“You Don’t Have To Be Smart or Talented To Make Money”: An Interview with Assembly Member Ron Kim
On September 29th, The Monitor hosted a speaking event with Assembly Member Ron Kim, a representative from Queens and Hamilton class of 2002. AM Kim is a fourth-term legislator, and recently made national news for uncovering tragic conditions at NYC nursing homes during the Coronavirus pandemic. He is a committed progressive and was the first elected official from New York to endorse Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential run. At this event, AM Kim talked to Hamilton students about his experiences as a student, the importance of economic justice, and the social vulnerabilities exposed by coronavirus.
Finlay Adamson: Representative Ron Kim, thank you for joining us this afternoon to speak with us. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little about yourself, what you did after Hamilton and how it led you to a legislative position?
Ron Kim: Yes, thank you all for having me. I will begin by saying that as the first Korean American to be elected to my district’s State Assembly, I felt almost trapped by identity politics for the first couple of years. Despite how diverse my district is, it took a long time to elect a Korean to office and because of that, I was always invited to events because of my identity. I think that identity politics has become progressive left’s worst enemy because it makes us compete over who has the most pain in a way that pigeonholes us. I don’t think we focus enough on economic justice; without economic justice, there is no justice at all.
I say that as someone who is the only child of immigrant parents who have lived through extreme economic hardships, and they were fixated on the idea of the ‘American Dream.’ They didn’t realize that when they had immigrated to the United States in 1989, they were in the middle of the largest conservative revolution in modern history. It designed systems to favor the corporations, and everyone else is left to pick up the slack. Growing up, I saw my parents go into bankruptcy, and I initially shifted the blame onto them. It took me awhile to understand the economic macro effects that led to our situation, and I’ve dedicated my career to undoing and unrigging the terrible policies perpetuating such injustices.
Gabrielle Colchete: What you said about identity politics was really interesting. Can you elaborate more on how you think identity politics affects conversations about injustices, or puts economic issues on the backburner?
Ron Kim: Yes, this is something I am still reflecting on when talking to young leaders. It’s a conflict between people who enter activism because of certain issues they feel connected to, whether that be race, gender, or some other identity-based issue. My problem is when the corporations, the one percenters, come in with the goal of controlling political outcomes using identity politics to manipulate and divide us by pitting us against each other. I can see this in my own backyard with the rise of Chinese conservative immigrants supporting Trump. I am trying to decipher what is going on, and I think it’s a combination of two things. First of all, progressives are getting stuck on only identity politics and not tackling harder economic injustice that connects all marginalized people and continues the toxic politics that we’ve inherited. For the Chinese immigrants supporting Trump, I think they recognize that white men are in power, but are okay with it as long as they can be second in the hierarchy.
Mian Osumi: As an Asian American leftist, I really resonate with everything that you’re saying in terms of racism within our own communities. I want to change topics though, because you’re obviously very progressive, but right now neither of the two major Presidential candidates really fall into that camp. I learned recently that there’s a new breakoff within the Democratic Party, with Nina Turner starting this group called “the People’s Party” because they’re really frustrated with the two-party system. What do you think is the way forward? A new party or do you think the Democratic Party can be reformed?
Ron Kim: For me personally, it’s been very demoralizing. I was the first elected official from New York to endorse Bernie in the 2020 cycle, I was an avid supporter of his candidacy. For me, it wasn’t just about Bernie, it was about the movement and the policies that he stood for. I pushed for a local version of a full student debt cancellation plan in New York 2 years ago, and Bernie was the first one to take that on and call for a full debt cancellation plan. Not to mention, of course, the Green New Deal and Housing For All and all these policies that we know can be financed with his plans that our Democrats won’t even entertain. I actually was a delegate who voted against this year’s DNC platform because they took away Medicare For All. I made a big stink about that, because how can we possibly face this pandemic with so many people dying and not recognize that all these people are not going to see their doctors because they’re not insured? They don’t want to be indebted. The number one reason why people go bankrupt in this country is because of medical debt, all the data shows that.
If you look at every other developed nation that has out-performed us, they all have much better universal healthcare systems than we do. It’s not Communist, it’s not socialist, it’s just democratic common-sense when we say that healthcare should be a human right, that it should be given to everybody. So, when I see the choice between Biden and Trump, it is very disheartening, because I spent a year and a half talking about all these bold changes that this country desperately needs for our next generation. But the only choice we have now is to support Biden and lobby him to be better, and that is something I am still dealing with as I am being persuaded to participate in phone-banking for Joe and all these other items that I’m starting to warm up to.
I don’t have a choice, Trump is not acceptable for this country in my opinion. But I do support Nina and I do support the People’s Party, I think it’s brilliant and necessary. I’m also working on an economic project, the People’s Portfolio, in conjunction with the Cornell Professor Bob Hockett. He’s put this idea forward for many years to give all the advantages Wall Street has had for many decades back to the people by introducing financial instruments that can actually work for people and not for greedy Wall Street bankers. That’s something that also excites me as well.
Finlay Adamson: Throughout the 2020 primary there’s been a surge in progressive candidates, particularly in New York City. Can you tell us what about progressive politics is appealing to voters, especially in your district? What drives them to support these movements?
Ron Kim: My district, NY-40, that I’ve represented for the past 8 years is not necessarily considered a left, progressive district. The progressive movement kind of stops 3 blocks away from my district in Jackson Heights, they haven’t been able to move into this part of Queens. I think it’s partially because there’s more single homeowners and residential types that care more about property taxes and hold more of the moderate conservative values. But even knowing that, after 6 years in office I ran for a citywide seat for Public Advocate 2 years ago on a very progressive platform on a “no Amazon” party-line that I created, and I won every single one of these districts.
That shows me that the people here may seem moderate or conservative, but they also respect candidates who fight passionately for progressive issues. AOC is actually the perfect example of this, because people thought that she could never win the more conservative, moderate districts in Queens like the Middle Village and all these other white neighborhoods that former Congressman Joe Crowley relied on as his stronghold. She completely dominated those districts on a platform to abolish ICE, and it was because she was memorable, she was passionate, and she cared about people. I think that’s the common denominator, you go in and knock on the doors no matter how conservative and show that you’re in it because you want to fight for the most vulnerable people in our neighborhood. People respect that no matter what their ideologies are.
Benjamin Kaplan: You mentioned that there was a contingent of new Chinese immigrants that have a very hard conservatism to them. Do you think there’s any sort of reaction to the policies of the PRC, regardless of whether or not they’re actually socialist? Do you think that they are having a similar reaction to that of Cuban Americans in Miami with Castro?
Ron Kim: That’s partially the problem that we’re seeing, that there’s an oppositional reaction to communism, and anything that’s close to resembling communism. They call it “white liberalism” or “progressivism,” these are their labels that they’re connecting to the governments they don’t want to go back to. That’s part of their narrative, but there seems to be a well-organized social media narrative around these issues and that’s part of it. Any time you try to talk about any progressive issues they label you as a communist and tie you to China, but at the same time there’s also a very strong pro-police and pro-property rights sentiment that tries to establish the community as being as “American” as possible. There’s a yearning to “belong,” but I don’t think they’ve realized that there’s a big difference between trying to fit into a society and having real ownership of the community, which is not just buying up a building or buying up a house. We need to be part of a process, and we need to take care of your people and put people first before protecting property rights.
Gabrielle Colchete: I know you did a lot of work exposing the nursing home situation in New York City. What do you think of the reaction to Cuomo's handling of the pandemic as being idolized into the model response a Governor should take to address the pandemic? Do you think it was blown out of proportion or do you think that a lot of the praise actually has merit?
Ron Kim: I think there are positive things that this Governor has done considering the lack of resources he had under him. I think he was able to take an impossible situation and control the message and give directives to the public in a very efficient and effective way so that people are now wearing masks everywhere you go and understand the danger of COVID, and we were able to keep the infection rate below 1% until for many weeks until the past couple of days. I give him credit where credit is due, but I think there’s a few things that are going on here.
One is that he was compared with Donald Trump, who acted beyond any kind of incompetence you can think of. You could put any person on TV, even a ham sandwich, and it would look better than Donald Trump, so I think part of it is retail politics. Andrew Cuomo is an alpha white male who knows how to show up and be a father-like, authoritative figure. His presentation is very controlled. He’s always behind a desk, he’s always got a powerpoint, he never lets you see below him. I know because I know him, I’ve known him for many years. He likes to control all the details, there’s no way we could see his vulnerable side, his human side. So we can never understand what makes a person like Andrew Cuomo tick, because he always has his armour up.
That’s the old-school retail politics: you wait for the crisis moment, you show up, and you maximize the hell out of the opportunity. That’s the neoliberal kind of model, but you don’t actually do anything to affect change. In fact, he created the situation of why my constituents are waiting 4 hours a day at the food pantry line, because he’s been cutting healthcare and social services. He’s been exercising an austerity budget for the past 18 years, and yet he shows up in a crisis moment and acts like a leader because he has certain privileges behind his name and presence which people buy into. I think we deserve better and we have better leadership. I think 5 or 6 years later we will look at this moment, we will look at the number of people who have died under this Governor. As of today I think 33,000 people have died in New York. Possibly up to 12,000 people have died in nursing homes, they won’t even disclose the number of people that died in nursing homes because they’re hiding that number at this moment. All that will be revealed and I think we will make sure not to make the same type of mistakes in the future.
Luke Carstens: Based on your experiences as a local representative during the pandemic, do you think it was smart for Hamilton to reopen?
Ron Kim: I have three young daughters, with one just starting first grade. This was the third time New York State has postponed the starting date for school, because they couldn’t get their act together. I’m dealing with a nightmare in NYC with the public school system. It's easy to blame the mayor and the chancellor, but they also don't have the resources or staff to get this right. The reason why people are angry is because there were shortfalls in resourcing, but nothing was done to prepare.
I do recognize that at places like Hamilton you have a lot of privileges other institutions don’t have, and it's both good and bad. You have the resources and money and staff that will do whatever they can to keep you accountable. At the same time, Hamilton is supposedly non profit, but the college doesn't work if the students don't pay and stay there. Parents aren’t going to want to pay full tuition if kids aren’t on campus.
I had an interesting zoom town hall about this, one person on the panel was so confused about how eager the system is to bring people back to the economy and jeopardize lives, when we haven't been able to fully trace and control COVID. The problem isn’t that we don’t know how to do it; we just haven't put in the resources. The only solution people came up with was to use Apple and Google to trace. First of all, I don’t subscribe to punting problems to tech companies, but the government isn’t allocated the money to administer the pandemic head-on.
People want the economy to restart at the expense of lives. The economy and stock market comes first. At this point, it looks like we will have a second wave and more people will end up dying.
Ben Kaplan: What do you think would have been a proper solution to the pandemic? How could we have better addressed this crisis?
Ron Kim: The first mistake that we’ve walked into is our inability to fix healthcare. If when the coronavirus hit, every person in NYC had felt comfortable getting tested or going to the doctor, and knew they had quality healthcare regardless of employment or citizenship, more people would have tested and isolated more. We could have contained COVID, but people weren’t getting tested.
Secondly, our healthcare system itself is broken. I had a 104 temperature in March, and was shaking in bed for two days. I called the 1-800 number the New York Department of Health was offering in order to get a free test, and they called me back one month later. I probably could have leveraged my position as a legislator to get tested, but I wanted to do the same thing everyone else in my district was doing. I suffered for a week, I never got tested, but I recovered. I've experienced firsthand how inefficient and ineffective state and local governments are right now. Governor Cuomo will promise this and that, but localities cannot do these tasks. We’ve underfunded these agencies for decades, and we need to figure out how to make government work again. Our basic human needs need to be met: that includes healthcare and housing.
So what level do we need to get the government to so we can meet our basic needs? It's a lot harder than you can imagine: the last time that the public had any faith in the government was when JFK was president. We’ve normalized a culture where we assume the most talented and smartest people work in finance- that's the culture that places like Hamilton have helped to normalize. Our problem now is to figure out how to reverse course. The best and brightest must fix the problems that are hurting humanity. This is what we must overcome.
Eric Stenzel: While you were at Hamilton, what did student activism look like? Related to that, what led you to run for public office rather than pursuing finance, etc?
Ron Kim: The reason why I went to a private high school and the reason why I went to Hamilton was because I was a student athlete playing football. I joined a fraternity, and lived and experienced the Wall Street pipeline. All my friends went to Lehman Brothers or Goldman Sachs, and I’m sure they're in a comfortable place now.
I recognized at a young age that it's not that hard to make money. It's not because you're talented or smart, it's about belonging in the right circles of privilege and access, circles that tend to be male dominated. Even when I recognized this, as a member of the lower class, I was still extrinsically motivated to become wealthy and drive a Mercedes or go to the Hamptons.
It took a couple of big turns in my life to shift how I thought about academics. I lost a couple of good friends due to accidents, and seeing the grief their families went through really changed my perspective on life. I dropped Economics and started all over. It took me three years into Hamilton, after getting into some trouble, to finally find my passion. In Junior and Senior year I realized that Philosophy (Existentialism with Prof. Pat Franklin) and Government (specifically Democratic Theory with Prof. Robert Martin) allowed me to connect back to where I grew up. I wanted to go back to Flushing (Queens) and see if the theoretical democracy we talked about in class still existed in reality, and if I could apply those theories at the local level.
Arianna Robertson: How has coronavirus affected your ability to campaign? What strategies have you had to adopt in order to spread your message?
Ron Kim: This primary season, I had a challenger from the right: an active NYPD officer who recently switched to the Democratic Party. He outraised me because he is a pro real estate developer, and developers are very angry with me.
He sent out seven negative mailers telling voters I want to legalize cocaine (not marijuana, cocaine!) and prostitution. Choosing to fearmonger in the middle of a pandemic was a crazy decision. I won by 72%, and it was a declaration from my voters that I have a mandate to fulfill my vision for the district.
My constituents were suffering even before the pandemic, and many are a couple hundred dollars away from bankruptcy. The pandemic is a perfect storm of crises rolled into one. When I go door to door and talk about it, I have a different approach. My campaign is extremely contrite about the situation. I am not playing the savior, I don't expect gratitude if I bring you Personal Protective Equipment. Every time I do something to give back, I apologize that we have to do this as elected officials: You shouldn’t be waiting in a pantryline in the richest city in the world. No one should suffer like this in NYC.
Faby Alvarez: What did protests look like at Hamilton when you were a student? How did you hold the administration accountable?
Ron Kim: In terms of activism and student protests, we weren’t as active as your generation, and there weren’t that many movements to hold the institution accountable. We were just beginning to create minority-led clubs that were the foundations to inclusive representation, but that was just at the beginning.
It's deeply personal to me; I was very sheltered at Hamilton, and privileged to be in DU and play football. Looking back at all the amazing stuff that's happening now, I have a lot of regrets- stuff i could have done or should have done. Don't make the same mistake! Hold this institution accountable.
Mian Osumi: What are you most worried about with another four years of Trump? What about with four years of Biden?
Ron Kim: Four more years of Trump will see violence, hatred, and possible war. All signs point to total meltdown, where people will be pitted against each other and xenophobia will grow. The Proud Boys and other white identity groups will grow, and violence will worsen. This is done by design; what do you do to regulate and manage inequality? If you can pit people against each other, the wealthy and elite can control all of society. That’s what Trump represents.
Under Biden, if we’re not careful, we may get worse outcomes because corporate Democrats are very good at leveraging headlines that make people feel at ease; headlines that make people feel good, or like their lives are going “back to normal”. That includes performative racial harmony. This is not the world we want to go back to! I keep telling Joe’s campaign, don't say we want to go back. Trump is a symptom of a larger problem that corporate politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, have created.
To get rid of authoritarian white men, you have to build radical solidarity with people from different backgrounds, specifically Black and Latinx communities. Show up for them, no matter what. That sort of radical love is what the movement right now deserves. Within my community, every time you hear about a young black man robbing an Asian person it gets sensationalized and everyone starts talking about hate crimes. It results in all of this nasty stuff on social media,
I'm trying to lead by showing radical love. The more we allow communities to be pitted against each other, the more we allow the rich to manage inequality. We want to end inequality.