There has not been anything quite like ‘Obamamania’ in Boston’s 2009 mayoral election, but some have seen similarities to the 44th president in one candidate. City Councilor-At-Large Sam Yoon said for him to compare himself to President Barack Obama would be ‘bragging,’ but he doesn’t discredit the observations.’
‘[Obama] got criticized when he first ran because they said, ‘You’ve only been a senator for two years. What makes you think you could be president?’ I’ve gotten the same thing,’ he said. ”You’ve only been a city councilor for two terms. What makes you think you could be mayor?”
Yoon was born in Seoul, South Korea and is constitutionally unable to harbor any presidential ambitions, but he’ll settle for unseating 16-year incumbent Mayor Thomas Menino to become the next mayor of Boston.’
The Sept. 22 primary is shaping up to be a race for second place between Yoon, businessman Kevin McCrea and City Councilor-At-Large Michael Flaherty.
‘[Menino] is going to come in first in this preliminary,’ Yoon said. ‘The question is who comes in second.’
Yoon has come from behind to win before. In the 2005 City Council At-Large race, Yoon finished ahead of three candidates from famous political families. Now Yoon believes he can beat a mayor who he said is more vulnerable than ever.
‘It’s not a coincidence that there are three people running against the mayor,’ Yoon said. ‘I just don’t hear a lot of enthusiasm for the mayor.’
Yoon’s campaign has focused on changing what he calls the ‘strong mayor system.’
‘Mr. Mayor, with all due respect, you have too much power,’ Yoon said at the first debate between the four candidates on Sept. 2.
As the youngest candidate at 39 years old, the college student population may look to Yoon to see if he’s on their side on particular issues.
Like his fellow challengers, he supports reforming the Pay-In-Lieu-Of-Taxes and making it more transparent, but disagrees with McCrea in other areas concerning undergraduates.
On the issue of the ‘No More Than Four’ ordinance, Yoon said he did not regret voting for the proposal by City Council President Mike Ross (Back Bay, Beacon Hill, Mission Hill) to make it illegal for more than four unrelated undergraduates to live together off-campus. But Yoon said he only heard ‘one side of the story’ from Ross before deciding to vote in favor of the ordinance.
‘When you work in a legislative body, you have to kind of defer to a colleague,’ he said. ‘You can’t be the expert on everything.’
However, Yoon said he has not ruled out revisiting the decision.
‘I would absolutely reconsider in the context of actually having a dialogue with students,’ Yoon said. If he could do the process over, he said, he would hold a hearing on a college campus where students could testify.
At a Sept. 9 town hall, Yoon got into an exchange with a Menino campaign worker about another issue that some college students take interest in: gay rights. Yoon, along with Flaherty, marched in this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which excluded the participation of gay groups.’
The campaign worker asked Yoon if he would also march in a parade that excluded blacks and Jews, to which Yoon replied, ‘That parade would never happen.’
After the questioner persisted, Yoon responded forcefully.
‘I resent the idea [that] I can’t understand pain and discrimination,’ he said, going on to describe how he was mocked growing up for being Asian in rural Pennsylvania. He said while marching in this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, he heard shouts of ‘do my laundry.’
In an interview with The Daily Free Press, Yoon said the politics behind his decision to march were complicated.
‘It’s something I didn’t take lightly,’ Yoon said. ‘But the fact is, I’m an At-Large candidate and I represent South Boston.’
McCrea and Menino both chose not to march in the parade because of the ban on gay groups. Yoon, however, called the mayor’s refusal to march ‘hypocritical.’
‘He does everything but march [on St. Patrick’s Day] so he can say he’s in solidarity with the LGBT community,’ Yoon said. ‘If you’re going to boycott the parade, stay home on Sunday.’
Yoon has received widespread support from the Boston community, including a major endorsement from former state representative Mel King, the first black candidate to win Boston’s preliminary election in the 1983 mayoral race. He ultimately lost to incumbent mayor Ray Flynn.
‘He has a willingness to be inclusive and listen to what people need,’ King said. ‘He doesn’t come on telling people what they should need.’
Just as King won fame as an African-American community activist, Yoon was active in the Boston’s Asian community before running for city council. He worked closely with Jeremy Liu, who is now his campaign chairman, at the Asian Community Development Corporation.
‘He was really invested in empowering people through education,’ Liu said. Yoon was once a public school teacher in New Jersey.
Yoon was the ACDC director of housing and fought for affordable housing and voting rights for Asian Americans, a quest that he said was a ‘losing battle.’
He worked to get ballots translated into Chinese for citizens who did not speak English, recalling a case where he said a Chinese voter was unfairly influenced by a poll worker trying to ‘help’ him vote on an English ballot he could not read.
‘Enormous resistance comes from the State House,’ Yoon said of the effort to translate ballots. ‘It just shows how far Massachusetts has to go.’
Though it’s something he said he doesn’t like to think about, Yoon did speculate on why, if it were to happen, Menino would be elected to an unprecedented fifth term.
‘I think looking back somebody would have to say Boston wasn’t ready for change,’ Yoon said. ‘I’d have to maybe chalk it up to fear, just raw fear of change.’