Koreatown Activist Grace Yoo Will Run to Unseat L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson

Grace YooEXPAND
Grace Yoo
photo by Hillel Aron

There are long-shot candidates who incumbents worry they'll have to actually campaign, and there are full-blown quixotic exercises in futility. Which is Grace Yoo? The longtime Koreatown activist announced yesterday that she's gathered the required 1,000 signatures to qualify for the March 2015 ballot, where she'll attempt to unseat the powerful but flawed Los Angeles City Council president, Herb Wesson. 

Reporters (ok, this reporter) who hoped she'd come out guns blazing, attacking Wesson, for a zesty political story, were disappointed. This was about as hard-hitting as the cautious Yoo got:

"I’m not saying the incumbent is not following the laws. I’m saying the incumbent is in need of listening to all of the residents. That's what I want to do. I want to be an elected that listens to the wishes of my constituents."

Yoo was one of the more outspoken community activists during L.A.'s tumultuous redistricting process in 2012, the once-a-decade exercise to redraw legislative district maps in order to ensure that everyone's vote counts the same. Unfortunately, it is often a highly politicized process, controlled by elected officials who want to make sure their districts remain friendly to them.

See also: "Koreatown Roars Against Gerrymander."

Yoo and others were inflamed when the 20 commissioners, each chosen by city council members, the mayor, the city controller and city attorney, seemingly ignored the wishes of Koreatown leaders that their neighborhood be placed entirely within one council district. Instead, it was divided between City Council District 10, represented by Wesson, and City Council District 13, represented by then-Councilman Eric Garcetti.

"It was actually a very upsetting process," says Yoo. "Because the whole request for community input was such a sham. The community input was never considered, in reality."

One of Wesson's staffers, Andrew Westall, served as the redistricting commission's executive director. And rumors had it that Wesson himself was the one pulling the strings, with the express purpose of making sure three city council districts out of L.A.'s 15 districts had a majority of likely voters who were black — in a city with a black population of about 10 percent.

Those rumors were all but confirmed when, in August of 2012 (after the new maps were finalized), a video was released of Wesson speaking at a Baptist ministers convention, bragging about his back-room role.

Behind the wonky-sounding debate lies this demographic quirk: 10 percent of the population of Los Angeles is black and 10 percent is Asian. Yet 20 percent of the city council – three out of five members – are black and there hasn't been an Asian council member since Mike Woo in the early 1990s.

To be fair, Asian American and Pacific Islander (or API, as they're sometimes called) residents are far more spread out across L.A. than black residents, so it's hard to create a "district" and then hand them an Asian candidate to vote for. And they might not be interested, in any case. A Chinese resident may not identity with, or support, a Thai or Filipino candidate and vice versa.

"The API community hasn't been focused enough," says Yoo. "It's time for us to take a seat at the table. Change only happens when you have a seat at the table."

Yoo says she helped find plaintiffs to sue the city over its controversial redistricting process, on the grounds that the commission ignored Koreatown's input and unfairly used race, by seeking to carve out three black seats, in their decision. 

The 43-year old was born in South Korea, came to Los Angeles when she was three, attended LAUSD public schools and UC Riverside, where she studied political science. She's been active in politics ever since. She was a strong supporter of Wendy Greuel in the 2013 mayor's race. 

Wesson, a former speaker of the assembly in California, will be running for his third and final term. He succeeded Garcetti as council president in 2011, by a unanimous vote from his colleagues. At that vote, the other two black council members, Jan Perry and Bernard Parks, were conspicuously absent — a political crime for which they were both punished (by Wesson, it is widely believed). Her downtown district was all but gerrymandered out from under her, and Parks lost a big chunk of his own longtime district.

Wesson can be expected to raise a lot of money and have a strong base of supporters in the black community and indeed, throughout the district, when he faces Yoo.

When asked about the odds, Yoo points to recent electoral upsets in L.A., including the shocker November election of Patty Lopez, the unheard of newcomer who toppled powerful State Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra just weeks ago (possibly with the help of this confusing ballot), and Monica Ratliff, the unknown schoolteacher who upset Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's hand-picked candidate for school board in June of 2013.

Yoo will be able to raise way more money than Ratliff or Lopez were. And she has a base of support within Koreatown.

What she doesn't have, though, is an issue to galvanize voters, especially voters outside Koreatown – which, after all, is only a small part of the turkey-shaped L.A. City Council District 10. For that, she may have to start throwing a few punches. 

Koreatown Activist Grace Yoo Will Run to Unseat L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson
Wesson's Council District 10 gobbled up much of Koreatown in a widely derided gerrymander.

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