The First Korean American Women in Congress

Starting in January 2021, I have been a part of Passionfruit, a multilingual online non-profit publication centered around social justice. I have written a number of different opinion pieces for Passionfruit that I will be reposting. The posts were intended for bite-sized consumption, which challenges me to be as succinct as possible while still conveying important concepts. The original post with full credits can be found here.

April 20, 2021

From 1789 through 2020, no Korean women had ever served in the U.S. Congress; in January 2021, there were three. Michelle Eunjoo Steel and Young Oak Kim–Republicans from California–and Marilyn Strickland–a Democrat from Washington state–were all elected in November 2020. South Korean media covered these historic elections, and even has reported on subsequent actions taken by the congresswomen. If these politicians are poised to receive coverage in the Korean press, it is important to know who they are and what they stand for.

‍Marilyn Strickland was born in Seoul to a Korean mother and a Black father from the United States. When she was only five years old, she and her family moved to Tacoma, Washington – a city of which she would go on to become the first mayor of Asian descent. Strickland is considered a “centrist,” and is a member of the so-called New Democrat Coalition, a group of Democrats with fiscally conservative, socially liberal platforms. When leading the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, she fought a tax targeting large companies like Amazon.

‍Shortly after her election, Rep. Strickland’s identity was attacked by Rep. Jay Kim, a Republican and first Korean to serve in Congress: “The woman [Rep. Strickland] does not appear to be 100% Korean, and her husband is Black. The other fella [Rep. Andy Kim, D-NJ] has an Arab wife, I wish they were 100% Korean, a purebred like I am.” Strickland did not issue a response to Rep. Jay Kim’s comments, but has been vocal in her pride for her Korean heritage. In January 2021, Strickland made headlines for wearing a hanbok to her swearing-in.

In north Orange County, Young Kim lost badly to opponent Gil Cisneros in 2018 – only to out fundraise him by $1.5 million and ultimately defeat him in 2020. Rep. Young Kim, born in Incheon, is a conservative Republican: she voted against protecting LGBTQ people from housing and job discrimination, opposes legal abortion, and she failed to support the recent COVID-19 relief package. However, she has an independent streak: she criticized Donald Trump’s racist COVID-19 language, supports DACA, and supports some student loan forgiveness.

‍Michelle Steel, who was also born in South Korea and now represents a district in Orange County, holds even more conservative positions than Rep. Young Kim. While both representatives oppose same-sex marriage, abortion, and the Affordable Care Act, Rep. Steel has uncritically supported Donald Trump, campaigned heavily against mask-wearing during COVID-19, and once bragged about forcing her daughter to attend a new university after her daughter voiced support for Barack Obama and same-sex marriage.

‍Rep. Young Kim and Rep. Michelle Steel have recently landed in hot water after endorsing Sery Kim, an anti-immigration House candidate in Texas. A conservative Republican, Sery Kim made headlines for telling an audience, “I don’t want them [Chinese immigrants] here at all. They steal our intellectual property, they give us coronavirus, they don’t hold themselves accountable. And quite frankly, I can say that because I’m Korean.” Rep. Young Kim and Rep. Michelle Steel condemned the comments, but did not withdraw support for Sery Kim.

‍Although right-wing politicians portray Korean Americans and Asian Americans as traditionalist conservatives, the data tells a different picture. Since the early 1990s, Asian Americans have been supporting the Democratic Party more–and the Republican Party less–with each passing year. In the 2020 election, 63% of Asian Americans voted for Joe Biden; only 31% voted for Donald Trump. Experts say many younger Korean Americans’ move to the left can be explained by their less religious attitudes, as many Korean churches lean conservative.

‍Rep. Steel, Rep. Kim, and Rep. Strickland–with Rep. Andy Kim–recently introduced a bill to honor Korean American military veteran Young Oak Kim (no relation to Rep. Kim). The congresswomen were also unanimous in their criticism of Mark Ramseyer, who denies the history of Comfort women. However, one can expect that these three will not be working together with any frequency. Rep. Strickland’s center-left platform versus the hard-right conservatism of Rep. Kim and Rep. Steel will likely provide few opportunities for collaboration.


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