By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Several months ago, when candidate Sam Cho’s name was mentioned, people likely responded, “Sam who?”
On Nov. 5, Cho won his first ever run for elected office as the Port of Seattle’s youngest commissioner, beating his opponent, Grant Degginger, 63, former Bellevue mayor who is more than twice his age. Cho’s final vote count was 60 percent—over 322,000 people voted for not only an unknown, but a new kid in politics. In the primary election, Cho beat out seven other candidates.
Cho, 29, will be the only person of color on the five-member Commission. He is only the third Asian American to win a countywide race, including former governor and King County Executive Gary Locke and Lloyd Hara, the first Asian American Port commissioner elected in 2005.
Cho’s campaign is a good case study for an underdog and anyone who is interested in running for political office. If you have a dream and are scared to pursue it because of obstacles, use Cho as an example to inspire you.
Although the commissioner’s job is part-time, it is a powerful position. As a major landowner, the Port is a big player in Washington state’s economy, overseeing cargo, national and international trade, SeaTac Airport, all the cruise terminals, and maritime industries.
Former U.S. Cabinet Secretary Norm Mineta is “thrilled that Sam won. I am not surprised.” Mineta, whom Cho considers a mentor, was in Seattle on Nov. 10.
“Sam is very precise and methodical about the way he does things.”
To understand why Cho won, you have to examine the odds against him and how he managed to overcome them.
Asian families are skeptical of kids going into politics
When the election results were released on Nov. 5, Cho’s parents were emotional. They cried, hugged, and were excited at Cho’s election night party at the Eastern Cafe. The initial return put him ahead with 56 percent of the vote.
However, Cho’s mother recalled that she was skeptical at first. Although she encouraged her two sons to have dreams and do what would make them happy, she told them they could do anything except go into politics.
So when Cho said he wanted to run for the Port commissioner seat, she told him not to rush, and take time to “think and wait for a week.” After a week, Cho hadn’t wavered. So his mother and family decided to support him.
The right message
“Yes, we can” was Barack Obama’s message when he first jumped into the presidential race, and it instantly gained traction. So did Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” Andrew Yang’s slogan is just as intriguing, “Make America Think Harder.”
Cho’s slogan is “A Port for the People.” He campaigned on the message, “that the Port of Seattle should serve the people of Seattle.” It resonated with many voters who don’t even know what the Port of Seattle does. Cho makes voters realize that they can benefit from the Port’s wellbeing.
The right resume
Cho capitalized on the national political climate in the midst of Trump’s trade war, to emphasize the need for someone at the Port who understood international trade and exports. He is the only one with export experience, shipping 2.5 million pounds of vacuum-packed eggs in refrigerated containers to Korea due to an egg shortage during the bird flu epidemic in 2017.
It was Cho’s first time running for office, but he is not a political novice. He has worked for President Obama, and state Sen. Bob Hasegawa, speaks strongly about Cho’s knowledge in federal and state government. With a B.A. in International Studies from American University, and a M.Sc. in International Political Economy from the London School of Economics, his educational background is a plus.
Work hard and smart
When Cho first thought about running, his mentor and former boss, Hasegawa, told him, “The key to winning was to outwork my opponent.” Indeed, Cho knocked on about 10,000 doors, raised more money (about $140,000), and received far more endorsements. Cho said he received the sole endorsement of 12 legislative districts while his opponent had only two, and Cho had the support of 12 labor unions. His opponent had none.
The right strategies
What does the endorsement of a legislative district mean, as opposed to an individual endorser? It means the whole district will campaign on Cho’s behalf, he would receive more money in support, and he would receive more potential votes. Most importantly, those districts’ endorsements would bring in more human capital, such as manpower, advice, and other services. It forced his opponent to spend more money on expensive mailings, which he sent out five times. Most voters don’t read those colored beautiful mailings, as they are considered to be propaganda of the candidates.
Bellevue vs. South Seattle
“From a political strategy standpoint, it was clear from the primary election that my opponent would take East King County, while I would hold onto Seattle,” said Cho.
“Therefore, the battleground between us was South King County (SeaTac, Burien, De Moines, Federal Way, etc). These are also communities most disproportionately affected by the expansion of SeaTac Airport. Norman Mineta told me that a good politician always has a big ear and a small mouth. I took that advice to heart and throughout the campaign, I took the time to genuinely listen to the concerns of voters in South King County. Simply taking the time to listen to them made a major difference and put me over the edge.”
Korean vs. Chinese community
Cho’s support from the Korean community was amazing. During the election night party, four Korean media organizations and numerous Korean community leaders were present.
Their support for Cho was unwavering and unconditional. The community united behind him, exhibiting nothing but pride. You might think, there’s nothing unusual about that, since Cho is a second-generation Korean American.
But I can’t say that about the Chinese community. The trouble is, they don’t look at the big picture, they take things personally. For instance, if they disagree with certain Chinese American candidates, they don’t try to work with them. They recruited another Chinese American candidate to run against him or her. It happened twice in the Bellevue City Council. Not only is it polarizing due to culture and languages (over 100 dialects) in the Chinese immigrant community, their political differences are uncompromising. If the candidate or his parents are from China, the Taiwanese and the Hong Kong community might not show up due to the difference in political stance. The recent Hong Kong protests would also cause a rift between Hong Kong and China’s immigrants.
I am glad Cho doesn’t have the same baggage as a Chinese American candidate.
The Asian American vote
“I believe that being Asian American helped me in my race,” Cho said. “I was able to campaign on promoting diversity at the Port of Seattle. My candidacy also galvanized the Korean American and AAPI base to both donate and vote.”
Cho made a huge statement by holding his election night party in the International District (ID). The Port Commissioner is a countywide seat. He could have had his party in any of the 39 cities in King County, including Federal Way and Lynnwood, which have big Korean populations. Or, where he lives, Kirkland. But he picked the ID.
“You have to go to where your people are,” Cho said. The ID is where Asian Americans’ history and heritage began, and also where many Asian organizations are based. The ID is an identity and cultural center for Asian Americans.
Most people would dismiss Asian American votes right away because traditionally, the percentage of Asian Americans voting is not high. But lately, many Asian groups have been educating the Asian community tirelessly about political participation. It does produce some results, especially among the immigrant community. Asian Americans are the largest minority in King County. The Asian vote can make a difference. Cho is a familiar last name in the Chinese and Korean community. By far, Cho has no controversy. His education background appeals to Asian Americans who value education. Asian Americans can sense a connection and would be willing and even eager to support another Asian like Cho. And he has repeatedly emphasized his family’s immigrant background and the need for diversity on the Port Commission.
The right endorsers
At the API Candidates Forum on Oct. 9 in the ID, Cho was asked about his API endorsers, and he named former U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke first, and two others who are also well-known. The audience was a little surprised, but delighted. Everybody in the audience knew who Locke was. Quickly, Cho’s credibility was enhanced, especially for those who had not met him before. Maybe, less than half of the audience knew who his opponent’s three Asian endorsers were.
Asking for help
When I first chatted with Cho months ago, I was impressed with his direct approach. As usual, I asked candidates if they had questions at the end of the interview. Never had I met an Asian candidate who asked me if I could connect him with some key Asian American leaders. I did help him make the connections. In life, if you want something, all you need to do is ask. You get nothing if you keep your mouth closed.
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.