A Korean-American Mayor in 2017?

Mayoral hopeful He Gin Lee (Photo by Jiha Ham for Voices of NY)

Mayoral hopeful He Gin Lee (Photo by Jiha Ham for Voices of NY)

A person running for mayor of a city with 8 million is generally expected to have good name recognition, strong political support, an understanding of issues critically important to voters and – perhaps most importantly – deep pockets, or at least the ability to raise significant campaign funds.

Current New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, was the city’s public advocate and had served on the New York City Council for nine years. De Blasio was able to raise more than $10 million for his campaign in 2013, and was endorsed by Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Other candidates who ran against de Blasio also had held significant jobs such as speaker of the City Council, city comptroller, president of the Metropolitan Transit Authority or member of the U.S. Congress.

He Gin Lee from Flushing, Queens, who entered his name on the ballot for the 2013 New York City Mayor Democratic Primary, boasts no such major achievements. Lee says he is an architect, but only a handful of small building owners and churches that hired him as an architect in the last decade recognize his name. Even though Lee is from Korea and he is actively involved in many events in the Korean community, many Koreans have never heard of him. When Lee announced his run for mayor, only a few Korean community leaders stood by his side – like the president of KAAGNY, the Korean American Association of Greater New York.

According to the New York City Campaign Finance Board, Lee collected $25,036.21 for his campaign in 2013 – with $20,000 of that coming from Lee himself.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that voters were ignorant of Lee.

Nonetheless, Lee not only believes he can still become mayor of New York City, but also that he has the ability to run all five boroughs in this, one of the most challenging of global cities. If Lee runs for mayor in three years, it will be his third try for the job.

His quest may be quixotic, but Lee is utterly convinced that it is worthwhile. In his small architectural firm in Flushing, Lee insists with straight-faced confidence, that he could be the next mayor. Speaking in Korean, Lee is unfazed by numerous questions.

Born and raised in Seoul, South Korea, Lee studied architecture in a specialized high school. Lee chose to study architecture because his father, who was a construction worker in Seoul, told him that working as an architect would prevent him from living in poverty.

Soon after graduation, Lee was hired by a famous architectural firm in Seoul after winning a contest held in Korea. Lee was young but rich enough to buy a large house in Seoul. But by age 30, with no college degree, he decided to follow his dreams by coming to New York City.

Like every first-generation immigrant, Lee had an American dream, which was to become a top architect in the world. After working in construction for 15 years, he finally earned his architecture degree in 1998. But then Lee decided to go into politics.

“My great love of this city made me decide to run for mayor,” he said.

On the day he arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport in 1982, Lee became a victim of pickpocketing and lost $8,100. So Lee had to start his life as an immigrant with less than $100 remaining in his pocket, but Lee thinks the city still gave him lots of opportunity to move forward.

“As an immigrant from South Korea, and as an architect, I know what can be done to this city to promote a better quality of life,” Lee said. “Because I am an architect, I have lots of ideas to make this possible.”

Like bringing Gangnam to New York.

Gangnam, now well-known thanks to South Korean singer Psy’s song, “Gangnam Style,” is a region located in the southern part of Seoul and is now a very wealthy area for Koreans. In the late 1970s, the South Korean government had plans to develop the area. It decided to build apartments and buildings, and move schools south and across Seoul’s main river, the Han. (Gang in Korean means River, and nam is south, so Gangnam technically means River South.) Gangnam’s development story is often cited as one of South Korea’s economic successes.

“Just like Gangnam, the area across from Manhattan must be developed with more buildings and apartments,” Lee said.

Lee’s own Gangnam-style plan was to propose a “second Manhattan plan” which he introduced in the NYC Voter Guide. “Why do people live further and further away from Manhattan? A one-bedroom apartment is over $1 million and it’s not acceptable. We have to build more housing near Manhattan,” Lee said. “If we develop two miles from the East River in Queens and Brooklyn, more people will come, more businesses will stay and of course New York City will remain the best city in the world.”

Lee’s second big idea is to garner New Yorkers’ votes by legalizing the rental of basements by homeowners. Lee said by relaxing current building regulations, homeowners can benefit with a $1,500 additional monthly income.

But wait. Does Lee know that the mayor’s job cannot consist only of developing new high-rises? De Blasio, the current mayor, leads more than 100 agencies and committees, with more than 300,000 employees.

“I am an architect. To build one building, you must consider every aspect including transportation around the building, children’s schooling, security and many others,” Lee said. “Why do you think I wouldn’t be a qualified person who can take care of all of the city’s major issues?”

Lee has no problem addressing current controversial issues like “stop-and-frisk” and charter schools, but he doesn’t offer specific solutions.

And even if voters like his ideas, if Lee runs again, he will once again have to overcome a big problem: Getting enough support to list his name on the ballot.

Last year, Lee was required to collect 6,000 supporters’ signatures to get his name on the ballot for the Democratic primary. The New York City Board of Elections found that many signers were non-U.S. citizens who do not have the right to vote. In 2009, Lee failed to collect 6,000 signatures.

“Candidates usually collect double [the required] amount of signatures to make sure, but it is often very hard for candidates from a small community,” Jinwoo Cho, a political reporter at The Korea Times New York said. “Lee also filed a civil lawsuit over this matter, but the case was dismissed.”

Sunny Hahn, similarly, is another Korean American who once was a Republican candidate for City Council in District 20, in Flushing, Queens, but later lost her position by not gathering enough signatures of voters.

Lee, who argues that a supporter of another Asian-American mayoral candidate, John Liu, initiated his ballot challenge, says he has learned a very important lesson. “It wasn’t fair play, but at least now I know how to collect signatures for the next time,” Lee said.

But Lee may face bigger hurdles. Many Koreans don’t believe that he is sincere.

Said one Korean woman who knows Lee personally, but didn’t want to give her name: “I don’t believe he can take the mayor’s job. He just wants to be in front of many people like a politician,” she said.

But Lee disagrees.

“No. I am not a politician, and I am not a political person. I don’t think the New York City mayor has to be a politician. I just want New Yorkers to enjoy a happy life based on my ideas. I am serious.”

Jiha Ham is a reporter for The Korea Times in New York.

This article was written as part of the Covering NYC: Political Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media and funded by a grant from the Charles H. Revson Foundation.

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