By Assunta Ng
Earlier this year, several Asian Americans stood with Rod Dembowski instead of Rep. Cindy Ryu, a Korean American, in a contested King County Council race.
Dembowski, who is white and won by a council vote of five to eight, is now a council member, finishing the remainder of Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s term.
The topic of whether the Asian American community should support its own has been debated often. It is an important and complicated topic that has come up in the past and will likely split our community again in the future.
Why did Ryu lose?
Some Ryu supporters accused community members of backing a white guy instead of Ryu, but Dembowski is not just any white guy. His ties with the Asian community go back to his volunteering days with current U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke’s King County Executive campaign in 1993. He was later hired as a policy analyst for the Locke administration. Back then, he built relationships with several Asian American friends, including political guru Ruth Woo.
Dembowski frequently tells the story of how he and his wife, Lynna Song, who is Korean American, met during Locke’s campaign. His mother-in-law, Seungja Song, is one of the founders of the Korean Community Service Center (KCSC). She is known for her dedication to the agency over the past three decades.
An attorney, Dembowski is friends with many elected officials, including Ferguson. He was also heavily involved Ferguson’s attorney general campaign.
In the end, relationships won. When asked why he won the county race, Dembowski said, “I am friends with everybody.”
Perhaps assumptions, insufficient preparation, and the Ferguson factor killed Ryu’s chance at the seat. The selection process for Ferguson’s seat was competitive. Each finalist, including Ryu and Dembowski, went through three interviews before a citizens’ panel, the King County Executive, and the County Council.
Ryu assumed that she had the diversity advantage as the council has only one member of color, Larry Gossett, and three women, out of eight council members.
Asian and Pacific Islanders make up 15.8 percent of King County residents, the biggest minority group in King County. 20.1 percent of King County residents are first-generation immigrants, and 35.6 percent are persons of color. As a first-generation Asian immigrant female, Ryu said she reflects the changing demographics in King County.
Combined with her experience being a former mayor of Shoreline and the first Korean female state representative in Washington state, Ryu thought that would be enough to lead her to victory.
What she didn’t expect was that the interview and the relationships Dembowski had built were more important, more than the diversity factor. One insider, who was involved in the process, said Dembowski was much more polished and prepared during the interviews.
The lesson for a person of color who is running: It doesn’t matter what race a candidate is, it’s significant to compete like you are the underdog and never the frontrunner. Organize. Be prepared in interviews no matter how articulate you are.
Ferguson had taken Dembowski under his wing and took him everywhere after the November election, so Dembowski could meet people. This implied Ferguson’s endorsement even before he officially made the announcement right before the council’s vote.
Ryu is known for her comeback in politics. After her defeat in the Shoreline City Council race, she ran for state representative in 2010 and won. Even as a state representative, she has an impressive record. Out of the 10 bills she has sponsored or co-sponsored, eight of them have passed.
Will she run for the council seat this August?
“I’d like to,” she said. “But it’s hard.”
If she runs, she will have to raise money for the campaign starting now, but she can’t because state law doesn’t allow legislative officials to raise money during the legislative session. And it looks like it will be a long legislative season with the budget issue looming. The last day of the session is slated to be April 28.
Dembowski has already said he is going to run this year for the council seat.
Who should we support?
Joan Yoshitomi, a Dembowski supporter, said she knew Dembowski when he was in high school, long before she met Ryu.
“He’s interested in [things that has to do with] the Asian community,” said Yoshitomi. “He volunteers a lot in the community, including with the Japanese American Citizens League. I am impressed with his interest in politics and his giving back to the community.”
Dembowski has taken a pay cut to become an elected official, leaving his law practice at Foster and Pepper.
Buwon Brown, a Korean American, and a KCSC board member, said she supports both Ryu and Dembowski.
“It’s a competitive world, it’s a political battle and open field,” said Brown. “You just have to do the best you can to serve the community.”
She also appreciates Dembowski’s attitude. “He’s positive,” she continued. “He asked what he could do to help. He’s willing to work together.”
There are some good white men who can champion social justice issues. It doesn’t just have to be people of color. A partnership between the mainstream and the Asian community is needed to secure a better future for us. Fortunately, Dembowski is no stranger to the Asian community. He will serve us well.
We all have different reasons why we support a certain candidate. Relationships are key. This is a free country, we have the right to choose who we choose, and we should be respectful of others’ choices. The important thing is that Asian Americans are part of the political process.
In the end, it’s all about serving. (end)
To read the publisher’s blog in Chinese, visit www.seattlechinesepost.com.