Dozens of candidates for public office gathered in Fairfax Thursday night to try and win votes from within the Korean-American community.
Often starting out with a greeting in Korean, the candidates by and large stressed the importance of relief for small businesses, family values, opportunities for immigrants and access to better education while speaking to a packed audience during the 2011 Korean American Association of Virginia/Korea Times Candidates Night.
The event, held at Luther Jackson Middle School, was the first of its kind in Northern Virginia. Over 30 organizations cosponsored the event and candidates for the House of Delegates, Senate, Fairfax County School Board and Board of Supervisors spoke. The forum reflected the region's changing demographics: about 18 percent of Fairfax County is of Asian descent, and over 41,000 people are Korean, according to the 2010 Census. In some areas the percentage is much higher. Many of the people in the audience were small business owners—an attractive vote to win for politicans of both parties.
Moderator Michael Kwon, vice-president of the association, asked questions that were prepared in advance but kept secret from the candidates. He grilled several on their knowledge of issues important to many Korean-Americans. Others, he asked how they would reach out to the community.
"You have been almost totally absent from the Korean-American community over the past four years," Kwon said to Dick Saslaw (D-35th district), asking the senator if he would stay in touch.
"This is the first time I've been invited to a Korean-American event, ever," said Saslaw, who attended a town hall hosted by the association last spring and whose website cites a certificate of appreciation from the Korean-American Association. He said he would stay in touch and asked the community to do the same for him.
Most candidates tried to demonstrate some ties to the community. School board candidate Sheree Brown-Kaplan, who told the audience, "I owe my life to the Korean people." As a child living in Korea, she fell out of a window and was saved by people passing by, she said.
Sen. Chap Petersen (D-34th district) scattered Korean words throughout his opening remarks and talked about how he worked for a free trade agreement with Korea and pushed for a new GMU overseas campus. Brian Schoeneman, who is running for delegate in the 37th district, said that his wife is an immigrant from Cyprus and he understands the value of hard work: "I'm sitting on the stage because I am living the American dream." School board candidate Ryan McElveen said that he worked during college to bring more Korean and East Asian language classes to the UVA curriculum.
At times, the questions became quite specific. At-large school board candidates were asked if they would support a change to the county's textbooks to include the Korean name for the "Sea of Japan." In the Korean community it is known as the "East Sea of Korea." The candidates were only allowed to answer yes or no. All said yes, with the exception of Lin-Dai Kendall. They were also asked if they supported expansion of the Korean language program outside of Fairfax High School; all said yes.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referenced who saved Sheree Brown-Kaplan's life.