Will Buena Park’s Most Korean District Help Elect Democrat Sunny Park to City Council?

Sunny Park likes her chances (courtesy Sunny Park)

District elections will be fully in place when Buena Park voters elect three council members this November. The city began scrapping its old at-large system during the 2016 election cycle without getting hit with a lawsuit alleging violations of the California Voting Rights Act like Anaheim with Latinos and Fullerton with Asian-Americans before it. Even so, the most interesting of the three races this time around is in District 1, where it remains to be seen whether the area that’s 41 percent Asian-American will elect one of their own.

Attorney Sunny Youngsun Park, a newcomer to both Buena Park and its local politics, is quickly making herself feel at home. The city council candidate sits at a table at Caffè Bene, the largest coffeehouse chain in South Korea and one of the many Korean businesses alongside Beach Boulevard and Malvern Avenue, where she explains her reasons for running. “I hear some complaints from non-Koreans that we live in our four corners island,” she says of the de facto Little Seoul intersection. “But it goes both ways. The bottom line is we’re a part of the larger Buena Park community and we need to work together to make the city better.” 

The legal specialist in estate planning moved her family to Buena Park last year to be closer to clients she’s served there for over 10 years.  No sooner than getting settled into her new city did a small group of Korean-Americans approach her about running for council. She discussed the idea with professional colleagues who saw it as just the next step for someone that has always balanced work life with community involvement. “This is a natural evolution of what I am as a person,” she says. “I’m in it to win it.”

While Buena Park found evidence suggesting racially-polarized voting in a city-commissioned study before making the switch to single-member districts, Park being a proud Democrat makes her candidacy an interesting test case. Korean-Americans have historically swayed Republican in the county. “What’s interesting to me is Los Angeles Korean-Americans are generally Democrats but Orange County being conservative, older generation Koreans are more Republican,” Park says. “But what I see is the younger generation is becoming more Democrat.” 

And while times are changing, roughly 30 percent of registered Korean-Americans in District 1 are Democrats, slightly outpaced by Republicans and voters who belong to neither party. Walking precincts since November, Park observes that many bring understandings of political parties in the United States over from Korea, with North Korea being the defining issue. She explains what it means to be a Democrat outside of that context in terms of progressive values held like supporting public education and labor unions. “I realized a lot of people don’t know what we stand for,” she says. 

So far, Park’s campaign coffers aren’t hurting. A review of contribution forms at the end of 2017 shows her run to be a serious one with the candidate raising over $100,000 already. Where it concerns the Korean-American community, Park enjoys support from business, civic and religious leaders. Donald Doyoung Kim, President of the OC Korean-U.S. Citizens League, lives in District 1 and has known Park for many years. He asked Park to help his nonprofit out with her legal knowledge and she happily obliged. “We are the first generation, Park is part of the 1.5 generation,” he says, with a chuckle. “She’s very strong and organized. Becoming a city councilwoman would be a very excellent fit for her.”

Where the District 1 city council race gets even more interesting is with Park’s opponents. She’s facing off against incumbent mayor Virginia Vaughn, a Republican whose previous city council run enjoyed campaign contributions related from The Source, a major retail center in Buena Park developed by two Korean-American brothers. According to filings, Vaughn raised $50,000 for her reelection bid, including donations from local Korean-Americans like District 5 city council candidate and planning commissioner Jae Joon Chung. She also counts the support of 39th congressional district candidate Young Kim. “I’ve been really impressed with Virginia,” Kim said in a livestream from a Vaughn reelection event in January. “I’m here really excited to lend my support for her.” 

District 1 is also home to a sizable Latino and politically independent population, as well. Val Sadowinski, an Ecuadorian-American with no party preference, opened up a committee in throwing his hat in the race. The 43-year resident and retired physician is well known among residents as having been a voice against the unpopular Los Coyotes Country Club Development Plan in the district. In campaigning, he favors development in the city, only with well thought out plans for parking and traffic. “I’m not using this campaign as a stepping stone for a higher office,” Sadowinski says. “If I get elected, I don’t want to be beholden to no one but my neighbors, to the people who elected me.” 

Aside from being a case study in district elections with interesting opponents, Park’s campaign is focused on key issues like affordable housing and voicing the need for more park space. She shares similar concerns with fellow neighbors about increased traffic and safety issues surrounding the Los Coyotes plan to add 125 “golf course-orientated” condos. “With respect to development, a lot of people told me that they’re very mad about this condominium project,” Park says. “I’m not really pro or anti-development. I see each development project as standing on its own.”

As her campaign picks up speed, Park enjoys the endorsement of elected officials, including, most recently, former congresswoman Loretta Sanchez. Connor Traut, a fellow Democrat running against Chung in District 5, also lent his formal support. However Korean-Americans vote in District 1, Park wants voters to know she’s campaigning to represent everyone. It’s an ideal that led her to become president of the Buena Park Noon Lions Club, rather than just join a Korean one as had been suggested by a sitting council member when she asked how best to become more involved in civic life. 

“In order for an elected official to be an all-inclusive person, you have to have an understanding of all different cultures,” she says. “You also have to be able to operate as an effective representative.”

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