A few years ago, a crazy idea crept into my head over a few glasses of wine with a close friend and mentor. I was logging some tough hours at a New York corporate law firm but wanted to get more involved politically in my home state of New Jersey. I had never held elected office but I scanned the poisonously deadlocked political landscape at the national level and remembered that this nation was built by political novices with little more than good intentions. After consulting with family, mentors and friends, I launched a big for U.S. Congress in NJ's Fifth Congressional District for the 2014 election cycle. Here's what I learned.
What We Accomplished
If I were to list everyone who helped make an initially half-baked idea develop into a real campaign that somehow made it onto the national radar, I wouldn't have enough room in this column. That being said, from the bottom of my heart, thank you to everyone who believed in our upstart campaign. We turned a race no one was paying any attention to, into a stealth grassroots movement that came tantalizingly close to becoming a huge political upset. This campaign was built on the sweat equity and generosity of some remarkable individuals.
Now, if you were to simply ask what the margin was on November 4, 2014, you might think I'm misunderstanding the meaning of "tantalizingly close". We ended up with 43% of the vote in the general election against the incumbent's 55%. We raised $1.3 million - more than any prior challenger who went up against this incumbent had ever raised - and forced the incumbent to spend more than $2.2 million of his campaign war chest to beat us - more than he'd ever spent against any prior challenger. Some additional context, I was a 32 year-old first-time candidate running as a Democrat in a district with a significant Republican advantage, against an incredibly well-financed incumbent who had been in Congress since 2002. Add to that mix the toxic year that 2014 ended up being for Democrats and you get the sense of how much we accomplished and what we built.
Building Coalitions and Raising Money
Any challenger looking to unseat an incumbent, needs to talk to voters. And talking to voters, even with social media, is not cheap. In fact, over time, campaigns have become increasingly prohibitively expensive which makes it all the more difficult to shake up the status quo. As my friend Professor Larry Lessig of Harvard Law School expressed with Mayday PAC, before we can start talking about the issues we care about, we need meaningful campaign finance reform. Having a rigged political system where only the top 1% gets to speak into the microphone is not representative of this nation's values. Until we fix this root problem, all of the other issues we care about become background noise. That being said, I'll be forever grateful to all those across the country who gave their hard-earned money, in amounts big and small, to this campaign. One of the hardest parts of losing was realizing that both hard-earned dollars and precious time were spent.
We Are More Similar Than We Are Different
But what really shocked me during this journey was how much commonality and overlap there exists between and among us. Regardless of whether you call yourself a Democrat, Republican, or anything in between, I learned most people care about the same core things - preserving the environment, making necessary investments in infrastructure and clean energy and protecting our middle class. I also learned that most can differentiate between investing and spending our public dollars and believe that society has a responsibility to protect all citizens, regardless of race, age, gender or sexual orientation. This commonality is something that a great political leader, former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley (who headlined a very special event for our campaign) fought for in Washington, D.C. before leaving politics altogether.
Moments I'll Never Forget
But what I really learned on this journey was that people are amazing. While knocking on doors, I met a wonderful veteran in a wheelchair who lived in a home with no air conditioning but was proud to have served his country and thankful to have me and his local Mayor in his home. Countless individuals, Republican and Democrat, invited my campaign team and me into their homes to share a few laughs and a glass of water (and in one instance a much needed beer on a hot summer day!). I met leaders in business who generously devote time and money to causes they believe in and strive to help others climb the socioeconomic ladder. I met labor leaders who fight tirelessly for the rights of everyday Americans who just want to provide their families with opportunity.
One of the best parts of my day was getting to know the beautiful people who volunteered their time, some suffering from significant physical ailments, in our campaign office or helped us activate various constituencies. I met religious leaders of a variety of faiths and drew strength from their humility, faith and tolerance. I walked the district with enthusiastic high school and college kids whose idealism inspired me. I was welcomed by constituents at their homes, train stations, shopping plazas, bus stops, places of worship and public fairs and interacted with others through social media.
And despite people criticizing politicians as self-interested and assuming the worst about their intentions, I befriended some remarkable political leaders at the local, county, state and federal level who make very real sacrifices every day so that they can help others.
If I start naming names, I run the risk of leaving people out, so to the political, religious, labor, business, local and community leaders in New Jersey, New York, and across the country (California (L.A. and San Fran), Virginia, D.C. and Chicago), the volunteers who gave their invaluable time, the donors who gave us the funds necessary to compete, my awesome and indefatigable campaign team, lawyers and consultants, the special people who ran with me in Jersey this year, my law firm for supporting and allowing me to take a leave of absence to run, the constituents who took our campaign leaflets and put up signs on their lawns, the teachers and advocacy groups that endorsed and supported us, the Korean American business leaders who invested their hearts, time, money and energy, the hardworking members of the local, state and national (and Korean) press who took an interest in our little race in northern NJ, and my family and friends who were (and continue to remain) so ridiculously patient and understanding with me - thank you again and again and from the bottom of my heart for inspiring me. And although I'm not supposed to name names here, I did want to call out one leader who was so helpful to me - U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, you were there for me as you always are for your friends, and please know that your friends are here for you now.
In the months since the campaign, I've started a new job at a new firm and I've been "head down" getting back into the professional swing of things. But I feel daily pangs of guilt that I still haven't come close to catching up with and personally thanking all of the incredible people who helped me during the past two years. But please know that I'm thinking of you and cannot wait to catch up with all of you soon.
What I Gained
I'll end with this. I ran for U.S. Congress. I lost. But here's what I gained: deeper and stronger friendships with those I knew before the campaign in addition to countless new ones; a realization that for all the bad ones we read about, there are some wonderful people in politics (at all levels), an understanding that we need meaningful campaign finance reform, optimism that despite how seemingly polarized our nation sometimes seems, there is a great deal of commonality from which we can build, and, finally, this country is so great because of the people who make up its fabric.