Will Two Female Korean-Americans Serve in NJ Assembly?

Jannie Chung (photo via Korea Daily)

[Note: This translation combines two articles published in Korea Daily. To avoid redundancy, some portions were omitted.]

This year, two Korean-American women are squaring off in a race for seats in the New Jersey State Assembly. If elected in the general election on Nov. 7, they would become the first female Korean-American Assembly members in NJ.

Thirty-nine-year-old Closter Council member Jannie Chung, a Democrat, is one of the Korean-American women running. She recently filed to run for the State Assembly in the 39th District with strong support from Lou Stellato, chairman of the Bergen County Democratic Committee, she said.

Chung, a Chicago native, moved to Closter with her parents at age 8. She began her political career in 2015 when she was elected as a Democratic council woman in Closter, which at that time had been a Republican-led stronghold for 10 years, electing Republicans for the mayoral and all six council positions.

Chung admitted that she initially hesitated to run for the State Assembly when asked by chairman Stellato, because her experience in politics was short and she felt she had more to learn. But, based on her view that it was critical for Democrats to take over the state legislature, she was determined to run. She also noted it was important for her personally, as a Korean American, to run, because she believed that more Koreans would benefit by having a Korean American in office.

The 39th District includes 20 towns in northern Bergen County, such as Closter and Demarest, and portions of Passaic County for a total of 23 towns. It has been a Republican-controlled district since 1980. Democratic voters, however, are rapidly increasing as the recent migration of immigrant populations such as Koreans grew. Last year, Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat, defeated the seven-term incumbent Republican Congressman Scott Garrett in NJ’s 5th congressional district, which includes large portions of NJ’s 39th District. Considering the fact that 11 percent of the population in the 39th District is Asian, including Koreans who account for most of the Asians, the possibility of Chung’s victory doesn’t seem that low.

Chung stressed that the district needs to have an elected official who can effectively represent Koreans. And it is especially important at a time like the present when many Korean immigrants feel threatened by President Trump’s immigration policies.

A Brooklyn Law School alumna, Chung has also worked as a lawyer and is currently running a consulting firm for small businesses.

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Margaret Ahn (Photo via Korea Daily)

Another Korean-American woman eyeing a NJ state seat is Margaret Ahn. The 40-year-old Republican is running for the State Assembly seat in the 37th District, which includes towns like Palisades Park, Fort Lee, Leonia, and Englewood; 19 percent of the population there is Asian. This district has the largest population of Koreans among 40 legislative districts in NJ.

Like Chung’s race in the 39th District, Ahn’s race may face a tough challenge, in that no Republican candidate in this historically Democrat-controlled district has been elected since 1970. Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat, has held her seat in this district since 2005, and Assembly members Gordon Johnson and Valerie Huttle, both Democrats, are familiar faces to the Korean community.

Ahn said that it is surprising that there was still no Korean American in the State Senate and the State Assembly, out of 120 elected officials in NJ, and said that the political power of Koreans in NJ is so weak that it is hard for the second generation of Korean Americans to feel proud of their roots. She thought that there should be a challenge to the legislature made up of Korean Americans, and that’s why she decided to run, she stressed.

She also said that being strategic in terms of campaigning, such as stationing her campaign teams in each town, would draw more support from voters, and pledged to ask for the state to allocate a great portion of the budget for education in the 37th District, if she is elected.

In 2015, Ahn lost an election for the City Council in Fort Lee. Since then, however, Bergen County Republicans continuously persuaded her to run in another election, which finally made her run again. As the race unfolds, she will also work closely with Republicans to elect Lt. Gov. of NJ Kim Guadagno, a Republican candidate for NJ governor this year.

Ahn immigrated to Utah in 1979, and has lived in NJ since 1985. She is currently working as a loan expert and is the vice president of the Korean-American Association of New Jersey and a board member of the Korean American Businessmen Association of NJ.

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