“We made history here in Edison,” declared Mayor-elect Jun Choi to a banquet hall full of supporters in Edison, New Jersey, on November 8, 2005. “We Democrats have to start being real Democrats again.”
Choi, 34, did not just make history this month with his inauguration as the first Korean American mayor in the continental United States. He did it by completing a progressive revolution in New Jersey's fifth largest town that could serve as a model for victories in 2006 and beyond.
On paper, Choi's election may seem like a purely local affair. Choi defeated a 12-year incumbent in a primary -- and ultimately, a Democrat replaced another Democrat in a Democratic town.
But when one looks at how it happened, it becomes apparent that Choi's campaign -- partially by accident -- harnessed some of the most vibrant forces in progressive politics today and revealed how they could be brought together to achieve victory in 2006 and beyond.
Four key factors came together to put Choi over the top:
1) A deluge of new minority voters
2) A good government, anti-cronyism message
3) The Wal-Mart issue
4) Internet-based progressive mobilization
Here's how it all went down.
A Sleeping Giant Awakes -- New Minority Voters Flood The Polls
When Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) came to New Jersey to campaign for Democrats, Jun Choi shared the stage with him in Edison. Choi declared that he and Obama believe in a “progressive multi-ethnic politics of inclusion.”
Pollster Sergio Bendixen says outreach to new minority voters is necessary for progressives to succeed at the polls in 2006 and beyond.
“The chances of Democrats and progressives becoming a majority party depend on their ability to attract Asians and Hispanics and other minority communities because that's where a significant percentage of the growth will come from in the electorate,” said Bendixen.
If ever there was an election where new multi-ethnic voters helped put a progressive candidate into office, Edison's 2005 mayor's race was it.
One third of Edison's population is Asian American. A growing political force, these Asian Americans never fully mobilized around a political candidate before. That began to change on April 28, 2005 -- six weeks before New Jersey's June 7 primary.
“Would you really vote for someone named Jun Choi?” asked New Jersey shock jock Craig Carton on the radio. “We're forgetting the fact that we're Americans … No specific minority group or foreign group should ever, ever dictate the outcome of an American election.”
After several minutes of race-baiting, Carton and co-host Ray Rossi had transformed Edison's Democratic primary, where Jun Choi had been running far behind incumbent Mayor George Spadoro. Transcripts spread virally around the Internet and Asian American leaders across New Jersey flocked to Choi's side.
The mayor's race never became a single-issue referendum on the shock jock comments -- cronyism, economic development, quality of life, and other issues were more prominently debated. But Choi received weeks of positive media attention, and built more name recognition from that one radio program than he had during months of campaigning. The chips all fell into place from there.
Charles Im, a businessman who voted for Choi, said Edison's Korean American network became energized by Choi's candidacy.
“We are active in communicating in the Korean community. We communicate in church every Sunday,” said Im. “This is the first time for a Korean American mayor, so we are very interested.”
Indian leaders in town excitedly described their primary day effort to knock on doors and pull voters from the Hilltop Apartment complex, the epicenter of the Indian community in Edison.
“Dramatic, dramatic,” said Hemang Patel, 31, who helped spearhead the effort. “I would say over 500 votes from Hilltop.” This number would mean one galvanized apartment complex turned out half the victory margin for Choi, who defeated the incumbent 5,500 votes to 4,500.
Anthony Russamano, the campaign manager for Choi's general election opponent, Bill Stephens, said this turnout operation also helped Choi win in November.
“The areas where Bill got really really beat are in the areas where apartments … [have] a tremendous amount of Asians,” said Russamano.
Choi's 1,028-vote victory margin in the primary and 270-vote margin in the general election means that new multi-ethnic voters helped make the winning difference. But this was just one piece of the coalition that ended up putting a new, young, progressive candidate over the finish line.
Taking on Cronyism and Corruption
Robert Yackel, the silver-haired president of the local firefighters union, stood proudly at Choi's general election victory party.
During his two decades as union president, has he ever seen union workers and Asian Americans standing together as a coalition like they did on this election night? “No,” he said, adding, “That's what America's all about, it's a melting pot ... They worked right along with us in the headquarters stuffing envelopes.”
Yackel, his union members, and other municipal employees were drawn to Choi's candidacy for reasons separate from the Asian Americans. They wanted the MIT and Columbia graduate to end cronyism in local government -- a theme that is currently playing out nationally.
“It was like a dictatorship,” said Yackel. “Everything that went on in the municipal building was political … Choi has stated he is going to change and professionalize the promotional procedures.”
The firefighters union did not officially endorse Choi in the primary because Spadoro was heavily favored to win. But individual firefighters and other municipal employees volunteered many hours on Choi's campaign.
After the primary, anger about cronyism became even more inflamed when the defeated mayor announced the promotion of several firefighters whose qualifications were under question. Yackel said Spadoro rewarded those who worked on his campaign. “Four or five were promoted to lieutenant where no position existed before in the table of organization,” he said.
When the firefighters union endorsed Choi in the general election, this should have been an unremarkable event. Choi was poised to handily defeat a little-known Republican candidate in a Democrat-dominated town.
But after Spadoro's loss, a longtime Democratic politico named Bill Stephens jumped into the race as an Independent. He headed a “fusion ticket” with the Republican Party, which dropped its own mayoral candidate.
Stephens' supporters included those who resented the changing ethnic demographics of Edison, as well as many municipal employees who had benefited from the status quo. During several terms on the town council, Stephens made many friends around town -- making him a formidable candidate against Choi.
The battle lines were drawn. The race was again Democrat versus Democrat -- new against old, progressive versus the status quo.
Firefighters and other municipal employees desperate for change knocked on thousands of doors for Choi. Between the primary and general election, Choi bolstered his credentials as an anti-corruption candidate by helping to write and pass a bill to combat “pay to play” in Edison -- whereby campaign contributions are traded for government contracts.
On election night, Choi addressed the anti-cronyism part of his coalition directly. “I also have a message for all the municipal workers of Edison,” Choi said. “In town hall, the era of fear and intimidation politics is now over. The era of professionalism will now begin. Good government is on its way.”
Choi won votes based on a good government message – a strategy ripe for Democrats to implement on a national level.
The Wal-Mart Issue -- Economic Populism & Quality of Life
The Wal-Mart issue, which took the country by storm in 2005 and remains prominent on the political landscape in 2006, was integral to Choi's victory. Choi is one of the first candidates in the country to win after using Wal-Mart as the symbol of corporate excess at the expense of working people and quality of life in local communities.
One week after receiving massive publicity from the shock jock backlash, Choi was endorsed by three major unions -- a political coup for a Democratic primary challenger. A major reason for the endorsement: Wal-Mart.
The incumbent mayor had rushed through approval of a Wal-Mart store before most local residents even knew it was a proposal. Choi promised to overturn this move as mayor. A battle line was drawn, and the unions were ready to fight.
“We really don't get involved in local township races,” said Mike Kinsora, regional head of the United Food & Commercial Workers, which endorsed Choi with the Teamsters and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
“Unions came over to Edison simply because of the Wal-Mart issue where Jun Choi made Wal-Mart an example,” said Kinsora. “Wal-Mart is probably the poster boy of low-wage, dead-end, low health care type jobs in America and what's wrong with the economy.”
In addition, union leaders said Wal-Mart symbolized quality of life issues -- such as overdevelopment, urban sprawl, traffic, and corporate disempowerment of communities.
As Spadoro defended Wal-Mart on technical zoning grounds, Choi tapped into this larger progressive message. He recounted the plight of “working families who have been squeezed unfairly by economic pressures” and railed against the incumbent mayor for “representing the interests of developers over the working class who live and work in this town.”
During the primary, scores of union activists volunteered for Choi. During the general election, that number reached over a hundred.
“It really was a fascinating campaign in so many ways, and I think the Wal-Mart part played a big piece,” said Andy Grossman, executive director of Wal-Mart Watch. “I think you'll see more and more stuff going on around the country … Jun Choi and others are an example of people trying to take back the control of their community from these gigantic companies like Wal-Mart who trample all over them.”
In a twist of fate, voters launched Choi's career as mayor the very week in November 2005 that progressives heralded the national launch of Robert Greenwald's film Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices. Both events foretell a rising backlash against Wal-Mart that will have political consequences in 2006 if Democrats learn from Choi's winning example.
Internet-Based Progressive Mobilization
Another piece of Choi's victory was his progressive message, which drew a modern network of internet-based progressive organizations to mobilize voters on Choi's behalf and help him nab key endorsements.
Appealing to this network was not a preconceived strategy of Choi's, but rather an incidental aligning of the stars based on the progressive themes involved and the personalities who happened to be in the right place at the right time. However, this synergy between campaigns and progressive internet-based politics can serve as a lesson for 2006.
At the center of this effort was the local chapter of Howard Dean's Democracy for America. Also involved was MoveOn.org Political Action.
“I never really even heard of a Jun Choi,” recalls Mike Kinsora, of the United Food & Commercial Workers. “Then, I went to a community dinner and sat next to a guy from Democracy for New Jersey and he started chatting a little bit about it. Another guy gave me a call and said ‘Look … Jun Choi, he's got a great message on Wal-mart.'”
Another fortuitous move for Choi was that Democracy for New Jersey leader Mitch Manzella was from Edison, was drawn to Choi's candidacy, and worked as field director on his primary campaign.
“After meeting Jun I was inspired by his campaign, and actually did believe that he could win with the right campaign tactics behind him,” said Manzella.
Manzella equipped Choi's website with cutting-edge features such as a blog, up-to-date news, online contributions, and audio recordings from candidate debates. Pursuing a strategy used by Dean, he also mobilized young people.
“Dozens of students from both township high schools had a real life lesson in civics outside the classroom and really took a stake in the campaign, taking it back to school everyday by wearing Jun Choi stickers in class,” said Manzella.
Manzella also secured Choi the endorsement of Democracy For America, which sent e-mails to activists who may not otherwise associate a local mayor's race with a larger progressive cause. “Jun is a model for the type of new progressive leadership we need,” one e-mail said.
Days before the general election, progressive online group MoveOn.org Political Action e-mailed thousands of its New Jersey members urging them to vote. Choi was singled out as one of five local candidates “our friends at Democracy For America” have endorsed.
Through this confluence of events, Choi's progressive message helped him earn the support of a modern internet-based progressive network. And this network turned out critical votes.
In 2006, these forces could play out on a national level. Minority voters are disenchanted with policies of President Bush and congressional Republicans, numerous Republican leaders are saddled with corruption and cronyism charges, Wal-Mart is gaining prominence as a symbol of corporate greed and quality of life issues, and a network of internet-based progressive organizations are energized and poised to deliver votes.
It would not be surprising if many progressive candidates in 2006 studied the playbook of Edison Mayor Jun Choi in 2005, who captured some of the most vibrant forces in progressive politics today and rode them to victory.
Adam Green is Civic Communications Director for MoveOn.org Civic Action and former Communications Director for the New Jersey Democratic Party.
Matt Stoller writes for progressive blog MyDD.com and directed New Jersey Governor-elect Jon Corzine's blog during New Jersey's 2005 election.
This article is the work of the authors, and does not necessarily reflect the views of any affiliated organizations.