Roy Cho’s Surprisingly Plausible Bid for a New Jersey Congressional Seat



The first thing one notices is the giant flag. It’s building-sized, for outdoor use, best seen from a distance. But it’s in a room, and it’s hard not to have a natural human response to standing next to a much bigger object. One looks up and marvels a bit. But, being a flag, and not a hunk of wrought earth, the whole thing veers toward camp. Functional camp, though, serving as a backdrop for group photos, and as a space divider, separating the main open area from the work area behind it, where a collection of misfit office furniture forms a series of low cubicles at the campaign headquarters of Roy Cho, candidate for New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District. When he’s at the campaign office, Cho works from one of the makeshift chambers hidden by the flag, beneath a handwritten sign bearing his name.

On the other side of the flag, about 50 middle-aged women were milling about on this Thursday evening. Catering tables bore cheese, crackers and Liberty Creek wine.

The candidate emerged and did a round of grip-and-grin. Cho, 33, is a medium-sized man, solidly built, with a politician’s implacable coiffeur, the bullet-shaped head of a dime-story private detective, and a head-to-neck thickness ratio reflecting his days as a wrestler. His eyes—wide, intense, framed by upturned brows—seem ill-equipped for the task of funneling his gaze. This can work against him in staged photos, but in person, they exude a forceful earnestness.


Roy Cho (center) poses with his supporters at the Women for Cho meeting in Ridgewood, N.J. (Photo courtesy of Roy Cho for Congress)

The event was his seventh of that particular day, part of a campaign that has been characterized as “energetic.”

There is a whiff of condescension to the designation, and many dismiss his chances. The 5th has been reliably Re- publican for some time, and Cho’s opponent, six-time incumbent Scott Garrett, has $3.2 million cash in-hand. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which supports candidates it believes can flip a district, has praised Cho, but has withheld full support. Steve Israel, chairman of the DCCC, recently said on New York’s NPR outlet, “This is one of the races that could be in play 2014, and absolutely will be in play in 2016.” It didn’t help that the host, Brian Lehrer, repeatedly referred to the candidate as “Ray,” not “Roy.”

Cho thinks he has a chance, and he’s run a blitzkrieg campaign that has forced Garrett to campaign harder than he’s had to in years. Cho laid out his case, as he does multiple times a day, before the women gathered at the meeting. He’s a fast talker who combines the preacher’s penchant for repetition with the pace of an eager debater, trying to drown his opponent in arguments. He can rattle off statistics and arguments like the Ivy League-educated corporate lawyer he is, building a fugue of reasons that one doesn’t so much follow as just ride. It is a rousing experience, and he’s clearly got a gift for it. Here’s what he told me, before the speech, regarding his chances, which he delivered in very little time:

“[Garret] lost over half of his base in redistricting, and 20 percent of the district is entirely new, which is strongly Democratic, with a 65 percent Democratic performance. His base and our base cancel each other out. The rest of Bergen County went from being 55 percent of the vote total to 75 percent of the vote total. Bergen County becomes the battleground, which we call Persuasion Territory.”


Cho with U.S. Senator Cory Booker, who has endorsed the candidate, at a New Jersey rally. (Photo courtesy of Roy Cho for Congress)

Cho goes on to note that the popular U.S. Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat and formerly Newark’s
mayor, is from this district and has done “exceptionally well” in this so-called Persuasion Territory.

“On the ballot ticket, I’m right underneath him, so it’s Booker and Cho,” says Cho, who has received the senator’s endorsement.

“The Republican-leaning, wealthier Korean American community happen to be situated right in Persuasion Territory.

So if you’re talking about a percentage of, our race, our win model has us winning by 2 to 3 percentage points. It’s going to be a very, very close race. You talk about even 5 percent of the Korean American population, if they come out and vote, in that area, and they choose not to vote for Republicans, and they vote for a Korean American and a Democrat, then we win the race with that alone.”

In his speech to the Women for Cho group, the candidate also highlighted his opponent’s record of opposing a woman’s right to choose, equal pay for equal work, protection against domestic violence. The crowd listened, rapt, and Cho closed by asking the crowd for their support, with which they’d pull off one of the biggest upsets in the country.

The group cheered. Cho spoke with a few more people, took a group photo in front of the flag, and left to go to one final campaign event that evening. He’d started speaking at about 7:10. He was gone by 7:30. “I don’t know how he does it,” said one supporter to another.

After Cho left, talk turned to tactics. What should I do when I get a poller calling who’s obviously trying to get me to say something in support of the other guy? one supporter asked. Another supporter suggested going to schools around 3 in the afternoon, when parents are lined up to pick up their children, to canvass. Women for Cho Wednesdays and Women for Cho Weekends were planned. It all felt very scrappy, very small town, every bit of a vision of bake-sale democracy, 12 miles from New York City.


Per the restaurant’s website:

Piora, which means “to blossom” in Korean, is the collaboration between Proprietor Simon Kim and Chef Christopher Cipollone that pays homage to their Korean and Italian heritages and reflects their passion for creating dining experiences that are refined yet unexpected.

The restaurant’s marketing poetry omits the fact that this particular conjugation is in the imperative. It is not so much “to blossom,” as it is a command: “Bloom.”

Cho always knew he wanted to get into politics, so he built his resume to support that ambition, balancing public sector work with private sector experience. Cho eventually landed a job at Kirkland & Ellis, which trade publication The American Lawyer calculated to be the world’s most valuable law firm in 2012. Cho had been there for only a few years when he approached his boss, Eunu Chun, private equity partner with the firm, and one of the featured speakers at the evening’s fundraiser. I’ll let Chun take it from here:

“I get a lot of associates come up to me and say, ‘Hey, Eunu, can I get a couple of minutes?’ And I say, ‘Oh, no, is this person going to quit? Are they getting accused [of] sexual harassment?’ So Roy comes up to me, in Roy fashion, with big eyes, overcaffeinated, like, ‘Hey, man, can I get a coffee with you?’ And [I’m] like, ‘Oo-kay. Let’s get a coffee.’ So then Roy’s like, ‘Ok, Eunu, you know, I’m going to run for Congress.’ And I’m like, ‘Jesus, thank God.’”

Chun shares Cho’s pace in his speech, but in place of the earnestness is an impish affability. Guffaws buttressed every punch line. Chun went on to talk about why he was giving up a Sunday night to support Cho. “I think it’s the fact that Roy has actually, in my mind, for lack of a better word, had a real job,” he said. “Roy is jumping off the rat race boat, to make less money than my secretary. That’s what he’s doing.”

Chun also praised Cho’s persistence, pointed out the obvious demographic resonances, and then added, “When I heard Roy speak for the first time, in this context, I’m like, ‘Roy, man, what the hell are you doing in law? You’re perfect for this. You’re uniquely suited. Your talents, your drive, who you are, what you represent to so many different people is so important because you have to beat that guy.’ The fact that that guy represents a large community of us in New Jersey is a travesty.”

Chun is a veteran political bundler, having raised more than $200,000 for Obama in 2012, and is a national co-chair of the Ready for Hillary PAC. I asked Chun about the dearth of Asian American politicians, relative to success so evident in other fields. He described it as a chicken-and-egg situation. Until there were more Asian American candidates who could prove they could win, Asian American elites wouldn’t donate.

But Asian American candidates need all the money they can get, and work to appeal to feelings of solidarity to the Asian American wealthy. Cho mentioned donor fatigue among many wealthy Asian Americans, who were constantly the target of fundraising solicitations from myriad sources every day, including from ambitious young politicians. One of Cho’s strengths, Chun reasserted, was a different kind of solidarity. Politics wasn’t “the best job he could have.” Cho’s resume could impress not only the Eunu Chuns of the world, who are politically engaged to begin with, but apolitical elites who shared a similar background. People like John Y. Kim, vice chairman and CIO of New York Life Insurance, and Don Liu, executive vice president and general counsel for the Xerox Corporation, two of the other speakers at the event. Among these most model of the model minorities—the Asian American elite—an Asian American candidate had a better shot if it seemed like he had the brainpower and resume to hang. It’s not that there’s no interest in getting involved. Many donate to community organizations and churches. But candidates had, thus far, rarely impressed the exacting standards of successful Asian Americans.

“There is a latent desire from Asian Americans like me to give to political candidates that is untapped,” Chun said.

Cho has managed to tap into that desire. He’s on pace to have raised more than a million dollars by Election Day. His speech that evening emphasized the importance of partnering private industry with public interests, a message aimed squarely at wealthy conservative voters in his district, though it might not jibe as strongly with national antipathy for one-percenters.

“I’m fully confident that with that, and all the energy I sense in this room tonight, the fact that leaders like yourselves have invested in this campaign, I’m fully confident that we will pull off one of the biggest political upsets on November 4, and I’m going to beat Scott Garrett.” The crowd leapt to its feet.


Cho addresses the audience at the Korean Americans for Cho rally at the Grand Marriott Hotel in Teaneck, N.J. (Photo by Eugene Yi)


The Han Young-sook Band filled the grand ballroom with blues-rock infused covers of jazz standards: “Autumn Leaves,” Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island,” Sonny Rollins’ “Strode Rode.” A van from a senior home idled outside, its riders waiting for a hand. Moppets wearing ROY CHO stickers handed out bricks of Korean rice cake to the over 400 people in attendance. Teenage volunteers lined the back row, their ROY CHO stickers placed in unconventional ways. Old men doffed hats, gave each other arms-to-the-side formal bows.

Cho had just flown in from a fundraiser in Chicago that day, and this would be the last event of the night. Michael Yun, councilman in Jersey City, played the role of emcee, doing the yeoman’ s work of exhorting the crowd to come closer and fill in the seats closer to the stage. “Please come up so you can see Roy’s handsome face better,” he joked, in Korean, his own deeply tanned face set off against his sculpted shock of white hair.

Cho took the stage to the strains of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” He spoke his first few sentences in lightly accented but deeply respectful Korean, full of the little modifiers, syllables and switches to signal the highest level of formality. Appreciative “hoo’s” rose from the crowd, the Korean ululation. He switched back to English, and as his speech went on, it seemed more and more like a Korean church service. There was a sense of the passing of a generational milestone, though: this being a secular venue, rather than a religious one; and a second-generation figure at the head.

Cho’s parents were introduced. His father, Sung Youl Cho, CEO of Eden Textiles, and a Republican, is a slight man with a downturned nose and a lantern jaw who speaks in soft, grammatically impeccable English. Some of the first generation attendees had complained that they couldn’t follow Cho’s speech, but the candidate’s father had insisted that this was for the second generation, for the children who were there.


A wall at Cho’s campaign office reminds supporters of the work ahead. (Photo by Eugene Yi)

The family had left South Korea in 1981, settling in New Jersey and thriving. Intergenerational concerns always come to the fore at such events. Cho had told his son that the first generation is supposed to supply an education, the second generation is supposed to make money, and the third can do whatever it wants. “You skipped!’” he said, chortling a bit. “But I respect his decision.”

The candidate’s father said that wealthy 1.5-generation Korean Americans had been crucial to his son’s campaign, people like David Chung, a New Jersey-based skin care magnate. Chung, who’d never supported a political candidate before, said that he’d been the target of the younger Cho’ s persistence. The candidate had emailed Chung multiple times about getting a meeting, and the businessman eventually relented. Since then, Chung has been one of Cho’s most ardent supporters. Chung compared Cho to LPGA Hall of Famer Se-Ri Pak, a figure who can inspire a generation to reconsider their ambitions. Chung imagined a clutch of Korean American members of Congress rising in the next few decades, inspired by Cho’s example.

“That’s power. That’s community. Doesn’t matter if it’s Republican senators or Democratic senators,” he said. “Once Roy wins, he’s going to change everything.”

Jane Cho, a local homemaker, and a Republican, cheered during Cho’s speech with the fervor of the recently converted. She said Garrett would occasionally show up at Korean functions, and that she thought he supported the Korean community. She said she’d recently been urged to look further into his record, and had decided to support Cho instead.

Cho spoke for 45 minutes, the longest speech I’d seen him give. It had the feeling of a hometown rally, which ultimately it was. He hit all the same points: redistricting, Cory Booker’s coattails, Garrett’s out-of-touch Tea Party conservatism. Cho held up a Korean-language ballot as a prop and asked the crowd whether they could vote for someone who had opposed reauthorizing the bill that required the government to provide ballots in Hangeul.

Cho closed, “I’m fully confident that with your prayers, and with your faith, and with your belief, and the fact that you’re all here tonight, when you’re all so busy with so many other obligations, I’m fully confident that on November 4 we will together pull off one of the biggest upsets in the country, and we’re going to beat Scott Garrett.”

The crowd whooped and cheered, and Cho left the stage. Daddy Cool, an eight-piece blues rock group, took the stage to close out the evening. Attendees trickled out, and Cho shook every hand he could. Once the ballroom was empty, he came back and posed for pictures while the band played its closer: “Arirang.”

Cho seemed tireless, looking no worse for the wear after the day’s packed schedule, pumping every hand, giving me a bro-hug and a squeeze on the trapezius. With Cho, everything feels like the hours after winning the big game. He might lose valiantly, showing Garrett’s vulnerability and clearing the way for a crowded field of ambitious Democrats with congressional ambitions in 2016, a presidential year. Or he could win, and 10 years from now, this magazine might be covering some young hotshot politician who cites Roy Cho as an early inspiration. I have no idea whether he’ll win the race or not. But when I sit down at my computer at 9:21 the next morning, it will already have been 54 minutes since a post on his Facebook page will show him talking to commuters that morning at the Ridgewood train station.

Featured photo by Eugene Yi

This article was published in the October/November 2014 issue of KoreAm under the title “Candidate Cho.”  Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the magazine issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).