Andy Kim’s Senate candidacy is winning voters primarily through service, not showmanship

Andy Kim was early. He had just dropped off his children, ages 6 and 8, at the bus stop on his way to his volunteer shift for Meals on Wheels, one of the last major events of his campaign.

As he parked his Ford Escape in the meeting area at Rider University last month, a representative ran up to him to apologize that the school’s president wasn’t there to greet him.

“Oh, I’m fine,” Kim told her. “I’m a low-maintenance guy.”

It’s something politicians like to say, but in Kim’s case, casually dressed and hanging around refrigerators with meals to be delivered to seniors, it rang true.

” READ MORE: Andy Kim wins the Democratic Senate primary

Kim, a current congressman, won the Democratic nomination to represent New Jersey in the Senate on Tuesday. He has a good chance of winning in November because the state hasn’t elected a Republican to the chamber in more than 50 years. He would be the first state senator from South Jersey since World War II, the first Asian American state senator, and, at age 41, one of the youngest senators in Washington. Combined with his lackluster attempt to defeat the state political machine to win the Democratic primary, Kim has become an anomaly in a moment of political fatigue — a young, popular Democrat who excites voters by choosing service over pageantry.

“If there’s one word I try to associate with the politics I practice, it’s ‘humility,'” Kim said. “I do not know everything. The problem with politics is that it is a hubris that causes people to say, “If you just elect me king or queen for the day, I will solve everything.”

Ahead of his Senate run, photos of him helping Capitol staff neat up after the January 6, 2021 riot went viral. According to her, Kim was not looking for the spotlight at that moment, but for a broom.

“He is magical,” said Senate historian Ross Baker, a professor at Rutgers University. “He caught lightning in a jar. Seeing him in a blue suit cleaning up the Capitol was one of the greatest starts to a political career I’ve ever seen, and now I’m looking at him.”

Defeating the machine

Kim took a huge risk by becoming New Jersey’s first player The Democrat will call on Sen. Bob Menendez to resign after Menendez was indicted on federal corruption charges in September. Kim then entered the race to replace Menendez, even as the state’s political power brokers coalesced around Tammy Murphy, the wife of the state’s governor.

“When I first jumped in… I was kind of on the wrong side of everything,” Kim said during a ride through South Jersey last month. “I’m too young. I’m from the wrong side of New Jersey. I’m the wrong kind of minority. The number of people who told me I was quitting. I felt very isolated.”

But Murphy resigned in March after voters rallied around Kim as the reform candidate. The legal victory, which eliminated the district-based voting system, further strengthened Kim’s position, as he cruised to victory in Tuesday’s primary elections.

Kim will have to continue his campaign. Menendez, who is still on trial, has filed to run as an independent. Republican Curtis Bashaw, a hotelier and developer in Cape May County, will take it on in November.

Some New Jersey Democratic strategists noted that as he battles a race that has placed him on the opposite side of most of his state’s delegation, Kim will have to rebuild relationships.

“He wasn’t a guy who reached out to a lot of people or built a lot of bridges,” said a New Jersey Democratic strategist who didn’t want to be publicly criticized for being the state’s likely next senator. “He ran a good race, will most likely be the next senator, but he will be judged on what he can accomplish there, not on how he got there.”

But supporters are celebrating Kim’s historic nomination.

Kim, the son of South Korean immigrants, would be only the 10th Asian American elected to the Senate and the first to represent the East Coast.

“It means a lot to this community,” said Democratic political consultant Trip Yang. “It automatically becomes national AAPI [Asian American Pacific Islander] character.”

Asian Americans are the fastest growing population in New Jersey, making up approximately 11% of residents.

But Yang added that part of Kim’s impact was dispelling the false stereotype that Asian American politicians can only represent other Asian Americans. The New Jersey congressional district that Kim flipped in 2018 is 90% white, and Trump won it in 2016.

A school based on service

Kim’s political brand is rooted in his upbringing in Moorestown, where he still lives with his wife and two children.

He grew up a few doors down from the former Eagles coach and remembers players visiting the clubhouse and playing with neighborhood kids. “Cars were slowing down and wondering, ‘Is that Randall Cunningham playing football with a little Asian-American kid?’ Kim said.

Kim’s mom worked as a nurse and his dad was a geneticist. Kim initially considered a career in medicine or science, said Peter Erickson, his roommate at Deep Springs College, a tiny college a liberal arts school on a working cattle ranch in California.

“Andy is a city kid from New Jersey who endearingly got injured on a ranch,” Erickson said. “But he was very kind and worked really hard. I think that’s where his deep interest in public service took root.”

Both Kim and Erickson attended the University of Chicago after graduating from Deep Springs, and Kim then continued his studies at Oxford, where he studied American and international politics.

He worked in Department of Stateserving Afghanistan as a civilian advisor to the general David Petraeus before becoming national security adviser under the president Barack Obama. If elected, he will be the only former career diplomat in the Senate.

Stacey May, who worked with Kim at the State Department since 2014, said Kim knew how to build consensus and was critical of the administration’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan among a petite ethnic and religious minority threatened by ISIS.

“There are good people who get thrown into this system, and over time they start to warp and bend,” she said. “Andy is one of those people who can be thrown into this system and it won’t distort it. He’s a bit like a hobbit. Can carry the ring without being warped by proximity to power.

May, who still works for human rights but now lives in San Francisco, said Kim is full of surprises – he was a punk rocker in high school and wrote a novel. “He’s the most interesting man in the world and also a super boring, goofy dad.”

“Away From My Children”

Raising two young children in South Jersey and Washington, D.C. is difficult.

“There is no real balance. I hate every minute I’m away from my kids,” Kim said on the drive to A Meals on Wheels stop. He missed almost every birthday party, and his sons stopped asking if he could organize a recital or sporting event.

After former President Donald Trump started calling Covid-19 the “China flu,” Kim said his son was teased at school. “They call him ‘Chinese boy’ and that’s because the president of the United States thinks this behavior is normal,” he said. “I don’t want this to be the America they grow up in.”

Kim founded the Congressional Fathers Caucus to connect fathers in Washington. That group includes U.S. Rep. Colin Allred (R-Texas), who shared a Washington apartment with Kim when they both took office in 2019. Allred, who is also running for Senate in a bid to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz, said the two had a lot common. They both represented swing districts, popular ones Game of Thrones and whiskey and raised young children.

“We’ve always said that when you’re worried about some politically inconvenient thing that will probably be quite minor in the end – go to your kids, it will assist you forget about it,” Allred said.

Asked about close colleagues across the aisle, Kim mentioned U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pennsylvania), who co-sponsored Kim’s first piece of legislation, and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), with whom he worked on national security issues.

“DC just feels like it’s about performative governance right now,” Kim said at the end of the campaign event, looking forward to getting back to DC by train to see the proposed legislation. “People are just trying to get viral videos by yelling and screaming. That’s another thing I learned during this campaign. People just want someone who really wants to do the job.

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