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Yoon is busting out all over
Sam Yoon’s mass appeal. Also, the Andrea Cabral watch continues.

The at-large Boston City Council candidacy of Korean-born, Princeton-educated Sam Yoon offers a telling snapshot of how politics is played in Boston these days.

In fits and starts, the city’s parochial and polarized electoral culture is evolving, as Yoon’s candidacy demonstrates. Ten years ago it would have been almost unimaginable. Today, Yoon is seen as eminently viable, although the odds on his election are still up in the air.

In a city where white residents are now in a slight minority, but white voters still determine the broad contours of public life, Yoon’s candidacy is hard evidence of the rise of a new immigrant community. Like the very diverse Latino community, Boston’s Asians are less a monolithic block of voters than a collection of smaller ethnic populations who have at least one thing in common: they are, at the moment, political outsiders.

Outsiders trying to become insiders is one of politics’ great themes, and nowhere is that more true than in Boston. The Irish replaced the Yankees; the Italians have won a place at the table; African-Americans and, to a lesser extent, voters of Spanish-speaking heritage have put themselves on the map. Now comes Yoon, hoping to score an ethnic first by playing the diversity card and stressing his progressive ideas — even as he appeals to the city’s base of traditional neighborhood voters.

A line that could endear Yoon to the latter group comes four minutes into his stump speech, after he describes his family and mentions his experience teaching math (in the New Jersey public schools) and developing affordable housing (at Chinatown’s Asian Community Development Corporation). "I’m a Christian," Yoon tells his audience at the Susan Bailis Assisted Living Community on Mass Ave. "I’m a religious person, and my Christian faith calls on me to do more wherever I can.... That is the deepest, most personal reason why I am standing before you today."

Later, when asked by the Phoenix about this public profession of faith, Yoon — a tall, slender, somewhat soft-spoken 35-year-old — says that some of his advisers warned against making it a campaign staple. "My response is, that line was put in for a reason, because it is a strong part of my identity," he continues. "Just to clear the air, I’m pro-gay-marriage. What’s kind of sad is that the media portrays all Christians as being right-wingers. Believe me, there’s plenty of us who have a deep faith in Jesus Christ and believe in equal rights for all."

Yoon’s reasoning will be tested in September’s preliminary election, when the 15-person at-large field is winnowed to eight. Maybe the Christianity line will spook secular progressives who think politics needs less religion, not more. But it could also provide a shared cultural reference point for voters — particularly white conservatives — who might otherwise balk at voting for an Asian-American.

Which brings us back to ethnicity. Technically, Yoon may not be the first Asian-American to run for office in Boston; Diana Lam, an educational administrator of mixed Latino and Asian descent, mounted an abortive three-day campaign against Mayor Ray Flynn in 1991. But if he wins, Yoon would be the first Asian elected to municipal office.

Whether he does could hinge on — to put it bluntly — how much mileage he gets out of his ancestry. The 2000 Census puts Boston’s Asian population at about 44,000, or 7.5 percent of the city’s total. But this number includes both Chinese-Americans (almost 20,000 and growing slowly) and Vietnamese-Americans (almost 11,000 and growing rapidly), as well as East Indian–Americans (less than 5000 and growing fast) and other smaller groups. Furthermore, most of them don’t vote: a recent study by UMass Boston’s Institute for Asian American Studies found that less than 25 percent of Boston’s Asians are registered voters.

In a best-case scenario for Yoon, his Korean ancestry allows both the Chinese and Vietnamese blocs — which tend to view each other as rivals — to claim him as their own. Along with Boston’s small Korean community and the other Asian subgroups, they could back his campaign and vote for him in unexpectedly high numbers. In a worst-case scenario, his hypothetical ethnic base remains exactly that.

Of course, Yoon’s ethnicity could offer other advantages. He could be an attractive choice for white liberals frustrated by the continued white domination of Boston politics, not to mention white conservatives eager to demonstrate their own broad-mindedness — especially since residents get four at-large votes. Blacks and Latinos, too, might want to add another person of color to the council. "The very fact that Yoon has the endorsement of Mel King" — the African-American community activist and 1983 mayoral candidate — "is huge in the African-American community," says political consultant Joyce Ferriabough.

There’s just one catch: at-large councilor Felix Arroyo is already a favorite of Latinos, blacks, and white progressives, all of whom Yoon seems to be targeting as well. (Jim Spencer, a veteran progressive consultant who was former congressman Joe Kennedy’s political director and worked with Arroyo in 2003, is currently advising Yoon; whether he’ll also work for Arroyo remains to be seen.)

Earlier this summer, relations between the Yoon and Arroyo camps seemed rather tense. A December 2004 Bay State Banner article quoted Yoon as saying that he shared the goals of Arroyo and his progressive colleagues, District Seven councilor Chuck Turner and District Four councilor Charles Yancey, but would use different methods if elected. Last month, at the endorsement meeting of the Ward Four Committee (which represents the southern Back Bay), an Arroyo staffer complained about Yoon’s comments; the Ward Four Committee subsequently endorsed Arroyo, but not Yoon.

Afterward, Yoon wrote a letter to the Banner in which he lavished praise on Arroyo and his fellow progressives and complained that his remarks were taken out of context. Today, Felix Arroyo Jr., who serves as his father’s campaign director, says there’s no ill will. "Any sort of tensions that are being reported are extremely overblown," says Arroyo Jr. "Felix prides himself on being able to work well with anybody, and if Sam’s a new face on the council, it’ll be that same relationship."

The cool neutrality of these comments is striking. With Maura Hennigan ceding her at-large seat to run for mayor, the council’s isolated progressive contingent is poised to get even weaker. Yoon could become a useful ally for Arroyo and his fellow liberals. But instead of quietly helping Yoon’s campaign, the Arroyo camp seems inclined to view him as just another rival. For Yoon — who needs all the help he can get in the next three months — this is hardly good news.

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Issue Date: August 19 - 25, 2005
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