Become a Patron!

New Jersey Rep. Andy Kim looks over flowers and messages at a memorial for the victims of the March 16 shootings in front of Gold Spa, one of the shooting sites, on Sunday, March 28, 2021 in Atlanta. | Sudhin Thanawala/AP Photo

‘We need a government that looks a lot more like the rest of America’

Rep. Andy Kim was deep in thought when he retraced the path of the gunman who killed eight people last month near Atlanta, Ga. He’d made the trip south less than two weeks after the attacks and drove the 40 minutes between the first spa the shooter stormed and the second.

The New Jersey congressman left with few doubts about what motivated the crime. He didn’t come to a novel conclusion, but it was no less devastating a realization after authorities insisted the gunman didn’t commit a hate crime even though six of the eight victims were of Asian descent: “It was a very deliberate, targeted effort to go after Asian American businesses,” Kim said.

It became personal when Kim spoke with the victim’s families. He said hearing them describe their now-deceased Korean American mothers — how they worked hard to cook and provide for their families — reminded him of his own.

“This is a very historic moment,” Kim, a Democrat, said in a phone interview. “The future of how Asian Americans feel in this country, and whether or not they feel safe, whether or not we feel included and accepted, will very much depend on what happens in the coming weeks and months.”

Kim, who is 38 and the first Asian American lawmaker to represent New Jersey in Congress, is using his heartache to animate a leadership PAC he quietly opened in October to recruit Asian Americans and other candidates of color to run for political office.

The aim of his PAC — to steer an American political landscape overrepresented by white people toward greater diversity — is particularly daunting. While the House of Representatives is fairly close to parity with the U.S. population on Asian American members, that doesn’t hold true in many states, including New Jersey: Ten percent of people in the state are of Asian descent but just three Asian Americans hold office in the state’s 120-seat Legislature, or 2.5 percent.

His new PAC comes at a time when the nation is grappling with bigoted attacks against Asian Americans — a long hum of racism that the pandemic has “poured gasoline on,” Kim said — and a hope of channeling the energy in a positive way.

“The AAPI community has woken up and I’ve seen more energy there than I have before,” Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), who chairs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said in an interview, noting rallies across the country and an influx of support to Asian American groups. “I do believe that many people are saying: ‘We have to be involved.’”

Chu has a political career spanning 30-plus years and said the number of Asian American political candidates, particularly in local offices, has been steadily rising for years. But AAPI representation still has a long way to go, she said, and Kim’s PAC is a welcome next step.

Where many PACs are geared towards energizing Asian American voters and raising money, few of those centered on recruiting Asian American candidates have gained traction. That’s where Kim wants his — In Our Hands — to focus, signing up people to run for local, state and federal office.

Since Kim didn’t announce his PAC until March, it only amassed about $20,000 by the end of 2020, making the next fundraising disclosure at the end of July a crucial early metric. But in many ways, raising money and directing resources might be the easier lift while recruiting Asian American candidates may be the harder task.

Kim “will get the donations and the investments that he needs for the PAC,” Uyen “Winn” Khuong said. She’s executive director and founder of Action Together New Jersey, a group credited in part for helping push Kim to victory by boosting vote by mail returns. “His biggest hurdle is going to be finding candidates.”

He envisions a network of regional advisers who will identify and enlist candidates and support them as they launch their careers or climb higher in politics.

“I want to build some infrastructure and to be able to provide some support for other folks that are thinking about stepping up,” said Kim, a former national security adviser under President Barack Obama now in his second term in Congress. “I really do think that we need a government that looks a lot more like the rest of America.”

Kim is still in the early stages of strategizing the PAC, and the guts of operation still have a long way to go. His primary objective is to build a list of candidates, and Kim said he’s started speaking with elected officials, donors, activists and high-profile Asian Americans to help stoke interest. He also wants to assess what potential political hopefuls say they need or what’s deterred them from running.

Politics isn’t generally seen as a viable career path among Asian Americans, Khuong, Kim and others said, and part of that is woven into the various communities.

“Culturally, we’re told to just turn our head down and do the work,” said Madalene Xuan-Trang Mielke, president of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, a non-profit that helps Asian candidates. “Being an elected official means you actually have to stand up for your own values, see how it’s aligned with whatever issues are most important to you. That in itself is not something we’re used to, culturally.”

There’s also a broad sense that politics isn’t a profession the older generation of Asian Americans has embraced or encouraged, she said.

Khuong said Kim will need to do “major outreach” with younger Asian voters, who tend to be more politically active. And it’s not yet clear how he draws up recruiting strategies that bridge the vastness of an AAPI community who reflect families that came to the U.S. from many countries and under a variety of circumstances.

Much of Kim’s desire to form his PAC reflects the hurdles he faced when he first ran for Congress.

His resume checks plenty of boxes: University of Chicago grad, Rhodes Scholar, and career diplomat with stints at USAID, the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House. The 3rd Congressional District had gone for Barack Obama twice but swung for Donald Trump in 2016 (and stuck with him in 2020). Amid all that, Kim said he had to fight to be seen as a “credible candidate” when he ran for office two years later, and political strategists told him he would struggle in a district that is overwhelmingly white.

Although he’s tangled with racism before, Kim said the Covid-19 pandemic made it much more overt. The swirl of fear and scapegoating around the disease had made a lot of people more at ease saying racist things — a hateful stranger yelling for him to not touch things or feeling constantly “watched and judged.” Violence against elderly Asian Americans earlier this year made him concerned for his family’s safety and he’s worried about how rising geopolitical tensions with China will ricochet against Asian Americans.

“Just the level of comfort [strangers] had yelling and screaming horrible things was just even beyond anything I had experienced before,” said Kim, who was born in Boston and raised in Burlington County, N.J.

Amid the rise in bias attacks, Kim acknowledged he’s “leaning in in ways that are uncomfortable” for him and grappling with tough memories. Now, he’s using his platform on Twitter to elevate personal stories about racism, pushing legislation in Congress to make it easier for Asian Americans to report bias incidents, H.R. 6721 (116), and convening difficult conversations on discrimination.

He remains hopeful that some good will come out of the attention being brought to anti-Asian violence, but Kim is worried the momentum will fade.

“Can we move forward together even when this issue is not on the front pages of newspapers and in the banners of news programs?” he said. “Can we sustain this type of coalition and can we sustain this commitment? It’s too soon to know.”

Zach Montellaro contributed to this report.

A morning email with must-read analysis and breaking news on New Jersey politics and policy.

POLITICO New Jersey Pro’s high-level outlook on the policy issues driving the month in New Jersey.


This content was originally published here.

Back To Top
%d bloggers like this: