime rate and large homeless population, agrees that the homelessness problem needs to be addressed.
“Public safety is my biggest concern. Many customers are afraid to come to my restaurant at night because of safety issues,” Choi said.
Chul Woo Park, who has run an auto body shop in the Tenderloin for 20 years, says he’s recently seen a number of positive changes.
“The neighborhood became more vibrant and less crazy than a decade ago, since they created ‘Little Saigon’," he said, referring to a grouping of streets populated by Vietnamese businesses and restaurants.
While he says he’s proud to have a Korean American in office, Chul says job creation, “where it’s needed most,” will have the most dramatic impact in terms of making real and positive changes for everyone in the district, “from members of the business community to the poor and disadvantaged.”