Ahn vs. Gomez race shows Korean American political clout still a work in progress

Candidate Robert Lee Ahn arrives to an enthusiastic crowd at La Fonda de Los Camperos on June 6, 2017, in Los Angeles, California. He lost the race for the 34th Congressional District seat to Jimmy Gomez.
Candidate Robert Lee Ahn arrives to an enthusiastic crowd at La Fonda de Los Camperos on June 6, 2017, in Los Angeles, California. He lost the race for the 34th Congressional District seat to Jimmy Gomez.
Daryl Barker/KPCC

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Details of the recent 34th Congressional District election released last week have been shedding light on the growing political participation by Korean Americans in Los Angeles.

State Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez solidly defeated former Los Angeles planning commissioner Robert Ahn in the race to fill the U.S. House seat formerly held by Xavier Becerra, now California attorney general.

Early on, the election between the two Democrats appeared to some as a slam-dunk for Gomez, whose name has high recognition in the 34th congressional region that overlaps a large swath of the assemblyman's district.

That advantage was challenged when Ahn's campaign, aided by the candidate's personal loans, matched Gomez in fundraising. Ahn then galvanized the Asian vote, urging supporters to cast early vote by mail ballots.

In the first release of the vote count on election night, Ahn came within a few percentage points of Gomez. But that would be the highlight of the evening for Ahn, a first-time candidate. Subsequent numbers clearly favored Gomez and Ahn quickly conceded the election.

An update on the vote count released by Los Angeles County election officials Friday showed Gomez currently has 60.85 percent of the vote to Ahn's 39.15 percent. About 1,700 ballots remain to be counted, but they will not affect the outcome.

The final vote count is expected Tuesday.

Ahn's strength among Korean American voters could be seen in the mail ballots that were returned ahead of the election. About half of all Korean Americans who received ballots, or roughly 5,800 voters, returned them, according to Paul Mitchell, vice president of the research firm Political Data Inc. Latino voters returned ballots early at a rate of only about 3 percent, according to Mitchell.

But Mitchell said Ahn's early advantage didn't hold up on election day. "[Gomez] really surpassed and over-performed at the polls," Mitchell said. 

Despite Ahn's defeat, some Korean Americans see clear political gains in the election.

"I think for a lot of the voters there's a sense of sadness, because they felt an incredible amount of hope," said Joon Bang, executive director of the nonprofit Korean American Coalition - Los Angeles. "[But] you saw a historic turnout within the Korean American community." 

Korean American candidates who have recently run for office in Los Angeles have had mixed results.

Bang said about 1,800 Korean American voters participated in Grace Yoo's 2015 Los Angeles City Council election, which ended in defeat. But L.A. City Councilman David Ryu won his seat in the same year with about 1,400 Koreans casting ballots. 

Ryu, the first Korean American to hold a seat on the City Council, represents District 4 that stretches from Coldwater Canyon through Griffith Park and takes in Sherman Oaks, Hollywood and Los Feliz. 

Korean Americans celebrated Ryu's election, but Ryu did not ride to victory on the Asian vote alone. Campaigning as an outsider, Ryu won in a diverse district, with Asians making up just a portion of the population. 

Ryu endorsed Ahn in his bid for the congressional seat. In an interview with KPCC at Ahn's election night party, Ryu said he hoped turnout in the special election would help spur a voting trend and a Democratic Party take-back of the U.S. House in 2018.

"I think this shows that we need to expand our base," said Ryu of his party. "Not just expand, but be inclusive of everyone."

An early precinct breakdown of the vote in the congressional race showed Ahn's unsurprising strength in communities like Koreatown and Little Tokyo but that was not enough to overcome Gomez' dominance in Latino neighborhoods in a district that is 64 percent Hispanic.

Bang said Asians across the nation are among the fastest-growing demographic groups and have the potential to develop into one of the most formidable voting blocs.

"You're seeing a lot of growth. You're seeing the Asian American community recognize the importance of having representation and the importance of exercising the right to vote and contributing to their full level of citizenship here in the United States," he said. 

The national political climate has played a role, Bang said. Since Trump's election in November, he said, there's been increased interest among Asian Americans in politics and their participation levels have risen.

"The biggest lesson learned is that, I think, Korean Americans have a voice," Bang said. "The Korean American community is a force to be reckoned with here."