[Viewpoint] Koreans gaining a voice in the U.S.October was a strange month for the Korean-American community in New York. In the run-up to the midterm elections on Tuesday, candidates running for Congress made persistent advances to Korean-American voters.
There have been countless elections before, but this was the first time that both Democratic and Republican candidates courted the ethnic group. Last Friday, a candidates’ debate was held in Flushing, the original Korea Town, established a long time ago in New York City.
Congressman Gary Ackerman, a Democrat for the fifth Congressional District, was sitting in front of Dr. James Milano, a Republican running for the seat. Ackerman has been serving in the House of Representatives for 28 years, while Milano was making his political debut.
Ackerman initially had not responded when Milano made repeated requests for a debate, but it was the Korean voters who changed his mind.
Ackerman became irritated when Milano said the incumbent congressman was indifferent to the Korean community. Later, Ackerman personally requested the Korean American Voters’ Council, a grassroots political movement, to hold a debate.
On Oct. 20, Steve Rothman, representing New Jersey’s 9th Congressional District, held a press conference before the Korean media. Rothman, who is serving his seventh term in the House and who won his eighth in the midterm elections, said he was one of 110 congressmen who signed a statement opposing the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. In the past, it wouldn’t have mattered to him, politically, whatever the reaction in the Korean-American community was. But, now, it did.
Why are veteran politicians now making friendly advances to the Korean community? Because Korean-American voters have significant influence today. While the turnout of Korean-American voters in the past has averaged about 10 percent, these days nearly 40 percent of the voters with Korean backgrounds are casting votes.
Moreover, votes in Korean communities tend to be concentrated on certain candidates. The Korean-American population might not be very large in size, but when you have a close race, you cannot ignore the power. The KAVC has been promoting a grassroots movement for 17 years and its efforts are finally paying off.
The council has helped 35,000 Korean voters to register in New York and New Jersey.
Ackerman has recognized the political influence of the KAVC and he requested that the council host the debate.
The grassroots movement is the key to the midterm election in the United States. The Tea Party, a conservative grassroots movement, displayed a mighty power in this year’s election. The grassroots movement has come to have a great influence in elections in the United States, as soft money donations were banned in 2005.
The bill, sponsored by Senator John McCain, a Republican, and Senator Russell Feingold, a Democrat (who did not win reelection), banned corporate and personal donations in large amounts. Because the politicians can no longer expect large-scale donations, they have to connect with personal donors or nonprofit organizations for campaign financing.
Thanks to the legislation, the grassroots movement gained power. In July 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution demanding that Japan make a more significant apology to the former sex slaves, or “comfort women,” of World War II.
The Korean-American community’s lobbying power in Washington, though, cannot be compared to that of Japan. Moreover, Japan used personal and financial networks to prevent the resolution on the former comfort women from advancing. However, even the powerful Japanese lobbyists were no match for the grassroots political movements armed with Korean-American votes.
The era of grassroots political movements poses both a challenge and an opportunity for the Korean-American community in the United States.
If voters work together and combine forces, they can accomplish a great vision they had never thought possible in the past. But if the voters are divided and broken, the reputation of the Korean-American community will be ruined.
*The writer is the New York correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Jung Kyung-min