- Photo by David Rolland
Carol Kim believes she’s the first Korean-American to run for elected office in San Diego County, and, to a large extent, she owes the opportunity—along with at least some of her guiding philosophy—to her father.
Kim’s parents immigrated to the United States from South Korea in the mid-1970s, after her dad, the son of a low-income single mother from a small fishing village, graduated from college with a degree in chemical engineering and was offered a job in the Midwest. When he and his new bride arrived in Los Angeles with $350 to their names, he learned the job had fallen through. Kim’s mother, who came from a comfortable middle-class family, had been a supervising nurse in Korea, but her license didn’t translate to her new country. Suddenly, they were stuck in L.A. with no prospects.
Kim’s dad started his new life in the U.S. as a day laborer, her mom on the lowest rung at a nursing home. But, in her off time, Kim’s mother made baby pillows and blankets using remnants from a fabric store, which they’d sell at a swap meet. That eventually led to their own clothing retail store, which led to a clothing-manufacturing business and a comfortable life for Kim and her three younger siblings. Kim graduated from UCLA with an English degree, later earning a master’s in education, and went on to a career in teaching and social services.
“My father, I think because of his origins, his particular life story, he has always been very motivated by trying to give back and do good,” she says. “When we were children, he would tell us, ‘We work hard so that we can help others; you’re successful so that you can help others.’
“I say that he’s my moral compass,” she adds.
The next way Kim, who’s 37, hopes to do good is by representing District 6 on the San Diego City Council. In June, she’ll be on the ballot for an open seat, which is being vacated because the current representative, Lorie Zapf, is running for the open District 2 seat—when San Diego was redistricted after the 2010 census, Zapf’s residence ended up in District 2. District 6 covers Rancho Penasquitos, Mira Mesa, Miramar, Kearny Mesa and Clairemont Mesa. The district’s voters are fairly evenly divided among Democrats (33.6 percent), Republicans (31.7 percent) and those who decline to state a party affiliation (29.5 percent). Kim’s a Democrat whose most formidable opponent will be Republican Chris Cate, vice president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association.
This year, the four even-numbered City Council seats are up for election. Zapf, a Republican, will face Democrat Sarah Boot in District 2. Myrtle Cole is up for reelection in District 4. If he wins the mayor’s race, David Alvarez’s District 8 seat will be open; if he loses, he’ll run for reelection. For her part, Kim thinks it’s important for the council to benefit from the working-mother perspective.
It’s interesting, then, that Kim figured she’d be a stay-at-home mom when she relocated to San Diego from upstate New York in 2006 with her husband, who’d been hired by a software company here. The couple’s son, Rowan, now 8, was just a baby then. But housework just didn’t suit her.
“It was actually my mother-in-law,” Kim says. “She told me I was more useful outside the home than in it and encouraged me to look for work. She meant well. She was trying to be helpful, and she was.”
So, Kim hooked on with WestEd, an education-focused nonprofit. She works in the company’s health-and-human-development program, evaluating grant-funded projects and writing grants for school districts to fund services like school safety, health, violence prevention and drug and alcohol awareness.
Kim had moved from Orange County to New York in 2002 to be with her husband, then a graduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. While there, Kim worked for the AIDS Council of Northeastern New York. She’d expected to get a teaching job, but with the economy in the tank, the school districts weren’t hiring. She ended up loving the work with the AIDS Council, though. Starting as a trainer, she was promoted to prevention-projects manager, overseeing grant-funded programs that targeted high-risk populations—particularly active and recovering drug users, but also communities of color, the LGBT community, high-risk adolescents and foster children.
That was the second career she wasn’t excited to see end. The first had been as a teacher in Los Angeles at an inner-city elementary school in a high-poverty neighborhood. She’d gotten that job right out of college on an emergency teaching credential, a 22-year-old handed a third-grade class populated by troubled kids that was assembled, she says, with an experienced male teacher in mind. Still, she loved that first year and stayed for three more before having to move to New York.
Kim had long paid attention to national politics, and, in 2012, she packed up her kids—Rowan and Kate, now 4—and headed over to the local Organizing for America headquarters to volunteer in President Obama’s reelection campaign. She was enlisted for phone-bank duty and so impressed organizers after her first day, they asked her if she wanted a higher role. She offered to help train new volunteers.
“That was kind of the beauty of that particular campaign,” Kim says. “You’d walk in and you’d say, ‘I want to do this,’ and they’d say, ‘Alright, here,’ and they would let you do it.”
After Obama won, Kim, having caught the activism bug, was among a core group of volunteers that would continue to meet and work on community-service projects together. After Organizing for America became the issues-focused Organizing for Action, Kim got a call to help work on matters such as gun-violence prevention, comprehensive immigration reform and environmental issues. She pulled her now-campaign manager, Kathy Stadler, from that experience.
Last year, a friend mentioned that there were no Democrats in the District 6 race. Kim researched the candidates and “started to feel some real qualms.” Another friend suggested she run. Kim dismissed the notion at first but began to worry that no Democrat would run, “so I decided to throw my hat into the ring and see what happened.” That was last April. She won her party’s endorsement in September.
“I’m kind of excited to be able to say that there’s a pathway to these positions for people who are not from the [political] system,” Kim says, “not part of that particular insular group to start with.”
As she’s talked to District 6 residents, she’s learned that they’re angry about potholes, traffic and wayward shopping carts. More importantly, they’re feeling disconnected from local government.
One idea she’d like to steal from San Francisco is participatory budgeting—creating a pocket of money that could be divvied up for district projects based on a democratic vote of district residents, who could be as young as 16. “It’s entirely community-driven,” she says.
She’d also like to help small businesses and entrepreneurs by staffing her office with a small-business liaison to connect people with the resources they need to get started, or help get immigrants over language barriers. Kim wants to help expand after-school programs, too. “Of course, that costs money, but, again, it’s a matter of deciding where our priorities are.”
If elected, Kim says she’d call on her experience in working collaboratively. “All of that stuff is about trust and relationships and being honest and having people realizing that you’re not there to undermine them, but to help build them up,” she says. “I hear that it may be a little idealistic, but I think, at heart, people are people, and that’s what’s important.
“I have a worldview,” she adds. “It’s that I believe we all do better when we work together; I think that we’re all connected. I think that when the least of us do well, the rest of us do really well. I think that we need to… focus on providing services to families and folks and individuals and make things a little bit less hard, if we can.”