Month after elections, LA Councilman David Ryu gets straight to work

July 27, 2015
Los Angeles city councilman of the fourth district David Ryu

Los Angeles city councilman of the fourth district David Ryu

By Brian Han

By now certain parts of Los Angeles Councilman David Ryu’s story are out in the open.

He’s the first Korean American to be elected to the city’s council — it was official on June 28. He was born in South Korea, but spent his formative years in Los Angeles with a family that sometimes struggled to make ends meet. He was pinned as the underdog, the outsider, who willed his way through a hard fought campaign into office.

It’s been a long and arduous journey to say the least.

So a few weeks after being sworn into office, how does he feel to make it to the other side intact with a seat at the table?

“It hasn’t really sunk in yet, but it almost did once,” Ryu recalled. “A lot of people don’t know this, but the official swearing in happens before the big public ceremonial swearing in. It’s a little private ceremony.”

For a moment, the gravity of the accomplishment started to become apparent.

Ryu celebrates after winning the election. (Korea Times file)

Ryu celebrates after winning the election. (Korea Times file)

“It caught me by surprise,” he said. “I started to get a little emotional, but I had to snap out of it because I had to go out and make a public appearance.”

It still hasn’t fully registered and part of the reason is that acclimating to the new scenery has been a hectic process since he was elected.

“We’ve been so busy,” Ryu said in his newly painted and minimally furnished City Hall office. “After the election it’s just been work, work, work, while also hiring new staff. When we got here we had no chairs and the phones didn’t work.”

Luckily the council is on a recess for most of July, which means that Ryu and his team have had time to get settled in.

Even with all that’s going on he has noticed some noteworthy changes already that are a direct result of his getting elected.

“I think the mere fact that I was elected, even if I don’t lift a finger, I think it changes,” he said. “Because now we have a seat at the table and now without me even asking, they tell me what they’re doing for Asian Americans… they being bureaucracy.”

In fact, it’s been over 20 years since Los Angeles had its first and only other Asian American, Michael Woo, on city council. Ryu believes that things have come a long way since then and that the cultural atmosphere played a role in being elected.

“Yes, we worked hard. Yes, we had a great strategy. Everything was executed properly,” he said describing the election campaign. “But at the same time it was a lot of luck and the right timing. Back when Michael Woo was in office, there were still people on street corners with signs that said, ‘Put Mike Woo on a slow boat back to China.’”

Ryu was just a teen during his term, but the memory still sticks with him today.

By no means does that mean discrimination is no longer an issue though and he saw signs of it all throughout his campaign.

“A lot of people counted me out saying to my face you’re Asian, you can’t win here,” he said.

But what might be meant as a discouraging remark became a source of motivation for the councilman.

“When they counted us out, we worked even harder,” Ryu said. “Nothing’s for free and you have to earn it. I think that’s part of the thing especially with all these political machines and insider games. Everyone feels like you can just walk in if you get endorsed by certain people. People can get turned off by that. And we proved that wrong.”

What fueled the drive to push through the critics and build from the ground up? The answer can be traced back to his parents and even to a particular moment.

“When I was around 10, our family was on food stamps,” he said. “I remember going to the Denny’s near Vermont and Sixth and we were having dinner with this student that had come all the way from Africa. My parents knew he needed help so they decided to give him a scholarship and even though I’m sure it wasn’t much, I will always remember that.”

Along with his parents’ many philanthropic efforts, his father was also a civics instructor. Their influence on Ryu sparked a deep-seated passion for public service in the heart of the future councilman.

But that wasn’t really part of the plan that his parents had in mind. Instead they had hoped what many immigrant parents hope for their children — that he would become a doctor.

So he went to the University of California, Los Angeles as a premed biology major, fulfilled all his science requirements, but it didn’t feel right.

“After a few years in college, I just thought to myself that this was all so boring,” he said about the career path he had chosen at the time. “Although I didn’t like it, I was still very drawn to the helping people part.”

Ryu built up the courage to reveal that truth to his parents. The confession was not well received and when he suggested that he would look into becoming a social worker, they “flipped” according to his own accounts.

In retrospect, it was the right thing to do and ultimately it became a critical turning point that has led him to his life’s most exciting chapter yet.

When asked if he would like to serve all three terms, he smiled at the thought.

“I would love to, but right now it’s time to focus on the term ahead and hopefully the voters will respond to that and elect me again,” he said.

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