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Ryu victory a milestone, says Mike Woo, L.A.'s first Asian American politician

Election of David Ryu, who will be L.A.'s only Asian American councilman, called 'extremely significant'

The election of David Ryu made history -- he is the first Korean American elected to the Los Angeles City Council and just the second Asian American elected since the city was incorporated in 1850.

The first was Mike Woo in 1985. He served eight years as the councilman in the 13th District, which at that time stretched from Sherman Oaks to Silver Lake. In the waning days of the election, Woo endorsed Ryu.

“I thought that the voters in the district were ready for a change," said Woo, who is now the dean of the College of Environmental Design at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. "The way David was positioning his campaign, especially about the influence of real estate development and trying to refocus on basic nuts-and-bolts issues like cracks in the sidewalks and the conditions of the alleys, the voters were ready for that."

The fact that Ryu is Korean American makes his election "extremely significant," Woo said, noting that in some ways, Ryu now becomes a representative for all Asian American constituents in Los Angeles.

"The Korean American community has been talking about this for a long time," he said. "David is the first one to get to the top of the mountain."

Ryu's election could do more than simply diversify the council. When Woo was in City Hall, he used his position to recruit more Asian Americans to the Los Angeles Police Department.

"There are many ramifications that probably aren’t visible to the general public," he said.

When he was elected in 1985, Woo said he was overwhelmed with requests from Asian Americans throughout Southern California who saw him as a "vocal and visible symbol." But it can be a balancing act when a council member hears from Angelenos who live in other council districts. Woo cautioned that other politicians may become "resentful" if Ryu and his staff intrude on district-specific issues.

Ryu's victory comes just three years after a coalition of Asian American activists lobbied the city's Redistricting Commission to create a council district that would incorporate the communities of Koreatown, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Historic Filipinotown, Little Bangladesh and Thai Town. Ultimately, that effort was unsuccessful.

In the 4th District, 7.4% of registered voters are Asian American, according to a 2012 city analysis. Woo estimated that Asian Americans represented 5% of voters when he was elected 30 years ago. Their victories show that Asian American candidates win by building coalitions, said Karin Wang with Asian Americans Advancing Justice. 

 “The big lesson learned from yesterday’s election is that Mike and David have succeeded because they’ve learned not only to capitalize on support in their own communities but to build bridges across different communities,” Wang said.

Follow @TheCityMaven for more news about L.A. City Hall.

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