On January 9, 2018, Young Kim received an unexpected phone call.
Kim’s former boss, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), had just announced his retirement less than 24 hours prior, and running for Congress couldn’t have been further from her mind.
“You’re the best person who can replace me and run and win the seat,” Kim recalled Royce telling her over the phone to her surprise. “With that assurance and the confidence that my old boss had in me to replace him […] I was very certain that I could go on and fight the fight.”
At the time, the rigors and grind that come with running for Congress, especially in the current political climate, were not in her immediate plans. But Kim, a 55-year-old small business owner and a former California assemblywoman, is no stranger to facing challenges head-on.
Fast-forward to August, and Kim is now a slight favorite to win one of the most competitive House races in Southern California.
If elected to represent California’s diverse 39th Congressional District, not only would Kim be the first Korean-American woman elected to Congress, but she’d be just the second Korean-American individual ever on Capitol Hill.
“Not so fast. Young Kim is on the way.”
The stakes are hefty. But Kim, who worked for the outgoing Royce when he was a state senator and later a congressman, recognizes the historic nature of her candidacy while also remaining focused on fighting to represent a district she’s called home for years.
“For me, to represent such a diverse district as an Asian-American, and to think that I would be the first Korean-American woman to serve in Congress, it is historic,” Kim told IJR in an exclusive interview. “But more than the historic significance of it, I’m just excited that we have an opportunity to elect a female representative who fits this district, who’s worked in this district, who has raised and built a family here.”
Kim emigrated from South Korea in 1975 after finishing elementary school, making stops in both Guam and Hawaii along her way to the mainland. As a child, she remembers her mother taking her down to the beaches of Guam and “collecting cans, bottles, and whatever else we could find to recycle,” which she later realized was part of her family’s efforts to assimilate.
She now lives in the southeastern California district with her husband, with whom she has four children.
If elected, Kim said she’ll fight to preserve the opportunities the United States has provided to her and her family through what she calls fair but compassionate immigration policy.
“I am an immigrant myself. I’m talking about fairness, compassion, and securing the border,” she said. “When I talk about fairness, I’m talking about people like me and many others who come here waiting in line for their chance at the American dream. Coming here legally.
“When we talk about compassion, there are asylum seekers that come here from countries that persecute them or they are from war-torn countries, they are fleeing that environment,” Kim added.
“I call America my adopted country,” she said, noting that her past has “given me a worldview and different perspective of what the American dream is.”
And in an election cycle that’s proved difficult for Republicans who chafe against President Donald Trump’s policies or Twitter outbursts, Kim stands defiantly against the administration’s controversial family separation policy.
“I don’t believe in family separation,” Kim said. “If we are going to process them, we need to keep the family units together. If we are going to deport them, keep the family units together.”
“This is the American dream I’m living. If I can do it, anybody can do it.”
Democrats have targeted CA-39 as one of 10 Republican seats they hope to flip this year, partly because of the district’s diverse demographics and immigrant population. Kim’s Democratic opponent, Gil Cisneros, is outraising her financially — mostly due to the lottery winner dumping millions of his own money into the race.
But since announcing her candidacy earlier in the year, Kim’s campaign has provided Republicans with a jolt of excitement in a race that previously looked worrisome for the GOP.
“I am running against someone who doesn’t live in the district,” Kim said regarding Cisneros, a Navy veteran. “But you know what? I look and talk like this district. This is a district I know.
“Not so fast. Young Kim is on the way,” she added.
And Kim’s candidacy is turning out to possibly be a dynamite move for Republicans trying to hold onto the California district come November. Shortly after Royce announced he wouldn’t seek re-election, the Cook Political Report quickly shifted the CA-39’s midterm prospects from the “lean Republican” category to “lean Democratic.”
And while Cisneros has recently faced criticism from an ad by the Congressional Leadership Fund — a super PAC focused on electing Republicans to Congress — pointing out that the Democrat had invested money in companies doing business in Iran and highlighting fresh allegations that he sexually harassed a prominent California Democrat, Kim so far has chosen to stay above the fray.
“I don’t want to talk about my opponent,” Kim said when asked about the ad. “Let the voters decide. I’m running on my record. Especially since I’ve been consistently out and about in the community. They know my record as someone who has worked across the aisle to get things done in a bipartisan way. I’m proud of my record.”
In response to the ad and the allegations made against the Democrat candidate, Cisneros’ campaign pointed IJR to a statement previously posted on their website.
“Paul Ryan’s Super PAC also dredges up a totally false allegation of misconduct. Every legitimate news outlet that has researched this false allegation has found that it is simply not true,” the statement reads in part. “There are multiple eyewitnesses, including a local Emmy Award-winning television journalist, that fundamentally contradict the alleged events and can verify that the allegations are completely false.”
When asked about the allegations against Cisneros, especially considering the #MeToo movement, Kim said women should be believed but didn’t directly address the controversy.
“I am a woman, but I am running because I believe I am the better candidate,” she said. “Women should be able to run on their own record and have the confidence to run. Women should be believed. Women should be taken seriously. We can get things done.”
And if Kim can get things done at the ballot box in November, it would be a historic way to mark the 115-year anniversary of the arrival of the first Korean immigrants to the United States. FiveThirtyEight recently gave her a 56 percent chance of winning, which would make her one of only two Korean-American individuals to serve in Congress and the first to do so in nearly a quarter of a century.
While it’s reasonable to assume that the historic nature of Kim’s campaign must weigh heavy on her, you wouldn’t know it by talking to her. With levity and charm, Kim insists that she’s solely focused on preserving the American dream — which has so greatly benefited her and her family — for the constituents she hopes to represent in Congress.
“I am working hard to preserve the hard work of the first-generation immigrant business owners, hard-working immigrant families like my family did, so they can realize the American dream,” Kim said.
“The American dream is very much alive,” she added. “If someone like me, a young girl from South Korea, can do what I do and one day run for the United States Congress? This is the American dream I’m living.”
“If I can do it, anybody can do it.”