Twenty-five years ago, Robert Lee Ahn watched his city burn during the LA riots. He wasn’t sure if his father, a small business owner in Koreatown, was going to come home.
“My dad and the other tenants of the building armed themselves with whatever they could to protect the only business, property, and livelihood they had,” Ahn, now 41 years old, told NBC News. “My mom, sister, and I were watching the events unfold on television and it looked like war — it really shook me up.”
Ahn traces his desire to help his community and other marginalized groups back to this period of U.S. history. The Korean-American community’s lack of political voice and representation contributed to the damage incurred during the riots, according to Ahn.
“During the riots, Koreatown was essentially abandoned by LAPD, and there was no accountability,” he said.
Ahn, an attorney and former LA city planning commissioner, is making a run to represent California’s 34th Congressional District, which contains LA’s Koreatown as well as several downtown neighborhoods, in a special election scheduled for June 6.
Hailing from the private sector, Ahn broke out of a crowded primary that originally included 23 candidates. He finished second with 22.25 percent of the vote.
Ahn will face fellow Democrat assemblyman Jimmy Gomez for the congressional seat, which was vacated by Xavier Becerra, who is now the attorney general of California.
If Ahn wins, he would be the first Korean-American member of Congress in nearly 20 years.
“I think our government should reflect the diversity of the electorate,” Ahn said. “To not have a single voice or a seat at the table is really unfortunate, and has to change.”
Ahn, who speaks Korean fluently, believes this is a watershed moment in U.S. politics.
“With everything happening on the Korean peninsula, now more than ever we need to have a Korean-American voice in Congress to help build that bridge,” he said.
The son of immigrants from South Korea, Ahn was born in Los Angeles, and raised primarily by his grandparents because his parents were always working, he said.
At his public school in Los Angeles, Ahn struggled at times with his ethnic origin and identity. He said he was physically assaulted “just because of my background.”
“I used to get chastised for having this Korean lunch my mom packed me, and it’s funny because some of those same kids probably consume more kimchi than I do, as adults,” Ahn said.
He later attended Harvard-Westlake private school, where he found a home on the basketball team as a point guard. He shared the court with future NBA players Jason and Jarron Collins.
“Those are some of my best memories,” he said. “Every so often I still dream about high school basketball.”
After high school, Ahn studied business administration at Emory University in Atlanta, tutoring at-risk youth in his free time. He also began working in the black community with Habitat for Humanity, he said.
“That’s where I first learned about housing inequalities and affordable housing issues,” Ahn said. “I wanted to learn organizational skills that I could bring back home.”
He returned to Los Angeles to attend law school at the University of Southern California, where he co-founded the Pacific American Volunteer Association, which hosts environmental cleanups and encourages service among young people.
After law school, Ahn owned various small businesses, including a car wash, an event center, and a milk tea shop. His legal career has included litigation and transactional law.
Ahn was appointed to LA’s redistricting commission in 2011 by Eric Garcetti, who was then president of the Los Angeles City Council. That was when the idea of running for office began to crystallize, Ahn said.
“When I’d listen to members of the community, I heard time and time again that they didn’t have a voice in the process,” he said. “I remember thinking, I want to be that voice.”
In 2013, Mayor Garcetti appointed Ahn to the city’s planning commission. But as he became further involved in local politics, Ahn became frustrated with career politicians who he said were enmeshed with special interest groups.
“Special interests have, in many ways, poisoned the integrity of our political process,” he said. “That’s why Democrats and Republicans can’t move this country forward anymore.”
Ahn said that the idea of another superpower emerging and moving ahead of the U.S. and the 2016 presidential election further motivated him to return to politics and run for Congress.
The Koreatown resident, who swam and took jiujitsu at the YMCA as a kid, said that children in the 34th district — where 21.5 percent of families live below the poverty line according to the U.S. Census Bureau — are growing up without youth sports leagues and that many neighborhoods are lacking parks.
“That breaks my heart,” he said. “I want to improve the quality of life of these residents. I refuse to believe that this is the best we can do. I believe so much in the promise of the United States of America.”