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America saw its first Asian American mayor in San Jose, California in 1971, just a year after Kennedy School alum Sam Yoon was born in Seoul, South Korea.
In November 2005, Yoon was elected a city councilor at-large—making him the first Asian American elected to office in Boston, in addition to the only Asian American to ever run for public office in the city.
Now, Yoon has announced his intention to run for mayor of Boston against incumbent Thomas M. Menino, the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history.
“I think the city desperately needs change, and not the kind of change around the edges but a kind of fundamental systemic change,” Yoon said in a December interview. “There is only one way to accomplish that: by changing leadership.”
Menino, who was first elected mayor in 1993, has served four terms thus far. His biggest potential challenge in the upcoming race will likely be city councilor and former city council president Michael F. Flaherty, who officially announced his intention to run in late January. South End businessman Kevin McCrea will also be joining the race.
Yoon faces a number of obstacles in his campaign. In addition to being a political and cultural outsider in city politics, his fundraising—which has occurred mostly out of state—totals only about $140,000 to date, about a tenth of Menino’s available money.
“It’s not explicit, but I’m still seen as someone who is kind of outside the dominant culture here at City Hall,” Yoon said. “It’s a mix of my background but also kind of the way I think.”
Susan Y. Yao ’09-’10, a Boston-area resident who worked as in intern in the press office of City Hall last summer, said that Yoon “wasn’t really on the radar” at the time.
“It’s a very gutsy move, since [Yoon] is young and a new council member,” she said. “Menino has really almost become an institution in Boston.”
Yoon, who entered the Harvard Kennedy School after graduating from Princeton “wanting to change the world overnight,” finished his schooling in 1995 with what he called a “pretty cynical” attitude about government.
“I thought that all real meaningful change happened at the grassroots level, not at a city level—but that’s really just half of the equation,” he said.
The former Pennsylvania resident got his first taste of Boston politics while working with the Asian Community Development Corporation (ACDC) in 2002, helping restore a parcel of land to Chinatown that had been claimed by the city and bulldozed 40 years earlier to pave a highway for the Big Dig. Yoon said that the scale of the campaign that ACDC mounted to reclaim the land led him to realize a fight for social change needed political backing in order to be truly efficacious.
Boston’s Chinatown was founded in 1890, and it remains the only historically Asian neighborhood in New England.
Despite a long-established presence in the city, Asian American representation in Boston politics has been nonexistent.
Yao commented that if Yoon were to win, it would mean a lot symbolically for the Asian community in Boston.
“Mayor Menino was the first Italian-American mayor, though Boston has a history of Irish mayors,” said Yao. “This would be a big deal. It would symbolize the new diversity in Boston, of the minority becoming majority.”
—Staff writer Vidya B. Viswanathan can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Shan Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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