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Urban Ryu-newal: A New Era of Asian American Political Representation Begins in L.A.

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In 1988, the Los Angeles Dodgers last won a World Series championship. Over the past 27 seasons, Dodger fans have weathered four ownerships, eight managers, and countless players, hoping for another title. But alas, that goal has been elusive.

A year later, the last person of Asian descent won an election to the Los Angeles City Council: 13th District councilman Mike Woo, who was re-elected to his last charter-limited term. Over the past 26 years, the Asian American communities in Los Angeles have weathered shifting demographics, altered political climates, and changed political boundaries, hoping to see another Asian American take a seat at the 15-member horseshoe in City Hall. But alas, that goal has likewise been elusive.

While the Dodgers have been to the playoffs a number of times, only to come up short, so, too have Asian American hopefuls vying for an L.A. city council seat, most recently Japanese American Warren Furutani, who lost out to Joe Buscaino in the 15th District special election in 2012, and Korean American John Choi, who was defeated by Mitch O'Farrell in the 13th District race of 2013.

But on Tuesday this week, to borrow a well-uttered phrase from the Dodgers' orator Vin Scully, in the year of the improbable, the impossible has happened: David E. Ryu, a community health director, won the run-off election to the 4th District city council seat to became L.A.'s first Korean American and only second Asian American in the city's history to be elected to office. He scored a decisive 54-to-46 percent victory over the heavily-favored Carolyn Ramsay, the former chief of staff (and endorsed as the would-be successor) of longtime incumbent councilman Tom LaBonge, who also had the support of the mayor and many members of the city council.

"To be honest, the fact that we won hasn't sunk in yet," said Ryu, in a telephone interview, as he was being driven to another engagement just two days after the election.

Life has changed suddenly for the 39 year-old, who, I just learned during the course of the interview, grew up in the same part of Los Angeles I did in the ethnically diverse, heavily-immigrant community of East Hollywood. We even briefly reminisced about shared experiences riding bikes, skateboards and frequenting video arcades in the area. He attended nearby LAUSD elementary and junior high schools, and went to Bravo Medical Magnet High School in Boyle Heights, before getting his undergraduate degree at UCLA. He later went to grad school at Rutgers University and USC.

Much has been talked about in the Asian American community over the past quarter century as to who would be the next person from the community to be elected to Los Angeles city office. As covered in this column in 2013, numerous Asian Americans have already been elected to civic offices in L.A. county's satellite cities, from Monterey Park to Cerritos to Gardena. But getting elected in the big city, where Asian Americans comprise of 11.4 percent of the population, has been a perennial tough nut to crack, as one-time council hopefuls Furutani and Choi could attest.

"We definitely studied those campaigns," said Ryu. "I also talked to John [Choi] and Warren [Furutani], as well as councilmember Mike Woo, who was successful. We tried to expand on their achievements on what they did right, and tried to avoid mistakes, and I think it was more of learning from their trials and tribulations that really helped us break through this time."

Even running in a district that was not only 62 percent white and 16 percent Asian, but notoriously geographically disperse -- and many would say heavily gerrymandered -- would seem to have the odds stacked against Ryu, or any candidate of color for that matter.

"There's no secret sauce, it's a lot of hard work," Ryu said. "It sounds cheesy, but it's truly listening to the community, making sure their voices are heard, seeing what their concerns are, and being empathetic to that, and letting them know you're going to work together to solve those issues. That's what resonated."

Like winning a sports championship, political victories involve myriad contributing factors. Ryu had the largest financial war chest in the council race, raising over $800,000 --$100,000 more than Ramsay. In a city election where barely 14 percent of registered voters cast their ballots, and the winner was elected by just four percent of the district's residents, every vote counted. But for those who did vote, the resounding theme was change. Three L.A. Unified School District Board races ran concurrently in Tuesday's election, and two incumbents suffered defeat. Many voters viewed the LaBonge-favored Ramsay as the de-facto incumbent, and as the local media described Ryu as an "outsider" candidate, his campaign played up that role to its advantage.

"I think the community was ready for some change. I think it was the right time. I'm just a vehicle, I was at the right place at the right time," said Ryu.

Ryu's election is a watershed moment in the history of L.A.'s Korean American community, which largely formed in the 1960s and 1970s, had its literal trial by fire during the 1992 Riots, and in 2011 was at the center of the city's redistricting controversy when the community felt it was unjustly divided among three council districts, thus limiting its political clout.

Ryu was one of the Korean American community leaders who voiced their discontent of the redistricting process.

"It was an injustice issue, it was again another example of the community, and it wasn't just the Korean American community, or the Koreatown community, it was also disenfranchisement in South L.A., as well as other areas, like Westchester, Hollywood, Silver Lake. Look at Council District 4 -- we go from Sherman Oaks all the way to Silver Lake, Toluca Lake to Miracle Mile, so it was disenfranchisement from throughout the district, and the process was long, the process had a lack of engagement, and I thought it was wrong, and I stood up for that," he said.

Still, Ryu seems to downplay the impact of his election to the Korean American community, not just to the city, but nationwide.

"This is not just about Asian Americans or Korean Americans, it's more about celebrating the rich diversity, especially Los Angeles, where we celebrate diversity and find strength in differences, we're finally starting to resemble the city. So this is a big win for all of L.A. to have more diversity, But we still got a long ways to go."

Perhaps the impact hasn't reached him yet, or even reached the Korean American community itself, which, like many other immigrant groups, is not as active in civic participation as their community leaders would like to see. Access to ethnic media outlets in these communities means home is not so far away, but it can also mean motherland issues take precedence over local ones.

For now, Ryu is focused on putting his council staff together by the time he is sworn to office on July 1. His top three priority issues would be aimed at development concerns, infrastructure improvements, and better access to city government.

"The community already outlined the basic sketch of our priorities; those were the issues that were resonated throughout the campaign. It wasn't just some issues that I thought of in a vacuum, it was from knocking on over 5,000 doors," said Ryu.

Ironically, on the same day David Ryu won the election, L.A.'s other Ryu -- Dodgers pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu (no direct relation, though the councilmember-elect jokingly refers to him as "my cousin") was announced to have a season-ending shoulder surgery. But Ryu the elected official did credit the popularity and name recognition of Ryu the athlete with helping people pronounce his Korean surname (which is also associated with the names "Yoo" or "Yu," meaning "willow tree") correctly (Pronounced reu, not the RYE-you of Street Fighter video game fame).

So now that the 22-year absence of Asian Americans in L.A. government is over, perhaps we can focus on the Dodgers ending their two decade-plus absence of a World Series championship -- with or without their Ryu of course.

And maybe by then, the city councilman can have a photo-op with his Dodger namesake.

"I have my Hyun-Jin Ryu jersey ready to go."

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