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When Young Kim and Michelle Steel met up for family vacations more than 30 years ago, cooking meals and changing their daughters’ diapers as their husbands talked politics, neither had any idea that someday they would be the ones climbing the steps of the United States Capitol building.
But next year is someday. And early next month, Kim and Steel will be among the first Korean American women sworn into Congress.
The significance and the weight of that distinction isn’t lost on them.
“We were talking in front of the Capitol and I said, ‘Oh my God, I came (to the United States) when I was 19 and now I am working in that building,’” said Steel, 65, of Seal Beach, who last month defeated Rep. Harley Rouda to win the county’s coastal 48th District.
Kim and Steel were part of a notable GOP backflip. Their November wins — along with a win by David Valadao in the Central Valley — marked the first time California Republicans had taken out an incumbent House member since 1994.
The pair also are part of the largest cohort of women Republicans have ever sent to Congress. And they are the first women to represent their respective geographic districts.
“As a mother of four, I feel like I’ve naturally learned the negotiating skills to bring some win-win results,” said Kim, 58, of La Habra, who beat Rep. Gil Cisneros in the three-county 39th District. “I love to tell my story and share how important it is to have a woman’s voice.”
All of those distinctions contributed to the pair being named among the Orange County Register’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020.
Those distinctions also already landed the two women their first political mission, two weeks before they’ve even taken office. The Congressmembers-elect were invited to travel to Georgia together over the weekend to campaign for GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler and to rally Asian American voters to turn out for the Jan. 5 runoff election that will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.
“I think it’s a testament to the recognition of our growing voices at the national level,” Kim said.
During the campaign, Kim drew headlines for being one of a handful of Republicans to publicly criticize President Donald Trump, when she objected to his reference to the pandemic as the “kung flu” as being anti-Asian. While some on the right balked at her comments, others praised her for being willing to stand up for what she believes in even if it goes against her party’s leadership.
“We believe she will be an inspiring idol for future generations of Asian and other minority women to take up public service,” said Amit Desai, outreach director for the local chapter of Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, a nonprofit that supports Hindus living outside India.
Along with winning her race, Steel also served this year as chair of the Orange County Board of Supervisors during the early waves of the coronavirus pandemic. Steel called for an early emergency declaration and helped oversee county health orders and the distribution of a half-billion dollars in federal funding allocated to the county to fight the virus.
Steel also initially questioned the efficacy of wearing a mask to slow spread of the virus, even as public health officials said masks were important. And she has championed reopening businesses, pushing back against health-focused mandates from Gov. Gavin Newsom. Those stances helped turn masks and lockdowns into political issues at a time when public health was deteriorating, but they also made her a hero to a vocal group of county residents who oppose masks and lockdowns. And the popularity of that argument helped secure Orange County’s reputation as a place that stands against government-mandated efforts to control the pandemic, according to Jodi Balma, political science professor at Fullerton College.
Steel said she’s proud of the work she did as board chair during the virus, saying she worked with the best information she had at the time.
Steel and Kim’s parents actually taught together in South Korea before they immigrated to the United States.
Steel’s father was a diplomat and his job took her family from South Korea to Japan, where Steel grew up and become fluent in Japanese. She came to the United States at 19 to attend Pepperdine University and soon married Shawn Steel, who’d go on to become chair of the California Republican Party.
Steel won a seat on the California State Board of Equalization in 2006 and then was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2014. She beat Rouda in the CA-48 race this November by 8,376 votes, or 2.2 percentage points, declaring victory just a few days before Kim.
Kim moved with her family to the U.S. territory of Guam in 1975, then lived in Hawaii before moving to California. She worked in finance before starting her own small business in the women’s clothing industry. She also worked as a district aide for Rep. Ed Royce in CA-39 for more than two decades, heading up the office’s community outreach.
In 2014, she became the first Korean-American Republican woman elected to California’s Assembly, representing AD-65. She lost her reelection bid in 2016, then narrowly lost a 2018 challenge for CA-39 to Cisneros before winning the seat from him this year by 4,109 votes, or 1.2 percentage points.
Kim and Steel’s success in this election will have influence beyond their own party, Balma said, pushing Democrats to also focus on recruiting and supporting Asian American candidates.
Susan Lew, president of Asian Americans in Action, which advocates for progressive policies and candidates in Orange County, said she’s confident that having conservatives such as Steel and Kim in Congress “sends a message to the mainstream that there is no single, monolithic ‘Asian American Vote.’” And despite their political differences, Lew said, “I am hopeful that they will bring voice to issues affecting the AAPI community. After all, issues like health disparities, hunger, poverty, and anti-Asian racism, are not partisan.”
Kim said she does feel the weight of being the first Korean American woman in Congress along with Steel and Congresswoman-elect Marilyn Strickland, D-WA. She also knows that it can be challenging to make waves as a freshman member of the minority party.
“I do hope that my voice can be heard,” she said, “and that I can represent not only my district but also represent the underserved and underheard communities like the Asian American voice.”