Los Angeles will have its first-ever Korean American city councilmember after David Ryu's win in the Fourth District runoff Tuesday.
Ryu got 53.85 percent of the vote, beating out Carolyn Ramsay, who was chief of staff for outgoing councilmember Tom LaBonge.
This makes Ryu the first Asian American to hold a council seat since 1993, when then-councilmember Mike Woo left to run for mayor.
“It is a very big deal," said Yongho Kim of the Korean American Resource Center in Los Angeles. "There is growing voting power, voting influence of Asian Americans.”
Political scientist Fernando Guerra of Loyola Marymount University agreed, but added it also helped that Ryu ran a strong campaign — and that he was viewed as an outsider.
“Number one, he’s an outsider," said Guerra, who directs the university's Center for the Study of Los Angeles. "But I think being Korean American did allow him to raise some money from a targeted community, and it did allow for others to identity with him, and to have a hardcore base… But let me tell you something, he wouldn’t have won if he only got Korean American or Asian American votes.”
Ryu's efforts reaching out to homeowners helped him gain broader support in his district, Guerra said, giving him a significant margin, despite his lack of support from City Hall.
Ryu's election comes after a longtime push by Asian American activists for greater political representation at the local level. An attempt to create a unified Koreatown district fell through during the most recent redistricting of political boundaries, prompting a lawsuit.
One prominent Korean American activist, Grace Yoo, ran unsuccessfully for the 10th District seat in the primary earlier this year. Yoo told KPCC last week that City Hall was operating "like an old boys' club."
The council's current makeup is mostly male. Only one woman currently holds a seat, though Latinos and African Americans are well-represented.
Kim of the Korean Resource Center described Asian Americans' push to diversity local politics as similar to those waged by other groups in the past.
"It's just like how Latinos, and earlier in the 1960s African Americans, saw the City Council as mostly white," Kim said, "In terms of representation and people that voters can identify with."
Guerra said that is changing. Asian Americans already hold elected high offices in the Bay Area and at the state level.
"I think Asian Americans feel very secure, economically, socially and politically, to be part of this fabric, and are putting themselves out as candidates," Guerra said. "You can't win if you don't run. Asian Americans are running great campaigns, and are therefore having victories in significant elected offices."