Irvine, California Mayor Steven Choi

Published in FEATURES  
Steven Choi, Mayor of Irvine, California Steven Choi, Mayor of Irvine, California

Irvine, California Mayor Steven Choi

Brings Work, Living and Play Together at Great Park

Steven Seokho Choi is the second Korean-born mayor of Irvine, California and the first Asian American to have been elected to a four-year term on the Irvine City Council. Holding a B.A. from Kyung Hee University in Seoul, South Korea, he earned his master’s degree in library science from Louisiana State University and his Ph.D. in library and information science from the University of Pittsburgh. He founded and serves as director of Dr. Choi’s Academy and has taught at University of Southern California, University of California Irvine, California State University Los Angeles, Henderson State University, Saddleback College and Coastline Community College. His political career began when he was elected to the Irvine Unified School District School Board in 1998 and was re-elected in 2002. He was then elected to the Irvine City Council in 2004. In 2012, Choi successfully ran for Mayor of Irvine and was re-elected in 2014. Seoul Journal's Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie met with Mayor Choi at Irvine City Hall.

SJ: I understand that before politics, you were once a language teacher in the Peace Corps?
CHOI: Yes, in fact, I came to the U.S. because of that job. I became a language professor. I love to teach. In fact, I set up many Korean language programs including Coastline Community College, Saddleback College, and UCI (University of California Irvine). I also set up a Korean school, which was very small at that time, but I grew it to over 350 students and now I think it is exceeding 500 or 600 students.

SJ: Learning the Korean language must be becoming popular now!
CHOI: It became popular a while ago, but it's even more so now because of K-pop. People everywhere want to learn the Korean language, but in particular, young students all over the world want to learn about Korean pop culture.

SJ: Can you tell us about the Korean cultural festival in Irvine?
CHOI: I founded the Korean cultural festival—2014 was the fifth year. It's been growing phenomenally each year. The first year, I succeeded in raising $40,000. The next year $60,000, then $80,000 and last year $100,000. I set the 2014 goal of $120,000 and I exceeded $150,000. It's popular. If you look at the sponsors, over 90% are American mainstream sponsors like Cox, Verizon, Wells Fargo, UCI, Concordia University, and Edison. Companies that are located in Irvine are all participating and companies that are among the richest Korean companies like Kia are the premier sponsors.

SJ: That must mean that the Korean population is very important in Southern California.
CHOI: Yes, and Irvine is the center of it right now. We have a very rapidly growing Korean population. Forty percent of the Irvine population is Asian with Koreans being the second largest group after Chinese. About 9.2% or 18,000 people are Korean.

SJ: It's amazing you have been able to accomplish the things you have done when English is your second language. When did you first come to the U.S.?
CHOI: I came here in 1968 from Naju in South Korea after college and after my military service. My first job was with the Peace Corps. The State Department gave me a job as a teacher teaching Korean in Hawaii. That's the reason I came here. The good or bad thing was they gave me only a one-way ticket. I'm still stuck here (laughs)! I left Korea with $100 in my pocket and I donated $50 to Japan to buy a camera to share my memories. I got paid $444 a month. They fed me and provided room and board. I'm the eldest son and I don't know about Japan, but in China and Korea, the responsibility of the first son is to be the head of the household. I'm one of eight children. So I took $100 every month and sent it to my aging parents.

SJ: $100 a month must have been a lot of money back then!
CHOI: That was big money for them. Later my mother told me that was a big help for them to take care of my younger sister's wedding and things like that.

SJ: So, you came here to teach. When did you decide to study here?
CHOI: My roommate in Hawaii said to me, “Do you know how much it costs to get an air ticket here? We cannot afford it by our standard, but we got it for free. We should take advantage of this opportunity and study while we are here.” He had an application to study English at Louisiana State University. But a week before I left to LSU he said, “You go ahead. I just got accepted to the University of Hawaii!” So, he kind of tricked me and he didn’t tell me he was filling out another application behind my back! But that was a total change in my direction. I would have gone back to Korea. Who knows what occupation I would have gone into–maybe a journalist because I was a student reporter for four years or I would have tried teaching English because my major was English and I had a secondary school teaching license.

SJ: At which point did you first envision yourself as mayor?
CHOI: Well, to answer that I think I need to summarize my journey here. When you think about it, do you think a guy who was here to learn English ever dreamt of becoming a politician? I was going to be a journalist so I put my application to the School of Journalism at Louisiana State University. My Korean friends laughed at me saying, “You stupid guy! Do you think you will get a job after you graduate? Your English is not good enough! You cannot compete with American journalists. How can you work at the New York Times or wherever? One friend was studying library science and told me there were a lot of jobs. That was around the time of the Sputnik launching and I think the federal government was emphasizing the area of information resources so library jobs were booming. I laughed because I didn't even know there was such a major but even before I started journalism school, I switched. It was so hard. I couldn't understand what the teacher was saying. I didn't even understand when there was an assignment due. So I bought carbon paper and asked a girl in my class to put it under her notes. I couldn't take my own notes, let alone think about becoming a mayor! That school required a minor and for whatever reason I took political science. On my first assignment, I got a score of 95 and my professor was impressed. He asked me, “Have you thought about transferring to political science?” I had never thought about becoming a politician. Selecting political science as a minor was just getting over the requirement and now looking back that was my connection to party politics. I had to choose one of the parties. Republican seemed to be good for me so I chose that. I don't know if the minor is helping me now or not but it was my introduction to American politics.

SJ: Can you tell us about what you have been doing as Mayor?
CHOI: I've been on City Council for ten years since 2004. I was in the minority. We are a very divided council between Democrats and Republicans. For eight years, I was silent. My ideas didn't go anywhere. But when I got elected in 2012, I was elected not only as mayor but I acquired the majority¬–so now I'm able to push forward. The first thing I did was restructure the City Council to improve efficiency and save a lot of money and time. One problem for the state, if not the entire country, is unfunded pension liability. Our city's portion was $91 billion. I addressed this and we had a brilliant director who came up with the proposal. In 10 years time, it will be paid off without any additional cost. The big thing is the completion of The Great Park in Irvine. That had been talked about for eight years. It got nowhere. Over $200,000,000 has been wasted. That money literally all blew away with wasteful spending that we are now investigating in a forensic audit the council initiated. I negotiated with FivePoint Communities and 688 acres will be built up in five years including a sports park, a canyon, a bosque, a wild life corridor, etc. The next phase will develop the cultural terrace for a future library; the remaining areas will be green until further developed. We did a private-public partnership. Finally, a Broadcom employee told me they were looking for a new permanent site. So, I met with the co-founder Henry Samueli and I retained that company to stay. The reason for this is because I have an initiative to make Irvine a tech-valley of the 21st century. I want all the research coming out of UCI to stay here. I am going to connect all of the start-up companies with venture capitalists. The companies will be nurtured in Irvine. My goal is not only to help companies start up and stay here, but to attract big companies to come to Irvine—even from Silicon Valley. We're going to steal them down here! Why? Because we have better weather conditions here. We are geographically in the center. UCI is a rising public university and we have good quality schools. A lot of Asians come here because we have good schools. There are many other initiatives I am introducing.--SJ

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Written By:

Anthony Al-Jamie

Anthony Al-Jamie lived and worked in Japan for over 20 years. His in-depth understanding of Japanese language and culture has allowed him to carry out interviews with many of the most renowned individuals in Japan. He first began writing for the Tokyo Journal in the 1990s as Education Editor, later he was promoted to Senior Editor, and eventually International Editor and Executive Editor. He currently serves the Tokyo Journal and Seoul Journal as Editor-in-Chief.




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