Nearly 30 years ago, legislative aide Mike Woo shattered a barrier, becoming the first Asian American to win a seat on the Los Angeles City Council.
The milestone was hailed as a sign that Asian Americans had finally come into their own on the local political scene. But after losing a bid for mayor in 1993, he left office and became a historical figure in a different way, serving as the last — and therefore only — Asian American to hold office at City Hall.
That could change next year. Two Korean American candidates are running for council seats in the March 3 election, and they are offering strikingly different messages. One has been discussing the need to give Asian American voters a greater voice. The other is downplaying that notion in favor of broader themes.
Last week, Koreatown attorney Grace Yoo announced what is expected to be a long-shot bid to unseat Council President Herb Wesson, a veteran campaigner and one of the city's most powerful politicians. Yoo, 43, cut her political teeth helping Woo and other Asian American candidates across the country run for political office. At a news conference discussing her candidacy, she called for greater progress by Asian Americans in city contests.
"It's time for us to take a seat at the table," she said.
Just north of Wesson's 10th District, hospital director David Ryu is one of 14 candidates looking to replace Councilman Tom LaBonge, who represents neighborhoods from Silver Lake to the San Fernando Valley. Like Yoo, Ryu came to the U.S. as a child from South Korea. Also like Yoo, he was active in the 2012 City Hall fight over redistricting, the process where politicians draw new boundaries for the city's 15 council districts.
Yoo said she was running, in part, because of the controversial map-making process, which sparked an outcry from activists who wanted Koreatown, and areas around it, placed in a single council district. Ryu, on the other hand, says he's not focusing on that 2-year-old dispute.
Asked Wednesday if the council needs someone of Asian American descent, he said: "I think we should have the best qualified candidates on the council."
The 2012 redistricting fight was one of the more tumultuous episodes at City Hall in recent years. Korean American activists took aim at Wesson, asserting that he and his colleagues drew maps that diluted the political power of the neighborhood, which has a sizable Korean population but is even more heavily Latino.
Yoo and others called on the council to combine Koreatown, Thai Town and Historic Filipinotown into a single district, saying it would increase the chances of electing an Asian American and give those communities a greater voice in city decisions. An Asian American city leader would be more mindful of issues such as language barriers and cultural differences, backers of the proposal argued.
They also pointed to the numbers. L.A.'s population is around 11% Asian and 10% black, according to the 2010 census. African Americans occupy three of the council's 15 seats, and Asian Americans hold none. After the redistricting plan was approved, Yoo helped find plaintiffs to file a federal civil rights lawsuit challenging the new boundaries.
Wesson declined to discuss the redistricting vote, still a focus of litigation.
Whether Yoo can draw votes at the other end of Wesson's district, in heavily African American South Los Angeles, is far from clear. Meanwhile, Wesson is not giving an inch on his work in Koreatown, saying through a spokesman that he has "an exceptional record of achievement" in that community.
"It was Herb Wesson who got the first Korean American senior center in L.A. built," said spokesman Ed Johnson. "It was Herb Wesson who obtained the land for the new Korean American Museum. And it's Herb Wesson who has invested millions in park improvements at Seoul International Park, Lafayette Park and is now planning a new park and much-needed open space in Koreatown."
Differences between Ryu and Yoo can be seen in other areas. To the surprise of many at City Hall, Ryu has raised about $265,000, more than any of his rivals. Yoo has taken in closer to $10,000, much of it from family.
The difference in the messages of the candidates doesn't surprise Woo, the former city councilman, now dean of Cal Poly Pomona's College of Environmental Design. In Wesson's district, Yoo is capitalizing on residual anger among Korean American activists over the redistricting process, he said. In LaBonge's area, Ryu must assemble a coalition that extends well beyond his base of Korean American supporters, the former lawmaker said.
Woo said he pursued such a strategy in 1985, raising money from Chinese Americans while portraying himself as an ally of Israel and a backer of gay rights. He ran campaign commercials in Armenian.
"The dilemma for Asian American candidates is how to take advantage of the support from your Asian ethnic base, but doing so in a way that doesn't prevent you from broadening and diversifying your support," he said.
Yoo has been talking to business owners along Pico Boulevard, in a part of Wesson's district outside of Koreatown. Ryu, a onetime aide to former L.A. County Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke, has been walking door to door in Sherman Oaks, a vote-rich Valley community at the district's northwest edge.
LaBonge's 4th District also suffered in the districting process, Ryu said. The council redrew the boundaries so that it runs from Los Feliz on the east to the 405 on the west, with spurs jutting into Toluca Lake and Miracle Mile. Residents who see the map, he said, are "appalled and can't understand the logic of it."
Whether Ryu, 39, can break away from the pack of candidates remains to be seen. He is running against several seasoned political aides, as well as a former state lawmaker, and has struggled to provide specifics on key issues. Still, Yoo faces a considerably steeper climb against Wesson, a formidable fundraiser and tactician.
Asian American candidates would have a better shot at victory at City Hall if the voters increased the number of council seats, making each district smaller, said Charlie Woo, chairman of the Center for Asian Americans United for Self Empowerment, which focuses on boosting civic participation among residents of Asian descent. Another difficulty, said Woo, is that Asian American voters are widely dispersed across the city and region.
A prominent Los Angeles-based businessman and Chinese American community leader, Woo illustrates how residential patterns can affect the dynamics of City Hall campaigns. He regularly confers with L.A. officials and gives to their campaigns. But he lives in Rancho Palos Verdes, outside L.A.