By Jay Kim
It was early February 1992 when I decided to enter the arena of U.S. national politics. At the time I was the mayor of Diamond Bar, Calif., the first ever Asian mayor of a city of 80,000 mainly Caucasian residents.
Working as a mayor of the city, small though it was, gave me an eye for politics and made me interested in the larger political stage. I became enamored with the idea of running for a California seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
During that time, a great opportunity arose. Two new California seats were added to the House due to the state’s population growth ― one for the northern part of the state, and one for the southern part, which happened to encompass the area near Diamond Bar.
It was too great an opportunity for me to pass up, since the seat was part of a new district with no incumbent to run against. Having made the decision to run, I spent many sleepless nights thinking of the prospect of being the first Korean-American member of the House.
I created an elaborate campaign strategy. The first thing I had to do was hire a campaign manager as soon as possible. Unlike Korea, it is necessary in the U.S. to hire a veteran, well-known campaign manager for an election at the state or national level.
After looking at records of past campaigns, I hired Bob Gouty, a veteran campaign manager. Gouty was a rather sharp looking man despite being rather short and of large carriage. He was well known for his aggressive campaign strategies.
We expected that California State Assemblyman Charles Bader, a local veteran politician, would be our chief opponent and James V. Lacy as the next strong opponent. Lacy was a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Commerce.
He would not be an easy opponent because he was familiar with federal government and famous for his oratorical skills. Our research showed that four more candidates would run for the office.
The results of the first poll were very disappointing. Bader was running in first with 70 percent, Lacy in second with 20 percent, and I was in third with a mere 5 percent. Gouty asked me if I was absolutely sure that I wanted to pursue this campaign.
I told him yes, and he would later say that he was merely testing my determination. He actually believed we had a good chance to win, but a lot of work was still necessary. I wouldn’t drop out just because of one public poll. In all actuality, I felt good running third in a poll based entirely around name recognition, especially since my campaign had not yet begun.
As it happened, the preliminary poll also showed that many voters were sick of politicians and lawyers. We would soon tailor my main campaign strategy to emphasize that I was neither a professional politician nor a lawyer who makes a living through a silver tongue, but a hard-working engineer and businessman.
We had two campaign messages. The first was that government should be run like a private enterprise. I stated that a private business goes into bankruptcy if it doesn’t have sufficient money to cover an overdraft, but our government merely prints more money to cover a cash shortage, resulting in a huge national deficit for future generations.
I felt that this way of doing things should not be allowed any longer. Our government should cut costs instead of trying to increase revenues by raising taxes, just like private enterprises reduce their costs rather than raising their prices.
The second message was a promise of a self-imposed term limit to my constituents; I would not run for more than three terms, since staying too long in Washington tended to make a representative out of touch and arrogant.
My campaign message was simple: “Do you want to send a career politician who spent the past decades in professional politics in Sacramento? Or do you want to send one more lawyer to Congress when we already have too many lawyers there (nearly two thirds of the House had been former lawyers)? If you don’t want either, send me to Congress.
I ran a small business and spent many sleepless nights worrying about meeting payroll, worrying about meeting tax obligations which seemed to grow bigger and bigger, and wondering about where all my hard earned tax monies were being spent.
Americans’ preference for politicians who were CEOs began to grow in the early 1990s. Lacy, who was running second in the polls, didn’t initially take me seriously, and his campaign attacks were primarily focused on the first-place Bader.
They frequently exchanged personal attacks. Watching their fight with delight, I concentrated my efforts on letting people know who I was and what I had done for my community while I was a city councilman and a mayor.
I was also talking about myself honestly, letting the people know that I am an immigrant student from Korea, who came with only $200 in my pocket and finished college while also working at night.
My story is the embodiment of the American dream. In this way, I didn’t know then that I actually took advantage of my top two rivals’ fighting bitterly against each other. Slowly but surely, my poll numbers began to improve.
I stated that our deficit wouldn’t be reaching astronomical proportions if the government had been managed like a private business, and I argued this point by presenting my example of running Diamond Bar.
Most cities with a population around 80,000 have about 200 public servants; Diamond Bar had only about 20 because we outsourced every service except essential public services. Even with such a small staff, our services were top of the line.
I especially emphasized that by running my government like a private business, our city had a budget surplus drawing interest in banks while other cities were suffering deficits. As time passed, my campaign message began to have a great effect, as the voters responded and my popularity began to steadily grow in the polls.
In a final poll taken only three weeks before the day of the election, I had finally drawn neck and neck with Bader, with Lacy very closely behind. Suddenly, these two candidates, never believing I’d be a serious contender, stopped their attacks on each other and began to furiously attack me instead. However, this happened too late for them to turn the public against me.
I won the Republican primary, and defeated the Democratic candidate handily in the general election to win the House seat. I was lauded all over the world as the first Korean-American ever elected to the U.S. Congress. An American history textbook dedicated a full page to my story, labeling me as a “hero” and the American dream come true!
At the time, I thought this was because of my greatness. However, with time having passed, I now see that I had not been elected because I was great, but because I was fortunate. Every situation had worked to my advantage, I had a lot of help from friends and volunteers, and the Korean-American community gave me a massive boost.
But most of all, it was God’s will that had brought me to office. However, having been on such a fast track in politics from city councilman to city mayor to U.S. Congressman, I forgot this message and let my arrogance reach sky high levels. I became condescending and thought too highly of myself, and this would be a great problem during my time in office.
Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the Washington Korean-American Forum. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).