Two years ago, Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson shared a happy moment with Koreatown's civic leaders, basking in their praise as they thanked him for putting their neighborhood — complete with new street signs — on the official city map.
Now, that jubilant moment seems a distant memory. Koreatown neighborhood leaders, civic groups and activists are locked in a rare display of open political insurrection against Wesson, a seasoned politician who has spent the last six years representing much of their community.
With growing political, organizing and fundraising clout, an array of Koreatown leaders have been trying to move their neighborhood out of Wesson's district and into a neighboring one, as part of the once-in-a-decade process of redistricting. Wesson is pushing in the opposite direction, favoring a map that would send his district deeper into Koreatown.
What began as a campaign of aspiration and hope centered on improving the chances of electing an Asian American lawmaker has turned into a bitter clash over Wesson's leadership — one that threatens to cast a shadow over his recent ascension to council president.
In hearings attended by hundreds of Korean Americans, activists have accused Wesson of ignoring neighborhood needs while treating their area like an ATM, raising tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Korean American businesses. They also contend Wesson and his aides have been callous, even vindictive.
Wesson dismissed the allegations, saying he has worked diligently on plans for a new Koreatown park, a new senior center and new real estate projects. Critics have shown "bad form," he said, by publicly making what he said are false accusations about Michael Bai, a deputy who has worked on Koreatown issues.
"They made it personal when this is professional — and business," he said.
The struggle represents a milestone for Koreatown, which has long been passive in its interactions with city government, said Hyepin Im, president and chief executive of Korean Churches for Community Development. That so many people have spoken up shows that "something is wrong," Im said.
"We want better representation than what we have so far," she said. "If that means that people are taking it personally, so be it."
In crowded public hearings and small private meetings with council members, Korean Americans have criticized the new redistricting maps, saying they want their neighborhood — the area covered by the Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council — to be combined with two other Asian enclaves north of Wesson's district: Thai Town and Historic Filipinotown. That would make it easier to elect an Asian American, they said.
The tensions were on display Wednesday, when more than 100 people wearing "I Love K-Town" T-shirts crowded into City Council chambers. Robert Park, 21, told Wesson and his colleagues that Koreatown has too few public amenities and is scarred by litter and graffiti.
"In order to change that, we need a dedicated leader who has the same passion and vision as us," he said.
Wesson should take the complaints seriously, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.
"The Koreatown leaders probably wouldn't be as upset about the district lines if they felt they were being heard on a more ongoing basis," he said.
Koreatown and the city's wider Korean American business community have been critical to Wesson's political ambitions. A Times analysis of Wesson's campaign contributions found that at least one-third of the amount he raised last year, or more than $84,000, came from Korean donors.
Some of that money came from the Korean bars and nightclubs that rely on city alcohol permits. Korean American activists have suggested, without offering proof, that those donors felt pressure to contribute. At one hearing, a Korean American activist yelled out the number of a local corruption hotline.
"The small business owners … are too afraid to speak out about the extortion, the bribery, the threats," said Caroline Sim, moments before her microphone was turned off.
Such confrontational tactics trouble leaders like Chang Y. Lee, a businessman who has helped raise money for Wesson. Although he initially backed the efforts to move Koreatown out of Wesson's district, Lee said he now wants to move on and let the council president "work on what caused all this."
"I think we made enough noise. He must have heard us," Lee said.
Seeds of the Koreatown discontent date to 2008 — and what many describe as maneuvering by Wesson to merge two redevelopment zones — one in Koreatown, the other in Mid-City.
That proposal would have allowed tax revenue to be moved from the booming Koreatown area to other neighborhoods. But it drew protests from groups who feared Koreatown would be drained of resources for parks, affordable housing and other improvements.
The merger was eventually abandoned. Yonah Hong, a redevelopment agency employee, said that in the midst of that debate, her boss warned her to "be careful" about granting redevelopment funds to Koreatown groups that had drawn the ire of Wesson's office.
Wesson said his staff never told redevelopment officials to punish critics. "Nobody ordered or told them how to do their job," he said.
For Wesson, the uproar in Koreatown has come as a surprise. But he insisted that the protests do not represent the entire community and promised to reach out to Koreatown's new, more outspoken generation of activists.
"If things go the way that I hope, because I've invested a lot of time in Koreatown, I'll just have to do my best to connect" with them, he said.