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).