Asians are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in America, but are severely underrepresented at all levels of government. This November, a record number of Asian American and Pacific Islander candidates are running for Congress and trying to change that. In 2017, history was made with 18 Asian Americans elected to Congress. With 468 seats in Congress up for election this year, I hope that we can make history once again by breaking that record of an Asian American in Congress.
Thirty-one-time marathoner and former Chief of Staff for both Boston mayor Martin J. Walsh and Arianna Huffington, Dan Koh, is running for Congress in Massachusetts’s 3rd district. If elected, he would be the first Asian American member of Congress from Massachusetts, and the second-ever Korean-American member of Congress in our country’s history. I had a chance to speak to Dan Koh about why he is running and how the current political climate is calling on young people to take action to stand up for a more inclusive America.
I hope that his responses energize you to seek out opportunities to learn and get involved in your community — perhaps even on his campaign:
What made you want to run for Congress now?
“I have been inspired by the power of young people to make a difference for a very long time now. Growing up I was pretty active in my town’s healthy community initiatives, making sure that people were leading healthy lives. I worked for Ted Kennedy for a few summers both in high school and college, and it inspired me to understand that people who really wanted to get involved in public service could make a difference in their communities even before they were old enough to vote – and that was really exciting to me. Especially in today’s political climate, I think it is really important that the Democratic Party and people who feel really strongly that the country needs to go in a different direction than the way this president is bringing us really need to step up and try to make change — and that is what I’m trying to do in running for Congress.”
Was there a specific moment that sparked your interest in public service?
“When I was sixteen-years-old, I was at my Board of Health meeting where they were having a conversation on whether or not to ban smoking in restaurants. Back then, smoking or non-smoking was a very typical question when you walked into a restaurant. You would smell cigarettes no matter where you were. I remember at the very end of the meeting, I testified and said that when young people see cigarette smoke and adults smoking they learn that that is just what adults do. They later voted to enact the smoking ban and cited the testimony as one of the reasons that they did it. That, to me, was really inspiring because I wasn’t even old enough to vote but I felt like I made a difference and was able to help people that day. That was the first realization to me that getting active in your community can really make a difference.”
Was running for office a dream or goal of yours growing up?
“I knew I wanted to be a part of the public sector and I had a passion for it, but I didn’t know how that would manifest itself. Working for Ted Kennedy and then at the city level of government in my career taught me and reinforced that if you work in government for the right reasons then you can help people. I really believe in government and its ability to help people.”
How has your racial and ethnic background shaped your candidacy?
“My family came from two different parts of the world: Korea and Lebanon. They met in the United States, a country that was inclusive and welcoming to them, and were able to have the American Dream. Now, a Korean and Lebanese kid has a chance to be a Congressman. So, I take that very seriously. I hold the process that every person that comes to this country very close to my heart. It gives me a perspective on making sure that government creates an environment that people who have been here for many or a few generations know that the system is here to help them. I think that too often people feel like the system is rigged against them. Having been the product of an environment where the system is rooting for somebody, I feel responsible for fighting for that system for generations to come for both recent immigrants and people who have been in this country for a long time and now think the cards are stacked against them.
“I grew up without a lot of Asian American role models in leadership — and that includes politics, business, and a number of different areas. That is a difficult thing for Asian Americans. From an academic perspective, Asian Americans have historically succeeded in many areas. But when you look at Fortune 500 companies or Congress or even if you look at any other areas of leadership, Asian Americans are severely underrepresented relative to their academic achievements. I think part of that is cultural but a lot of that is that Asian American families, especially parents who play a significant role in the lives of their kids, don’t see those role models there and then don’t see it as a viable path for their kids. The more Asian Americans in leadership, the more paths become viable for children who are aspiring to get involved in different sectors that aren’t typically those represented by Asian Americans. Certainly, that is something I care deeply about as an Asian American and someone who wants to see more people of color in leadership positions in general.”
If elected, you would be the first Democrat of Korean descent in Congress, how does that feel?
“I am focused every day on earning every single vote in the district, and it would be an honor. It is something that I take very. Seriously, but my focus is mainly on earning every single vote and working as hard as I can to do that. When I see people of color who are fighting for a more inclusive America and want to see a change from Donald Trump’s view of America — that is the kind of America I want to be a part of.”
Do you feel a part of a larger national movement of young people running for office?
“I think young people and people of color, for a long time, have felt that they wanted to be more civically engaged and haven’t been. Especially after the 2016 election there is a real wave of people who are stepping up and are not being complacent. There is a lot of new blood that has entered the political sphere and that is really good for this country and is really exciting. More diversity in DC is always exciting and the more the better.”
Have you experienced racism and/or ageism along the campaign trail?
“I think that people of color continue to face issues of racism. We are posting new ads and sometimes we get responses that are racially tinged. But that is a part of being in the public eye. I wish it weren’t happening but it’s a reminder that this exists and we have to fight against it every day. In the America that I believe in, we are an inclusive country of immigrants — that is something we have to protect and fight for. The more people see people of color in leadership positions, the rareness of it will go away, and the better we can do that.”
What are main tenets of your policy platform?
“Two things: health care and jobs. I believe every single person in this country deserves access to quality affordable health care. I think that this president is trying to take health care away from millions and millions of people across this country, and that is wrong. We need to be fighting to increase access, not trying to take it away. Secondly, jobs. I think everyone deserves a well-paying job with upward mobility. We’re now in an environment where people aren’t being compensated in commencement with the work that they do — and it continues to get worse every single day. We need to fight for a tax cut that doesn’t just help a very small percentage of people and is all about corporate profits, but is about empowering the middle class to achieve the American Dream. That is important to me. As someone who was a Chief of Staff to the mayor it is also important to me that we make sure we have focus on the issues that matter to people every single day — making sure we have good funding for schools, roads, and the things people are looking at when they drive to work every day.”
Any words of encouragement for young people who are hoping to run for office in the future?
“Try to volunteer with any campaigns coming along around you. Find an elected official or candidate that you believe in and volunteer or work for them. Get some experience. Again, my first job was with a politician, Senator Ted Kennedy. Certainly, in my campaign, we always want volunteers and we promise to give meaningful experiences to those volunteers. If you believe in a country that is more inclusive and that you should be able to have a part in, then go get that experience of what that actually means.”
To donate, volunteer, or intern with Dan Koh’s campaign, visit www.koh2018.com.