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Los Angeles Makes History Electing David Ryu to City Council

Los Angeles this week elected its first Korean-American city councilmember with David Ryu. Mark J. Terrill / AP

For the first time in history, an American of Korean descent has been elected to the Los Angeles City Council. But David Ryu, 39, a health center development director, said his victory was about much more.

“It’s not just about the Korean-American community who felt their voice had not been heard,” Ryu said in an interview with NBC News. “It’s residents throughout the district who felt they had not been heard. This was an opportunity to show that every voice and every vote does count.”

Ryu was so frequently referred to by his political newcomer status that some may may have thought his real name was “Outsider David Ryu.” But his strong grass roots effort more than made up for that. Ryu was able to build a winning coalition among a diverse group that felt ignored by city government.

David Ryu defeated incumbent Carolyn Ramsay with a 1,600 vote margin.Donald E. La Vay / Courtesy David Ryu

On Tuesday, Ryu won 54 percent of the vote to soundly defeat his opponent Carolyn Ramsay’s 46 percent in a classically gerrymandered district of Los Angeles that includes parts of Koreatown, as well as affluent areas like the Hollywood Hills, Hancock Park and Sherman Oaks.

According to numbers from the Los Angeles City Clerk, Ryu had 11,200 votes, a nearly 1,600 vote margin over Ramsay, an aide to the outgoing incumbent, who looked like a favorite considering her strong support from the political establishment.

Ryu said because the primary had been decided by 85 votes, he was prepared for a battle to the end, including a recount in a race where the margin could have been less than 50 votes.

“When we heard the initial results, we were shocked,” said Ryu, who named his biggest opponent in the race as voter apathy.

Ryu said he had to change people’s distrust and negative opinions about the system. “I said if you don’t get involved we definitely will not win.”

Ryu says he pulled together a winning coalition by appealing to the common concerns of the city's diverse constituents.Danny Feld / Courtesy David Ryu

Ryu is the first Korean American to be elected to the city council, and the second Asian American after Mike Woo, who served on the council from 1985 to 1993.

“We learn and we grow stronger from our diversity, so it’s a shame that the city council lacks diversity,” said Ryu. He said he found Los Angeles voters concerned about the same common issues: development, infrastructure and the lack of access to officials.

“What I found is that the disparate communities within my district had much more in common than anyone thought,” said Ryu.

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