[This is the abridged version that ran in the print edition of the paper.]
As America was electing its first black president on Nov. 4, a small town in Orange County elected its first Korean mayor. For the first time in its 37-year history, Irvine welcomed to the city’s highest position Sukhee Kang, who previously served as mayor pro tempore. However, people know that there is more to a leader than his or her ethnic background. Deny it as you might, change has finally come.
New University: What year and why did you come to America?
Sukhee Kang: I came to America 31 years ago in 1977 from South Korea after receiving my Bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from Korea University in Seoul, Korea because I wanted to make a better life for myself and I knew there would be better opportunities for me and my family to succeed in America. I also liked what the United States stood for: equality, freedom and democracy, and I wanted to be a part of the American dream.
New U: Were there any challenges you faced coming to America?
Kang: Oh, of course. I came to America right after college, newly married to my wife Joanne; I had no money or any job experience. Like many college students today, I never had to work a day in my life in South Korea, but when I came to America I had to apply for a job for the first time and learn an entirely new language.
New U: Where did you begin your professional career?
Kang: I began my professional career at Circuit City as a sales and customer service representative. Everyday, instead of giving just 100 percent to the job I gave 150 percent, I wanted to do everything possible to show management that I was capable of working harder than anybody else in the company. And all the hard work paid off because after 15 years of working in the company, I was promoted to a senior management position. And later I earned recognition for my service-oriented philosophy, which ultimately lead me to the company’s highest honor — induction into the “Colonel’s Club,” which recognized my dedication and service to the company and its customers.
New U: What inspired you to get involved and run for a public office in the city of Irvine?
Kang: Well there were a lot of things that inspired me to get involved in my community. My family is definitely one of them. As a father of two, I realized that it was my responsibility to get involved and help improve my community in order to give my children a better life and childhood.
I have also been actively involved in the Korean community. For example, my past services in the Korean Community include serving as chairman of the Korean American Coalition Orange County and president of the Korean American Education Scholarship Foundation.
All of these involvements provided me with an introduction to community leadership that ultimately inspired me to run for Irvine City Council. Also the L.A. [Los Angeles] riots in ’92 inspired me to get actively involved in my community.
New U: How did the riots inspire you to get involved specifically in the Irvine Community? Were you personally affected by them?
Kang: I wasn’t personally affected, but what happened in L.A. had an emotional effect on me. I remember turning on my TV and watching the riots unfold throughout L.A. and I remember thinking, this isn’t the United States I know. On TV, I remember watching seven hundred or more Korean-owned businesses in L.A. being burned down and looted and I just couldn’t help thinking that the United States is suppose to represent equality, freedom and democracy, and in a way the L.A. riots ruined that image.
It was around that time that I was inspired to get involved in the Irvine community. I wanted to be involved in improving education and public safety throughout the city of Irvine. I also wanted to get involved in Irvine, because I never wanted to see what happened in L.A. to happen in Irvine.
New U: Besides being a city council member, do you have any other political experience?
Kang: I have served as a governor’s appointee on the California Workforce Investment Board and was the mayor’s appointee to the Irvine Finance Commission.
As a City Council member and Mayor Pro Tem, I have served as a member of the Orange County Great Park Board, Orange County Sanitation District Board, Transportation Corridor Agency Board, Executive Steering Committee of the League of California Cities, Orange County Division and Orange County Transportation Authority Measure M Super Committee.
As a role model for community leadership, I was recently honored the Community Leadership Award by the Asian Pacific Islanders Heritage Council of Orange County.
New U: Who is your role model?
Kang: Martin Luther King, Jr. He never held a public office and that is a reminder that an ordinary citizen can do extraordinary things for the American society. King saw injustice, and through non-violent means he fought against discrimination and segregation and brought about a greater measure of social justice in America.
New U: How did you get your name out there in the Irvine community?
Kang: Well, first of all before I could even run for a position, I had to make sure that I helped get a lot of people, mostly Koreans, registered to vote. So for seven to eight years, I invested time in going around the Irvine community and registering as much people as possible.
I believe that voting is critical in our democracy because by registering to vote, and voting, people are in a sense voicing their opinions and voting to elect someone they want to lead.
After helping register people throughout the community, I wanted to challenge the system and use my own name. As you can tell my name is not a common American name, but I didn’t want to change it because I believed that my unique name would help in the long run.
New U: How did you think that your name would help you?
Kang: Well, Sukhee Kang is not a typical American name, and I believed that by having a different name, the people of Irvine would see that I was not like every other politician in Irvine, but that I was in fact different and more diverse than present Irvine officials.
New U: Going back to a previous question, besides registering voters, were there any other ways you were able to get your name out in the Irvine community?
Kang: I walked. I walked and knocked on many doors throughout the Irvine community. I must have visited and knocked on almost 16,000 doors. By going from door to door, I was able to introduce myself to the people of Irvine, and given enough time and knocking on enough doors, the people of Irvine began to see that I was a real hard worker.
After a while of seeing my name on lots of posters throughout the community and talking to me, the people of Irvine knew who they wanted to vote for. And on election night in 2004, for the position of city council member I won by 350 votes.
New U: How does it feel to be elected as the first Korean American mayor of Irvine?
Kang: It feels great to just be elected mayor. I not only feel the pleasure of being elected but I also feel a lot of responsibility to carry. My primary goal is listening to residents’ input and concerns that will be incorporated into policy making. As mayor, it will be my responsibility to be a facilitator.
Due to space constraints, only a portion of this article is included here. For the entire article, please visit www.newuniversity.org
Yasmin Nouh contributed to this article.