The Non-Politician Candidate
Peter Choi, coming from a diverse background, makes his bid for California’s 24th District Senate seat.
by STEVE HAN
Peter Choi is not a politician, and takes pride in that. A first-time candidate in the race for California’s 24th state Senate district, he believes that his lack of experience in politics is actually what makes him an ideal fit for a law-making body that seems to be making headlines these days for “all the wrong reasons,” as Choi says, referring to a spate of recent corruption scandals.
“We need to get someone up in Sacramento who understands what the will of the people is. That’s why I’m running,” said Choi, 53, currently the president and CEO of the Temple City Chamber of Commerce. “I’ve had a career in Hollywood. I’ve been a small business owner. I run a nonprofit. I will bring the totality of my life experiences to Sacramento. When I look at legislation, I don’t look at it through the eyes of my donors or special interest groups. I look at it through the eyes of someone who has lived a life.”
In the upcoming June primary, Choi faces fellow Democrat Kevin De Leon, the incumbent, in a bid to represent the 24th District, one of the most culturally diverse regions in the state and one that trends Democratic. It covers 9.5 percent of Los Angeles County, which includes Koreatown, East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, Eagle Rock and Westlake.
He has lived in Eagle Rock for about 20 years, but spent a good portion of his childhood in other countries, thanks to his father, a South Korean ambassador who helped establish the first Korean embassy in Washington, D.C. Choi attended elementary school in India, middle school in Egypt, high school in Morocco and later also lived briefly in Jamaica.
“It became very easy for me to meet new people because every three to five years, I had to reintroduce myself,” Choi said. “But I also understand that underneath our skin, accent and the food we eat, people are people. They want love, they want to connect. That’s what I bring to this district, the most diverse district. I get along with everybody.” Though he studied prelaw at Harvard, he joined the Directors Guild of America after graduating and worked on prominent film and TV projects, including The Karate Kid. After marrying, he and his wife Donna became small business owners, opening a boutique in the Silver Lake district of L.A. Choi also later worked for then-councilmember, now mayor, Eric Garcetti, in developing the Sunset Junction of Silver Lake into today’ s artsy and hipster neighborhood. He also served as the Silver Lake Chamber of Commerce’ s chairman and the founding governing board member of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council.
Choi believes his diverse back- ground has helped shape his progressive political ideology. An advocate of marriage equality and animal welfare, Choi is also a professed environmentalist and says that a major issue in the 24th District and L.A. is air quality and a clean environment. “One big issue that came up in this district is single-use plastic bags—those cheap, flimsy bags that end up in the river and trees, especially in low-income neighborhoods,” he said. “There was a statewide resolution to ban the plastic bags. That measure failed because of three votes, and one of those votes was by my opponent, Kevin De Leon. How can our senator vote against an issue that’s so important to us?”
De Leon said last November that he’s a supporter of banning plastic bags, but that abolishing them should be done “in a smarter way,” and that doing it suddenly, without a green alternative, would lead to loss of revenue and jobs.
Choi also said that one of his key motivations for running for state office is to restore a transparent government in Sacramento, at a time when recent corruption scandals involving three senators has damaged the legislature’ s reputation. Two state lawmakers, Ronald Calderon and Leland Yee, have been charged with corruption and bribery, while a third, Rod Wright, has been convicted of perjury and voter fraud. Though his opponent has not been charged with anything, Choi said that De Leon’s name appears “56 times in the FBI affidavit regarding the corruption investigation of Sen. Ron Calderon. This includes a lurid passage on page 92 indicating that De Leon allowed a legislative bill to die after ‘not receiving sufficient help’ in return for his backing.”
De Leon’s chief of staff, Dan Reeves called Choi’s accusation “character defamation,” saying that the senator was merely asked to testify in the investigation. “Just because his name gets mentioned with Ron Calderon, that doesn’t imply anything with regards to criminal behavior,” said Reeves. “[The FBI] sent Kevin a letter, saying that he’s simply a witness and that he wasn’t targeted in any way.”
De Leon already raised more than $257,000 in campaign funds, between January and March of this year, while Choi only raised $4,000 in that period. In other words, Choi’s bid is a longshot.
But Grace Yoo, executive director of the Korean American Coalition in Los Angeles, is backing the first-time candidate because she said “too often we find ourselves asking why people who would make great elected officials don’t run—you know, the folks that are smart, ethical and have common sense.
“Peter is that smart and ethical candidate,” she said. “[He’s] a policy wonk who knows issues and neighbor- hoods and individuals and is able to blend all of it together for the betterment of all.”