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Two Korean Americans to watch during the midterm elections | Stu Bykofsky

In New Jersey's Third District, Democrat Andy Kim is in a virtual tie with Republican incumbent Tom MacArthur. In Pennsylvania's Fifth District, Republican Pearl Kim is trailing Democrat Mary Gay Scanlon.

Congressional candidate Pearl Kim is flanked by her mother, Hi Sook Kim, and her father, Kook Kan Kim
Congressional candidate Pearl Kim is flanked by her mother, Hi Sook Kim, and her father, Kook Kan KimRead moreCourtesy of Pearl Kim

No Korean American has served in Congress since 1999, when California Republican Jay Kim, the first to be elected, left after three terms.

That may change next month: Three unrelated Korean Americans named Kim are running for the House of Representatives — and two of them are in our region.

In New Jersey's Third District, comprising most of Burlington County and parts of Ocean County, Democrat Andy Kim is in a virtual tie with Republican incumbent Tom MacArthur. In Pennsylvania's Fifth District, including all of Delaware County with a chunk of Montgomery County and a sliver of Philadelphia, Republican Pearl Kim is trailing Democrat Mary Gay Scanlon. The women are competing for a seat vacated when Republican Pat Meehan resigned following allegations of sexual misconduct.

(The third Korean American running for office is California Republican Young Kim.)

Korean Americans are comparatively few in number — Pew Research counts fewer than 1.9 million, which is less than 1 percent of the U.S. population.

And not many Koreans in this country are involved in politics. To find out why, I asked one who is — lawyer David Oh, who is a double-minority as both a Philadelphia Republican and a Korean American, and who in 2011 became the first Asian elected to City Council. (In 2016, Helen Gym became the second Korean American elected to Council.)

Oh responded to my question with a 15-minute dissertation on Asian (not just Korean) relations with the United States. He says Asians were not always welcomed, and were excluded from immigration for years at a time.

Members of many European ethnicities, he says, went "from being despised to English-speaking, and they become citizens, and before you know it they are a voting bloc."

It was different for Asians, who often were ghettoized in small communities. Their mind-set was "You won't be successful in challenging the 800-pound gorilla," says Oh, meaning the white power structure.

As to party affiliation, the hardworking Koreans who came to America for opportunity were likely to lean right, while their children, "after getting an Ivy League education, are likely to be lefties," says Oh with a mix of humor and resignation.

Our local Kims — Pearl and Andy — are first-generation Americans, both born in this country. Pearl is a Republican, Andy a Democrat.

I asked each about their party affiliation.

"I consider myself a fiscal conservative, and generally speaking I don't believe that government is the answer to solve all our problems," says Pearl, 39, who resigned as senior deputy attorney general of Pennsylvania to run.

Andy, 36, who had been part of President Barack Obama's National Security Council, says he's a Democrat because he believes in diversity, health care as a right, quality public education, and that "government should give voice to everyone, not just the wealthiest."

Andy says his parents came to the U.S. in the '70s, penniless and barely able to speak English. Before he reached 35, Andy brought them into the Oval Office, where Obama held their grandson. Can you imagine that moment?

Pearl's American Dream was less dramatic but more common. "My parents came here with next to nothing." she says, yet her father became a dentist and her mother a pediatrician.

Pearl survived a bout with cancer she won't discuss, other than to say she doesn't require treatment. She also survived a sexual assault in college that police did not handle well, she says, and that inspired her to become a prosecutor.

Andy's most traumatizing moments came when he was a security adviser in the White House when ISIS exploded and "the challenges were trying to determine what our country should be doing."

America embraced the immigrant Kims, who produced children who want to embrace public service.

The American Dream is a two-way street.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this column reported that Pearl Kim opposes both Sanctuary Cities and safe injection sites, while Andy Kim does not. Andy Kim says he now opposes Sanctuary Cities.