Why you should care
Because Democrats need suburban districts like this to retake the House.
Welcome to The Wilderness, an OZY original series charting how Democrats are trying to climb out of their historic hole. Read more.
The easy path has never been Andy Kim’s thing. He left home for the “cowboy monastery” (his words) of Deep Springs College, a cattle ranch in the California desert where manual labor is part of the curriculum. Later, as a student at the University of Chicago, he volunteered at homeless shelters in each of the city’s downtrodden neighborhoods. While engaged to be married, Kim took a civilian deployment to Afghanistan. Now he has set his sights on another downtrodden, strange institution riven by conflict: Congress. “My first thought was, ‘Wow, things must be really bad in Congress for Andy to throw his hat into that ring,’” says Stacey May, who served on the White House National Security Council with Kim.
The dutiful 35-year-old is part of a wide-ranging clan of Barack Obama alumni running for office in the Donald Trump era, and would be only the second person of Korean descent elected to Congress, and the first Democrat. (Rep. Jay C. Kim, R-Calif. — no relation to Andy — served in the 1990s.) But to get there, Kim will have to take down a skilled incumbent in a Republican-leaning district and deal with the downside of his White House service: the rise of the Islamic State.
The son of a geneticist and a nurse who emigrated from South Korea, Kim grew up in the Philadelphia suburb of Marlton, New Jersey. After learning how to butcher a cow and farm alfalfa at Deep Springs, he enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he would occasionally see a state senator named Barack Obama in the neighborhood, and he dipped his toe into politics by protesting the war in Iraq. A Rhodes scholar, Kim completed a Ph.D. at Oxford on how activism influences state behavior. “I felt very detached as an activist,” Kim says. “I would spend a lot of my time trying to nudge or pressure individuals” with power. So he tried to “access those levers of power” himself. Kim joined the State Department in 2009 as a career employee working on Iraq policy. Two years later, he spent six months in Afghanistan on the staff of Gen. David Petraeus. In 2013, he became Iraq director for the National Security Council, putting in 14-hour White House workdays — plus weekends.
After Trump’s election, Kim collaborated with other Obama alumni to increase citizen engagement — then took his own advice.
We met in March outside a hipster-friendly northeast Washington market to talk about Rise Stronger, a resistance advocacy and networking group he founded. Kim’s earnest delivery and bromides about public service prompted me to ask whether he planned to run for office himself. Kim indicated he was open to the idea. Four weeks later, he launched a crowdfunding campaign asking for donations as he explored a run for Congress in New Jersey. Tom MacArthur, the incumbent, would not become a national name until later in April when he wrote the compromise that helped the House pass a partial repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Kim formally entered the race in June, explaining that MacArthur’s health care maneuvering inspired him to run. The health care plan proved to be woefully unpopular, and Senate Republicans abandoned their own version in July.
Republicans, who contend that health care will be less of an issue by the fall of 2018, are ready to skewer Kim as a carpetbagger who has not lived in his congressional district since he was in high school. Kim says he has moved his family back to New Jersey as they figure out how to navigate his wife’s job — and health insurance — at a law firm based in Washington and New York, while he campaigns full time without a salary.
And then there’s his White House record. “Under Andy Kim’s watch, the Obama administration failed to grasp the deadly threat ISIS presented to the world and failed to formulate a strategy to stop them,” says Chris Martin, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “If that’s what he considers a record of success, what does failure even look like?” Kim points out that the United States’ withdrawal from Iraq was first negotiated by George W. Bush. The Iraqi government did not want American troops there, and their full 2011 withdrawal came in part because the Iraqis would not guarantee immunity for U.S. soldiers. Kim paints the rise of ISIS as a “shockingly remarkable confluence of factors” largely out of America’s hands.
In 2014, as ISIS swept through northern Iraq, it launched a genocide against the ethnic minority Yazidi people, and Yazidi diaspora pleaded with the U.S. to act. Stacey May, then the NSC’s director of war crimes and atrocity prevention, says Kim swiftly brought together the key players from the military, intelligence services and State Department to develop a strategy to save the Yazidi who were surrounded on Mount Sinjar, and briefed Obama. Within 72 hours, the president approved airstrikes along with a humanitarian mission that helped tens of thousands of Yazidis escape. It was the first step in America’s war against ISIS. Kim is “the guy you go to when there’s a crisis and you want to find out what is the absolute best the U.S. government can do,” May says.
Kim left the White House in 2015, and the government altogether in 2016. After Trump’s election, Kim collaborated with other Obama alumni to increase citizen engagement to build the resistance — then took his own advice. He’s been embraced by national Democrats as the best shot to capture a district that nonpartisan analysts rate as likely to remain in GOP hands — though the health care debacle could make an impact. He could tap into a national network for money and volunteers. Laura Shin, a founder of Korean Americans for Organizing, says Kim is one of three Korean-Americans running for Congress in 2018 and her group is working to build excitement for his candidacy. After several self-effacing years behind the scenes, Kim is still navigating the ways of politicking, how to boast about his résumé and vision to strangers while learning the intricacies of his old-turned-new home. But to Kim, it’s all part of being a public servant, running headlong toward the next crisis.