Back to Results

KIM, Jay C.

KIM, Jay C.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1939–

Biography

A war survivor and refugee, Jay C. Kim became the first Korean American elected to Congress. “In a free enterprise system, hard work pays off,” the often outspoken Congressman noted, summing up his political philosophy. “I’ve always believed that. If you don’t work hard, you’re going to fall behind.”1 After building his own engineering business, Kim won a U.S. House seat just two years after his initial entrée into politics. As a new Congressman, he voiced skepticism over House Rules and practices that solidified power among a small group of senior Members. However, Kim’s own difficulties with campaign finance violations effectively ended his career in elected office.

Chang Joon Kim was born in Seoul, Korea, on March 27, 1939.2 His birth name meant “Golden Splendid Law,” but he later legally changed his name to Jay.3 Kim’s father was a restaurant manager before the Korean War, but, as Jay Kim recalled, his well-educated family members were marked as enemies by North Korean forces. The family’s home was destroyed, and they walked 90 miles to safety. Kim’s adopted brother was later executed by North Korean communist officials.4

Jay Kim graduated from Po Sung High School, Seoul, South Korea, in 1956 before finishing his education in the United States. In 1961, fresh out of one year of service in the South Korean Army, Jay Kim immigrated to the United States at the age of 22.5 He married Jung Ok (June) in 1962 ; the couple had met in Seoul. He earned a BS in engineering from the University of Southern California in 1967. Two years later, he earned an MS in environmental engineering from the same institution. Kim later earned a PhD from Hanyang University, Seoul, South Korea, in 1993.

Kim worked in restaurants and grocery stores when he first arrived in the United States. Later, with a Small Business Administration loan, he founded JAYKIM Engineers, a firm that designed highways and water reclamation plants. Primarily procuring government contracts, JAYKIM Engineers was one of five minority-owned firms hired to demolish buildings damaged during the 1992 riots in Los Angeles and its suburbs.6

Kim entered electoral politics to “make government run more like a business,” placing first in a nine-candidate race for the Diamond Bar, California, city council in 1990. One year later, he was elected mayor.7

In 1992 local Republican officials courted Kim to run for the U.S. House in a newly created congressional district. The new district sat at a crossroads between Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Orange counties. It encompassed most of the city of Ontario, an airport, an industrial base, and several high-income neighborhoods. The Los Angeles County Fairgrounds, a low-security prison in Chino, and President Richard Nixon’s Presidential Library were also located within its boundaries.

With only two years of political experience, Kim faced veteran political opponents in the GOP primary : Pomona assemblyman Charles Bader and lawyer James Lacy. Kim campaigned on lower taxes and privatizing government services. He opposed amnesty for undocumented immigrants, but supported abortion rights, arguing the government had no business getting involved in women’s reproductive decisions. Kim won the primary with a 30-percent plurality—with 889 more votes than his closest opponent.8 In his conservative district, Kim handily won the general election with 60 percent against Democrat Bob Baker, an intelligence analyst and Vietnam veteran.9

Alleged campaign ethics issues surfaced shortly after Kim took office, ensuring that he would face primary challenges throughout his House career. His campaigns, including his run for city council, were plagued by careless bookkeeping and disclosure irregularities.10 Less than a year after his election, the Los Angeles Times reported that JAYKIM Engineering had spent $400,000 on his campaign, which constituted an illegal corporate contribution. Federal officials investigated, and Kim admitted that he should have paid the company from the campaign coffers to rent office space. Still, no formal legal or ethics charges were brought against him.11

Given this rocky start, Kim faced challengers in the 1994 Republican primary but captured a 41 percent plurality in the four-person field. In the general election, Kim easily won with 62 percent of the vote against Pomona-based urban developer Ed Tessier.12 In the 1996 primary, Yorba Linda-based businessman Bob Kerns had little financing but attacked Kim’s ongoing ethics challenges. Kim won with 58 percent of the vote and, in the general election, defeated Democrat Richard L. Waldron with 59 percent of the vote.13

Throughout his career, Kim served on the Public Works and Transportation (later Transportation and Infrastructure) Committee. He sought a seat on this panel with the goal of streamlining and trimming government spending.14 Kim also served on the Small Business Committee in the 103rd Congress (1993–1995). As the first Korean American elected to Congress, Kim traveled to South Korea following his election and the Korean-American community in southern California quickly embraced him as a surrogate representative.15 At first, Kim didn’t embrace that role. When he arrived in Washington, Republicans tried to place him on the Foreign Affairs Committee—specifically the Asia subcommittee—an assignment he initially declined. Kim claimed he did not have a special agenda nor did he wish to be labeled a spokesperson on South Korea and for Korean Americans. Yet, after his re-election and as part of the new GOP majority in 1995, he accepted the assignment on the renamed International Relations Committee. He served on the panel for two terms.16

Representative Kim had an outsized presence for a freshman lawmaker.17 He amassed one of the House’s most conservative records and earned a reputation for being outspoken. As a political newcomer, Kim recalled being “shocked” to see Members gather in various caucus groups on the House Floor; a colleague had to tell him about party bloc seating tradition in the chamber wherein Republicans sat to the left of the House rostrum.18

With an outsider’s perspective on Congress, Kim embraced the role of being among the institution’s loudest critics. One of his first speeches highlighted his cynicism over the political process on Capitol Hill. “In the few short months that I have been here I have learned that this beltway is the land of the easy promise,” Kim said. “It’s the place where special interests prevail, where truth is tempered by political expediency, where honesty and values take a back seat to business-as-usual politics.”19

Kim’s disillusionment solidified during his freshman orientation, during which a senior Member steered him toward more powerful committee assignments in order to draw larger campaign contributions.20 Kim was among several freshmen who sought to abolish select committees, launching a salvo against the seniority system which gave long-serving Members greater power. Kim also proposed cutting committee sizes and budgets by 25 percent, claiming that such cost-saving measures would improve Congress’s reputation. “The war cry is, eliminate gridlock,” he observed, starting “by eliminating the overwhelming power of the seniority system.”21

One of Kim’s primary legislative interests was helping private entrepreneurs with government contracts, the same kind of work he did as an engineer.22 One of his earliest legislative proposals was the Highway Construction Private Investment Act that helped entrepreneurs get contracts to repair and build roadways. “The private sector is always looking for sound investments. The public sector is always looking for more projects,” he noted. “This private-public partnership I am proposing beneficially addresses both needs. It’s a win-win concept.”23

Kim also sought federal reimbursement for road maintenance to keep up with increased traffic from Mexico after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect in 1994, and to allow repair shops and vehicle dealerships to access and operate onboard vehicle diagnostics under the Clean Air Act. He successfully funneled aid for several local projects: $151 million for sewer recycling in Orange County, $91 million for road improvements and carpool connector lanes on major highways passing through his district.24

Kim was a vocal opponent of President William J. (Bill) Clinton’s health care plan, specifically opposing any mandated contribution from employers for coverage, a centerpiece of the plan. “Employer mandates are nothing more than a tax on jobs,” he said. “They are nothing more than a job-killing payroll tax, a tax that American workers will pay in the form of reduced wages and lost jobs. In other words, there is no such thing as a free lunch.”25

Kim offered an amendment to prohibit taxpayer money on employer mandates. When he submitted his amendment, Kim was dismayed to learn of the Rules Committee’s lopsided roster that strongly favored the majority party. When the leadership pulled the bill from the floor before Kim was able to get a vote on it, he concluded they were “scared to vote on my amendment,” describing the episode as the “truth held hostage.”26

Immigration and foreign policy rose to the top of Kim’s congressional agenda. “If you’re an immigrant in this country, you can lose everything except an accent,” Kim noted.27 Drawing from his experience, he supported aid to legal immigrants, including a successful effort in 1996 to differentiate benefits given to legal and undocumented immigrants. “It is an insult to legal immigrants to lump them together with illegal aliens, who are lawbreakers,” Kim argued.28 In the 103rd Congress, he sought to amend a housing bill limiting undocumented immigrants to seven days of assistance under emergency food and shelter programs for the homeless, citing a desire to “put Americans’ needs first.”29 His amendment was approved 220 to 176, and the bill passed the House.30

Kim was one of North Korea’s strongest critics. He supported cutting off food aid to that nation until the Pyongyang government entered talks with South Korea. Kim was horrified when the Clinton administration threatened to veto a Foreign Relations Committee bill because it did not provide enough aid to North Korea in 1996—this shortly after a North Korean submarine foundered in South Korean waters and was discovered with “armed commandos” aboard.31 Kim offered a resolution to condemn North Korean action. “The Clinton administration American taxpayer-funded aid to North Korea has grown faster than to any other country in Asia,” Kim explained on the House Floor. “Is this what Americans are subsidizing? Commando raids and military attacks on our own troops and our allies?”32

Revelations of further campaign finance violations dogged Kim during his final term in the House. In 1995 and 1996, the Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register broke the initial story that five Korean companies made illegal contributions to his campaign. The companies pled guilty (and paid fines amounting to $1.6 million) after compensating their employees special bonuses with the expectation that these employees would donate the amount to Kim’s campaign.33 Kim claimed no knowledge of the scheme.34

Kim’s claims of innocence came under fire, however, when revelations were published that the plan was allegedly hatched at a club meeting for Korean businessmen in July 1992 during which he was a featured speaker. Moreover, two former campaign treasurers testified that Kim’s wife, June, had kept track of off-the-book, illegal donations. Seokuk Ma, his campaign treasurer in 1994, was convicted of concealing illegal contributions in April 1997. Ma told authorities that, due to Korean cultural norms, he could not question his superiors, and he did not challenge June Kim when she asked him to sign blank election report forms. “My culture is very different,” he testified, “I respect Congressman Kim very much. If they ask me to do something like that, I cannot refuse.”35

On August 11, 1997, both Jay and June Kim pleaded guilty to misdemeanor violations of federal election law, including three counts of accepting illegal campaign contributions totaling more than $230,000.36 Kim was sentenced to one-year probation (during two months of which he was required to wear an electronic ankle monitor), 200 hours of community service, and a $5,000 fine. He kept his congressional seat but was only permitted to travel between his Washington-area home in Fairfax County and the Capitol, attending sessions wearing his ankle monitor and holding meetings with constituents via satellite communication.37 Though he had initially pledged to observe a three-term limit, Kim ran for re-election in 1998. He finished third in an eight-way open primary, losing to the eventual winner, Republican Gary Miller, and his closest Democratic opponent, Eileen Ansari. Kim was the only House incumbent to lose in a primary election that year.38

Afterward, Kim and his wife divorced, and he taught political science courses at a South Korean university for the next year.39 In 1999 he returned to his home in Washington’s Virginia suburbs and also took up residence in San Bernardino County so as to be eligible to run in the 2000 election for a U.S. House seat in a district neighboring his old one.40 The new district—centered on the city of San Bernardino, or the heart of the “Inland Empire,” and the fast-growing, eastern Los Angeles suburbs—was one-third Hispanic, with a majority of registered Democrats.41 The long-shot campaign drew detractors from Kim’s own party.42 Kim garnered just 8 percent of the vote, losing the open primary to Rancho Cucamonga businessman Elia Pirozzi and the eventual winner, Joe Baca.43 He went on to chair the Washington Korean-American Forum, a think tank focused on improving U.S. relations with South Korea. Kim remarried a colleague, Jennifer Ahn.

Footnotes

1Quoted in Almanac of American Politics, 1996 (Washington, DC: National Journal Inc., 1995): 199.

2Politics in America, 1994 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1993): 220.

3Claire Spiegel and K. Connie Kang, “The Fast, Rocky Rise of Jay Kim,” 27 October 1993, Los Angeles Times: 1.

4Congressional Record, House, 104th Cong., 1st sess. (28 July 1995): H7979.

5Spiegel and Kang, “The Fast, Rocky Rise of Jay Kim.”

6Politics in America, 1994: 220.

7Spiegel and Kang, “The Fast, Rocky Rise of Jay Kim.”

8Almanac of American Politics, 1994 (Washington, DC: National Journal Inc., 1993): 186; Politics in America, 1994: 220.

9Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “ElectionStatistics, 1920 to Present.”

10Politics in America, 1996 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1995): 183; Spiegel and Kang, “The Fast, Rocky Rise of Jay Kim.”

11Kim sold the company shortly after his election to his son-in-law. See Almanac of American Politics, 1996: 199; Spiegel and Kang, “The Fast, Rocky Rise of Jay Kim”; Politics in America, 1996: 183; “FBI Searches Former Offices of Rep. Kim,” 3 October 1993, Washington Post: A11. JAYKIM Engineers collapsed in mid-1993 shortly after he sold it, defaulting on a $1 million loan guaranteed by Kim and his wife.

12James V. Grimaldi, “Kim Sweeps 4 Aside in Heading for Easy Win,” 8 June 1994, Orange County Register (CA): A3.

13Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

14Politics in America, 1994: 220.

15Jake Doherty, “Korean-Americans Hail Kim’s Victory,” 8 November 1992, Los Angeles Times: 11.

16Garrison Nelson and Charles Stewart, III, Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1993–2010 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2011): 790.

17Almanac of American Politics, 1994: 186.

18Spiegel and Kang, “The Fast, Rocky Rise of Jay Kim.”

19Congressional Record, House, 103rd Cong, 1st sess. (22 April 1993): H2011.

20Robert W. Stewart, “After Winning Office Comes the Actual Office,” 17 December 1992, Los Angeles Times: B1.

21Congressional Record, House, 103rd Cong., 1st sess. (11 March 1993): H1217.

22Almanac of American Politics, 1996: 199.

23Congressional Record, House, 103rd Cong, 1st sess. (20 May 1993): H2605; H.R. 2225, 103rd Cong. (1993).

24Almanac of American Politics, 1998 (Washington, DC: National Journal Inc., 1997): 246.

25Congressional Record, House, 103rd Cong, 2nd sess. (10 August 1994): H7305.

26Congressional Record, House, 103rd Cong, 2nd sess. (3 August 1994): H6743.

27Politics in America, 1994: 220; Spiegel and Kang, “The Fast, Rocky Rise of Jay Kim.”

28Quoted in Politics in America, 1998 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1997): 206.

29Politics in America, 1996: 183.

30See H.R. 3838, 103rd Cong. (1993); H. Amdt. 778, 103rd Cong. (1994).

31See Kevin Sullivan, “N. Korean Submarine Found Beached Off S. Korea,” 19 September 1996, Washington Post: A22; Nicholas D. Kristoff, “One Commando Still at Large In Korea Submarine Manhunt,” 6 November 1996, New York Times: A14.

32Congressional Record, House, 104th Cong., 2nd sess. (27 September 1996): H11399.

33Mark Grossman, Political Corruption in America, vol. 1 (Amenia, NY: Grey House Publishing, 2008): 273.

34Politics in America, 1998: 205.

35Ibid., 204.

36Chae Reed, “Jay Kim,” in Distinguished Asian Americans, ed. Hyan-chan Kim (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999): 158; “CA41: Kim Pleads Guilty to Illegal Contributions,” 11 August 1997, Reuters; Dena Bunis, “Ex Rep. Jay Kim May Seek House Seat Again,” 4 December 1999, Orange County Register (CA): B4; Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, Investigation of Illegal or Improper Activities in Connection With 1996 Federal Election Campaigns, vol. 4, 105th Cong., 2nd sess., S. Rept. 167 (1998): 5683, 5690. The Senate committee investigating foreign contributions to federal elections quoted the Washington Post’s claim that Kim’s case constituted “the largest amount of criminal campaign violations ever committed by a member of Congress.”

37John Mercurio, “Kim Struggles in Comeback,” 6 March 2000, Roll Call: n.p.; Reed, “Jay Kim”: 158. The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct did not immediately pursue an investigation against Kim because a moratorium on filing ethics complaints against Members was in place while the committee’s rules and structure were being overhauled. See “Gingrich Case Prompts Ethics Overhaul,” CQ Almanac, 1997, 53rd ed. (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1998): ch. 1, 32–35.

38Politics in America, 2000 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1999): 195.

39Mercurio, “Kim Struggles in Comeback.”

40Tom Gorman, “Former Rep. Kim, Convicted in 1997, May Run Again,” 4 December 1999, Los Angeles Times: B1.

41Politics in America, 2002 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2001): 145; Almanac of American Politics, 2002 (Washington, DC: National Journal, Inc., 2001): 267.

42Gorman, “Former Rep. Kim, Convicted in 1997, May Run Again”; Mercurio, “Kim Struggles in Comeback.”

43Almanac of American Politics, 2002: 269.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

[ Top ]

External Research Collections

University of Oklahoma
The Julian P. Kanter Political Commercial Archive, Department of Communication

Norman, OK
Videocassette: 1994, 1 commercial on 1 videocassette. The commercial was used during Jay Kim's 1994 campaign for the House of Delegates, 9B in Maryland, Republican Party.
[ Top ]

Bibliography / Further Reading

"Jay C. Kim" in Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Congress, 1900-2017. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of the Historian and the Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Publishing Office, 2018.

[ Top ]

Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - International Relations
  • House Committee - Public Works and Transportation
  • House Committee - Small Business
  • House Committee - Transportation and Infrastructure
    • Public Buildings and Economic Development - Chair
[ Top ]