(50) City and state politics in US

I was a political novice when I was elected into the U.S. House of Representatives. I was a city councilman and a mayor before that, but these were not so much political positions as leadership positions that represented specific areas. There are two types of mayors and city councils in U.S. cities.

In big cities with populations over a million people, like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston, city councils consisting of roughly 50 members serve as the elected representatives of their districts. A mayor is selected either by an indirect election by the city council, by appointing a councilman with the highest vote in a council election, or by a mayoral election. Of course, the selection method is different in each city, but it is usually one of these three.

These positions are volunteer positions in most cases. They pay either nothing or a small amount of expediency money ($2,000-$3,000 a month). That means that mayors or city councilmen are mostly business owners who can make time for these positions, or locally influential people who are well-off financially.

When I was mayor of Diamond Bar, Calif., I also took care of city affairs at the city hall from 8:30 to 9:30 every morning and then had to hurry off to my civil engineering firm. The city council met once a week. It started at 7 p.m. and sometimes continued until 2 a.m. These council sessions were broadcast live from start to finish on a local cable channel. Sometimes, hundreds of people attended a session.

There were five or six residents who always attended those meetings. They always arrived early and sat in the front row. They always found faults and attacked me, the mayor, or other fellow city council members. Maybe it was their hobby, but they opposed and criticized everything. One session, hoping they wouldn’t come, I asked a staffer about them, who told me that they had been sitting in the front row, looking angry about something. My heart sank at this news. There are people like those in every city, and they are often called “gadflies.”

A mayor or a city councilman usually reveals his party affiliation, though he is not required to do so. However, there is no party nomination system, and during the election, he has to run the campaign without any help from his party. If someone has raised his local recognition by being a mayor or a city council member, he usually takes a shot at the state house or senate as a next step on the political ladder.

To become a member of a state assembly, he needs to go through the nomination process of his party through a primary election. The real party politics starts here. These people can truly be considered “politicians.”

Each state has a governor, a lieutenant governor and a state house speaker. A state assemblyman should have a district in the state, and there is no proportional representation. The system of the upper and lower chambers of a state assembly is slightly different in each state. In California, there are 80 state house seats and 40 state senate seats, each of whose districts combines two house districts. A member of the state house has a two-year term, and there is a three-term limit. The term for the state senate is four years and there is a two-term limit.

Being a state assemblyman in a big state like California, Texas and New York is a full-time job which pays a handsome wage. However, in other small states, these positions are basically volunteer positions. State assemblies do not hold their meetings every day, but a few times a year. Except for budget sessions, they do not meet that often.

Like the federal government, the state government operates on taxes (such as income taxes, sales taxes, and gasoline taxes) on its residents. It is usually not easy to pass a budget because of the opposition party. In the case of California, it is interesting that the governor and the lieutenant governor do not run together as running mates. They run for their offices separately from one another by getting nominations from their parties through primaries.

This means that the elected governor and lieutenant governor may belong to different parties. In that case, the governor always has to be aware of the lieutenant governor, and the lieutenant governor does not hesitate to express his opinion and opposition in executive meetings. In a sense, this is more effective than a toothless prime minister system.

The governor refrains from traveling abroad, absent from his office. The reason is that if the governor leaves his office to travel to a foreign country, the lieutenant governor can sign bills in place of the governor during the period. One can say that the government system in each state is a smaller version of the federal government. The crucial difference from the federal government is that a state assembly only deals with the matters of the state.

So, in most cases, politicians enter the U.S. Congress after getting enough political experience through several years in a state assembly. It is the reason why there are many U.S. congressmen who have been through state assemblies. Since they have enough experience in politics, they start their congressional activities without hesitation, even in the U.S. Congress.

In my case, I went straight from a city council and a mayoral office to the U.S. House without going through the state assembly. I still regret this. I believe that readers can fully imagine how difficult my congressional life was, considering that I was a political novice, who was the only Asian-American House representative from the Republican Party (known as a party of and for white people), and that I was elected in a white district by beating a white state senator and a famous political veteran.

The political advancement of Korean-Americans is in such a feeble state. Paul Shin of Washington is currently the only state assemblyman. Shin was adopted and grew up to become a state assemblyman of whom all Koreans can be proud.

Though the entrance of Korean-Americans into politics is occasionally reported in the front pages of newspapers, they are mostly mayors or city councilmen. I hope that all of them will move into the U.S. Congress through state assemblies.

There have been no other Korean-Americans after me in the U.S. Congress, but it will be only a matter of time. A small nation like Korea has produced geniuses in sports like Olympic baseball, figure skating and golf, something Koreans could never have dreamed of for many years. So, I firmly believe that it will not take long before another Korean-American becomes a U.S. congressman.

Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the KimChangJoon US-Korea Foundation. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).


Protests by angry young Americans [The Korea Times] 11-08-2011

On Sept. 17, 700 highly-educated but unemployed young people gathered at Liberty Square, at the center of Wall Street in New York City. They proclaimed that they were going to occupy Wall Street, where big banks and investment firms enjoy their bonus parties with the taxpayer money, and to continue their occupation until the unemployment problem is solved.

This protest, which did not draw too much attention at first, has become major news all around the world, as the movement spread over every major city throughout the U.S. Especially as the movement has been joined not only by young people with higher education but also by labor unions, the “Occupy Wall Street” protest can no longer be regarded as an impulsive, temporary event.

This brings back memories of the anti-Vietnam War protests in the 1960s, which helped lead to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. Of course, the nature of the protest in Wall Street is different from the antiwar protests during the Vietnam War, as it contains the message that the greed of the bankers in Wall Street made the poor people lose their jobs and suffer.

It is a fight against the absurd unfairness in what happened after the financial crisis _ to stop the financial meltdown, Wall Street was saved by the government bailing them out with taxpayer money, but the bankers and financiers of Wall Street, the real culprits of the financial crisis, remained unpunished and were even rewarded with bonuses. The protesters’ claim is that the top 1 percent receives every benefit, while the remaining 99 percent of good people are alienated and deceived.

Meanwhile, President Obama’s popularity has fallen lower, and even his reelection has become uncertain. The popularity of Congress has also fallen greatly. If this continues, a third candidate (like Ahn Cheol-soo in Korea) might suddenly jump out in the U.S., too. The 250 year-old two-party system has begun to crack.

The Obama administration put forward a job creation proposal, the so-called jobs stimulus package, in a hurry. This plan purports to involve increased taxation on the higher tax brackets. However, there was a dispute over the surtax on the rich and its criterion. The Democratic Party proposed a tax on those making over $250,000 in annual income, while the Republicans want to set the line at those making over $1 million in annual income.

It was decided at over $250,000, and those whose annual incomes are more than $250,000 would pay an additional 5.6 percent surtax. During this process, the far-right tea party members of congress opposed any kind of tax increase, claiming that taxing the rich was nothing but class warfare.

Meanwhile, the number of participants in the Occupy Wall Street protest has been increasing continuously, and its effect has even reached Korea. A recent poll showed that over three-quarters of Americans welcome taxing the rich, and that they also support the protest. The protesters even have come to Congress and continue to hold rallies there, after the report that the Republican-dominated House is not likely to pass the bill that will increase taxes on the rich.

Certainly, these angry young people have a point. They claim that their American dream was lost because of the greed of the rich people in Wall Street. And in Korea, according to news reports, while people are suffering under the 900 trillion won household debt, the financial sector is having a party by making the biggest net profit in history, while savings banks have tried to make illegal dealings using public fund to enjoy profits among themselves, which only generated debts worth several trillion won.

However, these savings banks just put all their debts on the back of the poor people, who are squeezed by household debts, as if they did nothing wrong. Silence from political establishments toward these upper classes makes one suspect that they are quiet because they are receiving enormous political funds from these richer bankers.

It deserves consideration for Korea, just like Obama, to adopt a plan to put an additional tax on annual income above 250 million won and, with the revenue, increase the employment of young people. Also, as the budget deficit of the nation is increasing rapidly, welfare programs and spending should be reduced at first, and taxes on the rich should be increased. Korea should study Obama’s job creation plan that tries to reduce deficits and create jobs by increasing tax on the rich.

Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the KimChangJoon US-Korea Foundation. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com). The views expressed in the above article are the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial policy of The Korea Times.

(49) Shall we get rid of UN?

On June 20, 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to withhold the payment by the U.S. of its U.N. due by a vote of 221 to 184. This bill contained a demand for reform in U.N. organizations and the reduction of due payment to the U.N. to half until the adoption of said reforms.

At that time, this bill was adopted easily in the Republican-majority House, and I also supported it actively. The Republicans questioned the purpose of the U.N., saying it was wasting money on areas beyond its original purpose and it had become so big that it needed structural reorganization.

In this context, the bill demanded that the U.N. should implement its restructuring measures within two years. The bill also included the establishment of an independent board to oversee the spending and the protection of whistle blowers who report wrongdoings inside the U.N. The U.S. paid a quarter of the budget of the U.N. Its cost had been growing tremendously every year, there were many items, of which purpose was unclear, and many programs were redundant. Republican lawmakers had begun to show their dissatisfaction about the management of the U.N. on a full scale.

The Democratic Party opposed this bill strongly. They claimed that this kind of “my way or the highway” behavior would draw criticism from the international community and that this imprudent behavior damaged the honor of the House. Even the Department of State also made an official announcement that, though it fully understood and agreed with the reasons behind the bill, the House went a little too far by threatening the U.N.

However, the Bush administration agreed to the bill and also agreed to officially submit it to the U.N. Of course, the bill was more of a symbolic measure, but still it sent a strong message that the U.N. could not just ignore. The reason why the House passed the bill was that the U.N. had grown far beyond control. Many Americans began to wonder what the U.N. did and what kind of control the U.N. had. The U.N. spends too much with no accountability. This led to the idea of restructuring, or getting rid of the apparently fat, lazy U.N.

Recently, a movement to get rid of the U.N. has appeared again. The undeterred rocket launch by North Korea showed the incompetence of the U.N., and many Americans began to have doubts about the veto power that the five permanent members of the Security Council have.

I feel that the permanent member system, which was adopted 60 years ago, is out of date. It seems ridiculous to me: on what grounds should those five nations have veto power? Sixty years ago, the U.S., China, the U.K., France and Russia were called the five world powers, and that was the reason why they were given such a privilege. However, it is about time to change that system.

I think now is the time to remove the permanent membership system and put G20 nations in the Security Council. These days, economically powerful nations are the real world powers. I also believe that the U.N. should retain the system of having 15 nonpermanent rotational memberships in the council, and that every decision should be made by a majority vote; no country should have veto power and the principle of decision by majority, the fundamental idea of democracy, should be followed.

I would suggest that the six-party talks should be dismantled. I do not remember any noticeable result from the six-party talks for the last few years. It is pitiful to watch the interviews after those talks. Nothing seems to have come out of the talks except for the agreements to hold a meeting again. The talks were based on vague expectation that continuing talks would result in a solution, but the opposite has happened in reality.

Taking a closer look at the situation, Russia and China seem always to stand by North Korea, and I don’t know what we are trying to do with Japan. It’s deplorable. Japan always seems to only take on the issue of its people being kidnapped by North Korea, and does not seem to have any interest in the peace of the Korean Peninsula.

It would be better to change the six-party talks to four-party talks by removing Russia and Japan. The participants should be reduced to China, the U.S., South Korea and North Korea, and the level of delegates at the talks should be raised at least to the vice-minister level.

Finally, South Korea should also build a missile defense system as soon as possible. Of course, North Korea would not launch a $600 million intercontinental missile into South Korea, but the anxiety of South Koreans and foreign investors should be minimized by building a missile defense system.

Though China and Russia will oppose our missile defense system, I believe that if we proceed firmly and persuade them of its solely defensive purpose, China and North Korea will not be able to do much about it. The U.S. will welcome a missile defense system in South Korea quietly, and actively help Seoul build it, for the missile defense system will have to rely on U.S. equipment and technology. Then, the system will be a state-of-the-art system much more advanced than North Korea.

Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the KimChangJoon US-Korea Foundation. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com). The views expressed in the above article are the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial policy of The Korea Times.