Highest ranking Korean American in Obama White House speaks to KABA
By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
Christopher Kang made a quick correction to his introduction about where he worked before he gave his speech to a room full of members of the Korean American Bar Association (KABA).
“I actually work in the East Wing, not the West Wing.”
Kang was the keynote speaker at KABA’s 10th Annual Banquet held on Feb. 18 at the Palace Ballroom Restaurant in Seattle.
Kang, the Special Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs, is the highest ranking Korean American working in President Obama’s administration.
He is part of a team that advocates for Obama’s administration initiatives in Congress, focusing on national security and legal policy, judicial nominations, and veteran’s affairs.
Although being appointed to this position is a great accomplishment, Kang has little time to celebrate his status. “An 80-hour work week doesn’t leave much time for reflection,” said Kang. Growing up, Kang looked to his parents as role models.
Both of his parents worked in special education in public schools in Gary, Ind. He particularly cited the obstacles of his legally blind father as an inspiration to pursue his dreams. His father lost his sight as a youth as a result of an accident. He recalls the struggles and discrimination his father faced due to his handicap as he left South Korea and built a life in the United States.
His father graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a Doctor of Philosophy in Education and became the first blind Korean to receive a degree from the institution. Ironically, Kang’s father served as a member of the committee for disabled people for former President George W. Bush.
Kang was interested in politics since he was young. His first glimpse into the world of public service occurred when he volunteered for a job training program.
Kang was thrilled that he was able to assist young men and women in finding jobs. However, he saw that he could not help everyone as the program had to turn some people away.
His volunteering continued as a student at the University of Chicago, where he met Michelle Obama. At that time, she was the dean of student affairs at the University of Chicago.
After attending Duke Law School, Kang decided to pursue a career in public service in Washington, D.C., Kang sent out resumes to members of the Senate in hopes of landing a job. He recalls needing to purchase a fax machine to send his resumes as the 2001 anthrax attacks affected mail on Capitol Hill.
Through networking, which Kang highly recommended to all in attendance, he landed a position with Sen.
Richard Durbin of Illinois. Kang took the entry level job and worked his way up. His initial position gave Kang insight into the inner-workings of public policy. “[I] recognized how few Asian Americans worked on Capitol Hill,” Kang reflected. “There is no seat at the table when policies affecting us [Asian Americans] are discussed.”
Rising through the ranks, Kang became the lead staff member for Sen. Durbin. Kang joked that if you watched CSPAN2 for an hour, you could see him on the Senate floor. Kang recalled one day while tourists were observing the Senate in session, he spotted a young Asian American boy with his mother.
“I saw him pulling on his mother’s sleeve and pointing. I realized he was pointing at me,” recalled Kang.
Kang believed that he was pointing at him because he was Asian. Kang emphasized the need for more Asian Americans in leadership positions.
Kang stressed the need for more Asian American Article III judges. These federal judges are appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate, and carry lifetime appointments. Currently, there are only eight Asian American Article III judges out of 800.
Kang’s commitment to public service inspired many of the KABA members in attendance.
“We often overlook the personal sacrifices that people like Chris have to make in order to serve in these high positions,” said Michelle Chen, a friend of Kang. “They often work 80 hours a week and have to always be available, so it was especially inspiring to hear him speak about what motivates him to continue to serve.”
Chen worked on the legislative staff for Sen. Maria Cantwell in Washington, D.C., at the same time Kang worked for Sen. Durbin. Chen currently works for Mayor Mike McGinn.
“Chris’s speech emphasized the importance of having many diverse voices at the table so that we can help our country meet the challenges we face today and serve as important role models for the next generation.
KABA membership gives Korean American attorneys a platform to make positive changes, whether it be through having a role in evaluating candidates for the judiciary, promoting diversity in the legal profession, supporting two pro bono clinics to serve the needs of our community, or mentoring the next generation of Korean American attorneys,” said Lianne Caster, immediate past president of KABA.
In closing, Kang gave advice to the attorneys in attendance. “Remind yourself why you got yourself into this in the first place and do more.” ♦
Jason Cruz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.