Among the 19 Democratic candidates for the 34th Congressional District seat on April 4 is one Asian American, public interest attorney Robert Lee Ahn.
A crowded field of 23 is seeking to succeed former Rep. Xavier Becerra (D), who was named California attorney general by Gov. Jerry Brown after the previous attorney general, Kamala Harris, was elected to the U.S. Senate.
The district includes the following Los Angeles neighborhoods: Boyle Heights, Chinatown, City Terrace, Cypress Park, Downtown, Eagle Rock, El Sereno, Garvanza, Glassell Park, Highland Park, Koreatown, Little Bangladesh, Little Tokyo, Lincoln Heights, Montecito Heights, Monterey Hills, Mount Washington and Westlake.
In addition to Ahn, the Democratic candidates are anti-poverty nonprofit advisor Vanessa Aramayo; economic development director Maria Cabildo; multicultural community advocate Alejandra Campoverdi; presidential campaign advisor Arturo Carmona; journalist/community advocate Wendy Carillo; businessman Ricardo “Ricky” De La Fuente; community organizer Adrienne Nicole Edwards; education nonprofit director Yolie Flores; businesswoman/entrepreneur/producer Melissa “Sharkie” Garza; Assemblymember Jimmy Gomez; education nonprofit director Sara Hernandez; military officer/prosecutor Steven Mac; educator/public administrator Sandra Mendoza; community organizer Raymond Meza; community volunteer Armando Sotomayor; attorney Richard Joseph Sullivan; aerospace engineer Tracy Van Houten; and civic engagement strategist Tenaya Wallace.
Becerra, who was first elected in 1992, has endorsed Gomez as his successor.
Also running are business owner William “Rodriguez” Morrison (Republican); certified public accountant Kenneth Mejia (Green); tenants’ rights paralegal Angela McArdle (Libertarian); and immigration law administrator Mark Edward Padilla (no party preference). Mejia is a son of immigrants from the Philippines.
Appointed to the Redistricting Commission in 2011 by City Council President Eric Garcetti and the Planning Commission in 2013 by Mayor Garcetti, Ahn says he brings to the race a lifetime of dedication to the L.A. community and private-sector experience building businesses and creating jobs.
He lists as his top priorities preserving the environment and improving education; stopping an “alarming” increase in violent crime; ensuring access to affordable, quality health care; and ensuring that America pursues a foreign policy that is “sane, just and maintains our strong support for the under-attack democracies of South Korea and Israel.”
“Our values are under attack,” Ahn said in announcing his candidacy in January. “The president-elect and extremists in Congress will strip the elderly and our children of their access to quality, affordable health care if we do not fight them at every turn. We must act boldly to protect our fragile environment, preserve open space and to ensure our air and water are clean, safe, and free of toxic contamination.
“We must redouble our investment in our public schools, making sure our hard-earned tax dollars are spent in the classroom, not wasted on administrators and bureaucrats. For our children to have any chance of competing in a complex and rapidly changing global economy, a college education must, once again, be affordable.”
He added, “It is auspicious that I am announcing my candidacy to become the only Korean American in Congress the day after we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., the man who led the fight for freedom for all Americans – African American, Latino, Asian American, and white…all people.”
The first Korean American in Congress was Jay Kim, a Republican from Diamond Bar, who served from 1993 to 1999.
Born in 1975 in Los Angeles to immigrants from South Korea, Ahn is a graduate of the Harvard-Westlake School, Emory University in Atlanta (bachelor’s degree in business administration), and USC Law School. While at Emory, he tutored at-risk high school students in math and English, and volunteered at Habitat for Humanity, where he helped build housing for the poor.
After law school, he clerked for Superior Court Judge Richard Fruin and served as a law clerk at Riley & Reiner LLP, where he worked with and learned from former District Attorney Ira Reiner. After working for several private law firms, Ahn was named vice president and general counsel of the Luzatto Company, an independent real estate investment and development company, in 2008. In 2010, Ahn joined the family business, working on real estate and business investments and asset management.
Ahn is a charter member and past board member of the Pacific American Volunteer Association, which was founded in 2001 to promote volunteerism with an emphasis on environmental concerns. PAVA organizes large-scale clean up events of beaches, coasts and the Los Angeles River.
He also served as an officer of the Koreatown Arts and Recreation Center, where he helped the community secure over $1 million from developers to develop the Koreatown community center. As a senior advisor to the president of the Korean American Federation, the oldest Korean American organization in Los Angeles, Ahn helps build relationships with service organizations like Los Angeles Community College, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and the Anderson Munger YMCA, where he serves on the board.
Los Angeles City Councilman David Ryu — who became the first Korean American elected to the City Council in 2015 — announced his endorsement of Ahn on March 22 at the candidate’s campaign headquarters. Many residents of Ryu’s Council District 4 also reside in Congressional District 34. Ryu briefly considered running for the House seat himself.
Ahn also has the support of Virginia State Rep. Mark Keam, who became the first Asian-born immigrant elected to that state’s house in 2009.
“Receiving Mark Keam’s support for my candidacy illustrates the importance of this 34th District congressional race and the significance that our winning will have at the national level,” Ahn said. “If elected on April 4, I would be the only Korean American serving in the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s important that the Korean community nationwide have a voice in Congress and I would be proud to take the first step by opening that door.”
He noted that the Korean American population numbers more than 1.7 million, according to the 2010 Census.
Following the Korean American Democratic Committee’s February board meeting, where all the candidates were given the opportunity to interview for endorsement, the board members voted in support of endorsing Ahn, saying he was the most knowledgeable on issues of foreign policy and the most qualified.
KADC President John Yi, stated, “Lee Ahn’s candidacy is an exciting and invaluable opportunity for us to elect a progressive Korean American to Congress. Robert has a solid track record of being a strong advocate for our community, and he is exactly the kind of champion we need in a Congress dominated by Republicans and President Trump.”
Based in Los Angeles, KADC is a chartered Democratic club under the Los Angeles County Democratic Party. Since its inception in 1992 after the Los Angeles riots, KADC has mobilized the Korean American community to vote and participate in the local, state and federal electoral process.
On March 17, Ahn’s congressional campaign registered voters to participate in the April 4 election, using the popular BCD Tofu House as headquarters. The drive was aimed at the 27,000 unregistered Korean Americans in the district.
“For far too long we have not had a seat at the table, the concerns of our community are often ignored,” said Ahn. “This is our chance to stand up and be counted. We can no longer wait for someone else to be our voice. It is our time and we must seize it. If everyone takes this as a personal responsibility, we will be successful. If people stay home and don’t vote, we won’t; it’s that simple.”
Ahn’s campaign has expressed concern over a recent error by the L.A. County Registrar’s Office. According to The Los Angeles Times, an unknown number of incorrectly printed sample ballots have been mailed to voters who requested Korean-language voting materials.
The incorrect pamphlets list the 23 candidates in the wrong order; if some of the district’s 8,200 Korean-speaking voters used the erroneous sample ballots to cast their votes ahead of the election, they may have inadvertently voted for the wrong candidate.
Korean American Coalition Executive Director Joon Bang said in a statement on March 24, “KAC will make every effort to ensure that the Los Angeles County Registrar’s Office quantifies for public record the amount of mislabeled sample ballots sent to our Korean American community and ensure that each of the citizens affected are alerted of the mistake. We need to pay special attention to the fact that this is an election taking place on the federal level. It’s disappointing because of the importance of this race and that this mistake is only affecting the Korean American community.”