By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
Peter Kwon has taken over 100 meetings since he became an official member of the SeaTac City Council this past January. A newcomer to politics, Kwon is learning the ropes of the political process during his first term.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, he moved with his parents to New York City when he was 3 years old. Kwon grew up in New York, where he attended Stuyvesant High School. Notably, Frank McCourt, the author of the bestseller ‘Angela Ashes’ was one of his teachers.
He decided to move to Seattle in 1990 to attend the University of Washington (UW). “I really enjoyed the outdoors,” said Kwon of his choice to move across the country. He also discovered that the UW was one of the top schools in the nation for computer science. Kwon was hired by Microsoft after his third year, from a campus recruiting visit. Kwon worked for three years at Microsoft and then went on to work for Boeing for approximately four years, then at Nordstrom for another four years. He also had stints at other local companies and the UW.
Kwon currently works as a systems engineer with online music streaming service, Rhapsody, in Seattle.
SOLVING A NEIGHBORHOOD PROBLEM
After living in the Queen Anne neighborhood for most of his time in Seattle, Kwon purchased a home in SeaTac in 2012. When he moved, his first foray into community involvement with SeaTac was a problem related to mailboxes. Kwon, who runs for exercise, noticed mail scattered throughout the neighborhood on his routes. While returning mail to some of his neighbors, he learned that the littered mail was due to a string of mail thefts.
Through this interaction with neighbors, Kwon determined that there should be a way to ensure that thieves could not break into mailboxes. He found a local company that made locked mailboxes and was able to broker a volume discount by having several neighbors band together and purchase those mailboxes. From that initial purchase, more neighbors sought him out and “Peter’s Locking Mailbox Program” was formed. Mail theft decreased and through connections he made with SeaTac residents, Kwon learned there were many other issues that concerned them.
With city council seats opening up, Kwon considered running for the first time in his life.
NEW IN POLITICS
“Prior to this, I had never been involved in politics,” Kwon said. “It wasn’t something I ever thought of.” Kwon first sought to see if any of his neighbors wanted to run, as he would have thrown his support behind them. But no one wanted to do it. In fact, his neighbors influenced him to run. “I’m usually a private person,” said Kwon of the potential issues of running. He realized that if he didn’t get involved, no one else would. After much thought, he put his name in the running.
Kwon ran as a “non-partisan” candidate, as he was not affiliated with Democrats or Republicans.
Kwon chose to run against Terry Anderson, one of the original founding members of the City of SeaTac. Anderson had been on the council for 26 years.
Anderson said she sponsored Kwon for her city council seat. “He came and told me [he wanted to run for city council], and when I learned he wanted to do it, I said, ‘Well, all right!’ I’d been there so long. I just felt washed out,” she laughed. “He’s a wonderful guy. He’s very smart. He’s not only smart, he’s very easy to deal with.”
Still, Kwon said he had to work extra hard to get his name out there. Kwon dedicated any extra time he had outside of his full-time job at Rhapsody to campaigning. That included “doorbelling” – the process of going door-to-door to meet neighbors and request votes.
Kwon also studied campaigns of SeaTac and Tukwila council elections over the past 12 years. Specifically, he looked at what worked and what didn’t. He noted that candidates sometimes won because they ran unopposed.
That wasn’t the case as Kwon had to beat out candidates in a primary in order to make the November election. “I had to run two campaigns,” Kwon said. “I had to win a primary and then the general election.” Kwon defeated the incumbent and another candidate in the November general election.
Kwon reached out to the Korean community to solicit support. As part of his research, Kwon discovered that out of 12,054 registered voters in SeaTac, only five Korean Americans were registered to vote. Kwon received campaign contributions from friends of his mother in the Korean American community, local businesses that Kwon frequented, and the neighbors he originally helped with the locked mailboxes.
GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS
Among the issues Kwon wants to address during his tenure is the SeaTac budget. He identified several areas where the city could be more effective in saving money.
“The budget is a big deal,” Kwon stated. The newly elected city council has established a committee to examine how much the city is spending and holding each department accountable.
He also noted that residents were concerned about a utility tax, imposed to help a shortfall in the city budget. Kwon indicated that he would look into repealing the tax.
Despite coming into office in January, Kwon and the newly appointment council members were embroiled in controversy with the removal of the city manager, Todd Cutts. However, Kwon noted that his removal was not out of the ordinary. “This is pretty common in other cities when you have a shift in power.”
That’s not how Anderson sees it. “Yes, there was controversy around the firing,” she said. “There’s always an uneven number [of people for and against things and] they just went in and fired him. I didn’t think that was an appropriate way to handle it.”
An interim manager was put in place and the process of appointing a new city manager continues.
In addition, there was an issue with the belief that the city was blocking a federal grant to build a city park. Kwon notes that there was apprehension among council members and the mayor, due to a new condition attached to the grant. Kwon explained that the additional condition could expose the city to an additional liability.
“It got blown out of proportion,” said Kwon of the perception that the city turned down the grant. He explained that the grant was eventually accepted.
The city of SeaTac also has challenges with respect to Sound Transit. Rick Forschler, who recently stepped down as mayor for health concerns, questioned the impact Sound Transit would have on the city. He was concerned with congestion and the process to complete the process of building light rail.
The city council pays $1,000 per month to council members, according to Kwon. Initially, Kwon thought that his position on the council was part-time, as they meet twice a month. He quickly realized he also needed to spend time within the community, meeting with organizations, business associations, and attending charity functions.
Kwon also serves on the code enforcement and transportation board committees.
“If you want to be effective, you have to go to these meetings,” explained Kwon of the additional time he serves in the community.
Kwon hopes that during his time as a SeaTac council member, he can make a difference. “The biggest thing is that I want to make sure local government is acceptable to local citizens. “That hasn’t always been the case in the past.”
Jason Cruz can be reach at email@example.com.