District 10 candidate Grace Yoo eyes an upset

Photo provided by Grace Yoo

Photo provided by Grace Yoo

The residents of District 10, a portion of which spans South Los Angeles, will vote for a new councilmember on March 3. Intersections interviewed the candidates ahead of the elections. 

It’s been a long day for Los Angeles City Council candidate Grace Yoo. Just hours after The Los Angeles Times endorsed Herb Wesson, the incumbent in Council District 10, Yoo walks into her campaign office frustrated about a neighborhood council meeting gone awry. It’s 8 p.m. and she still has hours left on her schedule; her campaign staff works to the soothing hum of laptops inside a small, narrow storefront near Western Avenue and Sixth Street.

But as quickly as the frustration mounts, it is easily dismissed. Yoo takes a seat and flashes a smile as she peels a clementine. Everything about her campaign, from Yoo’s fuchsia jacket to the hand-drawn pictures adorning the office walls is cheerful. She’s still hung up on the fact that the L.A. Times referred to her as ‘plucky,’ which she regards as a backhanded compliment (“Of all the words to choose?”), but even that fades quickly during conversation.

The former executive director of the Korean American Coalition is driven by a combination of faith and facts, her guiding compass to a seat on the City Council. Yoo, 43, a Los Angeles Unified School District alum, has been a strong advocate for both juveniles and the Koreatown community for many years. If she wins, she would be the second Asian American to ever win a seat on the City Council.

Yoo comes across as undeniably genuine. Perhaps it’s her unbridled enthusiasm or disarming extroverted persona. The fact that you can spot her mother wandering around the office (snagging a piece of fruit from a nearby crate) only tugs at the heartstrings.

She’s a perfect contrast to Wesson, primarily known as a skilled and feared political operator. In fact, the only time you can sense any palpable anger from Yoo is when you mention the turkey-like outline of her district – which some call the result of a blatant gerrymander. In 2012, Wesson, the City Council president, was caught on tape saying he felt an obligation to ensure “a minimum of two of the council people will be Black for the next 30 years.”

Wesson’s role in reshaping District 10 has stoked outrage and litigation from the community. The recent public spat over beleaguered Koreatown bar La Defence only fueled talk that he’s more concerned with politics than people. Despite the criticism, he’s still suspected to win a third and final term.

But Yoo doesn’t buy the argument that she’s an underdog; she is driven by the cold, political calculus that Wesson is more vulnerable to disgruntled constituency than political navel-gazers believe him to be. Yoo has the same affinity for her opponent that one might have for an absentee slumlord, saying, “He bullies people.” She’s hoping constituents feel the same.

Yoo has also garnered the support of some well-known political figures in Los Angeles, including retiring councilman Bernard Parks. On February 13, County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich gave the candidate an early Valentine’s Day gift in the form of his endorsement.

The L.A. Times editorial chided Yoo for being “too little” of a politician on the face that she “does not articulate her views well.” Certainly, when pushed, she resorts to some rather ambiguous talking points on more polarizing political issues. But that comes across as less than an inexperienced candidate bumbling through the issues, and more like a typical political challenger navigating through a young journalist’s questions.


In an interview, Yoo offered specifics on how she would use discretionary funds, reduce the city deficit  and end the fracking at West Adams. The entire discussion is transcribed below, edited for clarity.

Intersections: You are primarily known as someone who has helped people in politics behind-the-scenes. You are running against an incumbent that only has one term left if he should win. So the real question is: Why are you running now, and not in four years?

Grace Yoo: It’s really to stand up for the people who want to stand up against Wesson. It’s just standing up. It’s just like, “I’m sorry. You can’t stomp all over us and think we are going to take it lying down.”

And really, it was looking at the numbers and knowing it’s doable. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible. There were 13,300 votes for Wesson less than four years ago. Eight years ago, he ran unopposed and it was like 8,500 people who voted for him.

I was like, “That’s it? Out of the 250,000 people, 115,000 people registered. Only 13 percent decided the fate of this district?” And I said, “I only need a few thousand votes to win? Let’s go.”

And you don’t want to live life regretting something. I can tell you, I don’t have regrets because I just go for it. And I’m not going for it because of anything other than I can do a better job. I can do a better job; I can be elected. I want to do the job. I want to help the citizens of this 10th district. We get neglected. And I’m ready. I want our community to have a voice and representation. People want the city to work for them; government should work for the people. There’s a reason people don’t vote.

But was there something specific that made you decide that the time to run against the entrenched incumbent is now?

Of the candidates running against Wesson, I just felt I was the best poised to win. And I didn’t want to have regrets. It was that “no one can beat Wesson” attitude. That’s not true. He bullies people. And I’m standing up.

Is there a generational divide in Koreatown you have to unite to get people out to the polls? I kind of feel like you have to win the base here.

It may be that you see there’s a generational shift on it, but the people who vote are the senior citizens. The people under 35, they don’t vote. And that’s really a disservice to everybody—that more people don’t vote.

But millennials volunteer in huge numbers; they’re very involved. Maybe they’re just more pragmatic when it comes to politics and policy?

I will say that I do see young people volunteering, but how far is that volunteerism going to go? You need to have commitment as well as good deeds. Sometimes it looks like people who want to feel good about themselves and so they go volunteer somewhere once a year.

“I’m a good person, I went and did this.” Okay, you’re a good person, you’re not a bad person. But let’s not be satisfied with just doing that. What can we do to alleviate the problem, the root cause? That’s always I how I view things. And that’s part of how I ended up running right now. 

So you would argue that to make any lasting impact, younger voters need to get more involved with policy?

As an attorney, I thought I’d represent the abused and I wanted to work with juvenile delinquents. But when I looked into the juvenile delinquent problem, it really stemmed from all the problems that they have because they don’t have families that were able to take care of them. I started to really look at the abuse/dependency side of things because I wanted kids to have a better future.

So I’ve always known policy is the way to go, and that’s how I ended up going to D.C. and advocating for more Asian Americans on the federal bench. Getting Asian Americans to become partners in major white shoe firms. Those things happened under my watch. This is only a decade ago. We’ll use Gibson Dunn as an example, they’ve only had their first Asian partner in the last ten years. Pretty crazy, right? You would think, we’re in Los Angeles, how can you not? But that’s the reality.

Are you in favor of the two measures on the March 3 ballot, designed to move the dates of city elections to boost voter turnout?

Initially, I thought that was a good idea. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it is not a good way to get more people involved. More people may vote, but it doesn’t mean they are going to go all the way down the ticket. Sometimes when you have 30 items on the ballot, people don’t go all the way down. Maybe they make it to Senator, but everyone down the list gets short shrifted.

I also thought it was a cost-saving measure until I found out we have no idea how much we’re going to have to pay for this. I don’t think buying something when you don’t know the price is a good idea.

The reality is that this is all about money and helping incumbents stay in place. It does not increase voter participation, and there are better ways. So I am opposed to both measures.

What is the best way to get people more involved then?

Neighborhood council meetings are a great way, but sometimes the opportunities are not there, like earlier today. I think as council member, I think I’d like to allow for a lot of town hall kind of gatherings where people can meet and talk. People have great ideas. I’m not the only person with ideas. I believe the residents who know their districts even better than I do can tell me, “This is what we need; this is what we like. We need a dog park here, or this street fixed. We’d like better lighting here.” They know better than we do.

That sounds a lot like Mayor Garcetti’s “Back to the Basics” agenda.

You know what, though? That’s what we need.

How do you feel about Mayor Garcetti?

He’s a likable, affable guy.

What is the most pressing issue for the 10th District? 

We just want the basic government services that are lacking, like fixing potholes. Right down in Leimert Park, some of these streets are really bad. You can get a flat tire going over some of the streets in the 10th district. We have horrible sidewalk issues everywhere. In Arlington, Fourth Avenue, 27th Street, etc. Walking these areas, the neighbors are telling me they want these services. The city is supposed to be working for the citizens, and that’s not happening. It’s a big issue. Why aren’t we listening to these people?

And these are the issues that compelled you to run? 

It was one of those situations, where here we are. We have this big problem. It’s not going to disappear on its own. Someone is going to have to stand up and be the crusader. And I thought, “I can do this.” But my friends are telling, “Grace, this is Wesson. What are you doing?”

But really, it’s the fact that I’m an attorney and the lack of justice, and the fact that no one calls [Wesson] out on his lies. It was just a bit too much for me.  

Are you talking about the Council member’s recent flip-flop on extending the liquor license for La Defence, here in Koreatown? 

Absolutely! What do you mean you’ve been opposed to La Defence since September? Your staff has been asking for extensions for this bar. Give me a break. Your staff has been asking for special meetings for the police and owners of the business.

In these circumstances, you would have been against extending a liquor license for the establishment?

Yes. The police had been called out there so often. There are plenty of establishments in Koreatown that are not being called upon to close doors. This was a problem.

Do you think Wesson has thrown in the towel in regards to Koreatown?

No, he has not done that. He is trying to entice people and saying, “I built you this and I built you that, and here is money coming in for you—

On the business side?

Yes, on the business side.

Let’s move past Koreatown. Your district map is shaped like a turkey. Koreatown and Baldwin Hills are miles, and worlds, apart. How do you bridge that divide?

You know what, I do well with people by speaking the truth. And they hear me. They look at my resume and the things I’ve done, that I’ve always been with the people, with those unable to represent themselves. Look at my resume; look at what I’ve done. I didn’t go in to make a lot of money. That was not my goal in life. My goal in life was to help people. And the 10th District needs help.

But the demographics say you need really court over Latino voters to win. To make a serious run, how do you do that?

Can I just tell you that people like candidates coming to their door. Whether you’re Caucasian, Asian, Latino or African-American, they’re like, “Grace Yoo, you’re here for my vote? You’ve got my vote.”

I’ve been very fortunate. When people know that I am running against Herb Wesson, the African-American parts of the district look at me and smile big time. They seem to say, “You know you’re running against the incumbent?”

But I want to do the job. I want to take care of the residents. I don’t want to represent the residents in the future; I want to represent them now. I want to work on the development now.

In the 10th district, we need more affordable units. Why do you think both the city and county has so many homeless people out there? Because we’re pricing everybody out. People want to hear. I want affordable units—everywhere. I’m talking about in the northern portion of the district, as well as the southern portion. Not everyone has money. Why is it that we want only the wealthy to live in a nice luxury apartment? It doesn’t sit well with me. It goes against the grain for me.

Los Angeles has the lowest vacancy rate, along with the highest poverty rate

Right. Right, so we need to have affordable units.

When it comes to affordable housing, are you in favor of forcing developers to expand the number of affordable housing units made available to renters?

If they are getting government subsidies, then definitely. But if it’s a private developer not using any, then we have no right to enforce that or impose that on them. Until the laws changes, and that’s not something that’s required—

Well how do you move towards that goal? How do you overcome the obstacles for City Council to develop more housing in Los Angeles?

I have a friend with Mercy Housing, and they can’t even get a meeting with a City Council member. Do we want to help the people? Then we should be responsive to people who want to do good things, and not just gain as much money and profit as possible. Is that too naive? I hope not.

I think we will see a huge change, with me in office, because when I do the right things by this district, other residents will say: “Wait a second, look at District 10. They’re doing the right thing. They’ve got affordable units going up. They’ve got revitalization going along. And more of the City Council members should do the same.”

I’m not saying all the council members are doing nothing, but I think instead of focusing on doing the right thing for the residents, they’re trying to figure out how to get more tickets to special events.

So are you in favor of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s proposal to raise the minimum wage?

I’m not in favor or opposed to the minimum wage increase, but I need more information. I will say that I want a livable standard for everybody, but that again goes back to affordable housing units. A place where people can live and have a quality standard of life. Does that come from $15 per hour or $13 per hour? What does it come from? What is the impact on the small businesses, which are the majority of the employment opportunities for district residents?

I don’t have those answers, so I’m not ready to say if I’m for or against a minimum wage increase.

So what’s the priority for a standard of living then? Is it just affordable housing? In regards of promoting a living standard

How about environment? How about the fact that we’ve got enhanced drilling going in the district. We’re California, we’re L.A. We have drilling in the city of Los Angeles? We allow for fences that are unpermitted, or illegally up around a site for enhanced drilling?

This is, once again, where the city can take the lead. If someone is violating rules, then come down on them. Stop them. The City Council said they unanimously passed a resolution. But stop them.

Your challenger is the guy who often makes the sausage, gets those resolutions passed. How would you change things?

I think with new blood on the City Council, things would drastically change. I happen to believe that there are number of council members who want to do the right thing, that will do the right thing.

Are you still behind using discretionary funds to fix your district?

Absolutely! And I’ve said I would even take the special funds from selling property, which are divided amongst each district, and put it back toward the city budget. We need to get rid of the deficit. The budget needs to be balanced. We can’t continue to operate the way we do. I do no want us to become the next Detroit.

But Garcetti wants to roll back cuts made to services during the Great Recession, how do you reconcile that with balancing budget?

I think it’s because only see one portion, or the portion of the budget that effects them, but if we let everybody know what the state of affairs for the City of Los Angeles is budget-wise, they will understand the picture better. We don’t talk about what the issues, we just pretend it doesn’t exist. All we talk about is pay or salary, but let’s look at the whole issue.

So holistically, you think  the City Council is capable fixing a lot of those problems?

I think we can fix those problems. Yes, absolutely.

How detrimental is the fact that there is no Asian representation on the City Council right now?

I think it’s very important that we have another woman at the table. I think it’s important to have an Asian voice at the table. The lines are drawn so that this was not supposed to be done. I’m really one of those people that if you keep pushing me, I’m going to stand up.

Is this the opening salvo for a long and distinguished political career? Or is this one and done?

I started out knowing that I need to stand up. And I know that we need a voice. I really like to help on the campaign side of things, not necessarily the candidate. If someone else makes it before I do maybe I won’t feel the need to do so, but if there isn’t, then I do believe I will be continuing this path.

What do you want voters to know about Grace Yoo? What do you want constituents identify your campaign with?

I’m coming in to do what city government is supposed to do. It’s supposed to have the lives of citizens be better. Infrastructure is supposed to be working. We shouldn’t have a F-grade for 466 streets in this district. We don’t plan for major infrastructure. City government likes band-aids. We need to figure why and how to get streets moving properly. I want to work for the residents. 

The L.A. Times endorsement, or “weird” endorsement for Wesson, was kind of backhanded pat on me. Really, “plucky”? You couldn’t use bold, courageous, determined, and audacious? I say it was because they kept looking at the turkey map.

But they are right about two things: I am congenial and I am smart. And I didn’t run to just make an issue and cause Wesson some grief. No way. I am running to win. And let’s see how credible we are. We have just days left and I’m expecting to make it. I’m expecting Wesson to be surprised.

The candidate’s website is http://www.graceyoocd10.com/.

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