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Interview with John Choi




John Choi was born in Seoul, South Korea but immigrated to St. Paul, Minnesota with his parents at the age of 3. He received his bachelor's degree from Marquette University and his law degree from Hamline University. John was the Saint Paul City Attorney from 2006-2010, and is currently the Ramsey County Attorney. SUBJECTS DISCUSSED: Early life - family - the importance of education to Korean immigrant families - embracing American culture as a child - college - practicing law - becoming socially and politically active - becoming St. Paul Attorney and his achievements at the job - getting more Koreans active in society and politics - campaign for Ramsey County Attorney - similarities between all immigrants to the United States.





World Region



John Choi
Insung Oh
January 17, 2011
Brooklyn Center, MN

John Choi
Insung Oh

- JC
– IO

IO: This is Insung Oh interviewing John Choi at the Korean Association of Minnesota.
Today is January 17, 2011.
Could you, please, state your name?
JC: Sure. My name is John Choi, last name C-h-o-i, Ramsey Count attorney.
IO: Could you spell, please, your name?
JC: J-o-h-n, Choi, C-h-o-i.
IO: Your age?
JC: Forty years of age, born on June 2, 1970.
IO: Where were you born?
JC: In Seoul, South Korea.
IO: Can you tell in detail about your family members, name and relationship?
JC: I’m married and I have a wife. Her name is Youn, Y-o-u-n Choi. Then, I have a
young son who is two and a half years of age. His name is Will, W-i-l-l. Then, my father
and mother. Peter Choi or [sounds like Chay-Chung-Guan] is my father and my mom is
[sounds like Ming Yung Good]. Then, Barbara Choi is her Christian name. Then I have a
sister Ann Choi and a brother-in-law Eric, last name Roloff, R-o-l-o-f-f.
IO: When did you come to Minnesota and what did drive your parents away from Korea
to here in Minnesota?


JC: We immigrated to this country when I was three years of age. That was 1973. My
father came here to study, get a graduate degree, a Ph.D. He did not end up finishing the
degree, but we ended up staying, because, at that time, Korea was not the most stable
country in many things. So we ended up staying. My parents were seeking kind of the
American dream.
IO: Betterment of your family...
[break in the interview]
JC: Where did your family live at the very beginning of immigration?
IO: Yes.
JC: Okay. Our first home in America was at Skyline Towers, 1247 Saint Anthony
[Avenue. Saint Paul, Minnesota]. Back then, it used to be called the Saint Anthony
Apartments. Now, it’s known as the Skyline Towers. It’s very well known. It’s kind of a
low income place. That was our first home. Then, we lived in the student housing at the
University of Minnesota, also at Sibley Manor, which is an apartment building along
West Seventh Street in Saint Paul. Then, we moved out to Eagan and we lived there for a
long time. Then, we moved to Inver Grove Heights. I went to college in Milwaukee,
Wisconsin. Then, I came back to Saint Paul for law school.
IO: In 2009, you kicked off for campaigning for, then, county attorney, at the same place
it is now.
JC: Yes, Sky, it’s a very symbolic place I think for our family history coming here. For
me, I think Skyline Towers represents, today, exactly what it we were experiencing and
wanting as an immigrant family back in 1973. Today, Skyline Towers consists of many
immigrant families from Africa who are living there. So there are many young boys and
girls who are just like me, whose parents came here seeking something different and
better in this new country and, then, struggling with all of the challenges of being new to
the country. That’s one of the reasons why I chose to announce my candidacy at Skyline
Towers, to tell my kind of immigration story, but, also, to speak to many of the families
who are immigrants, to show that really anything in this country is possible.
IO: You talked a little bit about your parents here settlement after they came over here.
How was their living? How was their life?
JC: I think we were a very typical Korean American family. When my father was
studying at graduate school, my mom was working during that time. She got a job,
probably in 1974 or 1975, at Sperry Univac, which was right by West Seventh Street and
Shepherd Road in Saint Paul. So she was working there while my dad was going to
school. It’s a story really about hard work. Then, my dad ended up not finishing his
graduate degree, but then ended up working here at Coca-Cola and then, also, being the
reporter for the Korea Central Daily newspaper. So, just growing up very typical like


many immigrant families. One thing that I know that’s very difficult for all families that
come from another country that don’t speak English, the language barrier is very
difficult. Then, there’s a lot of different cultural things that are different. It’s never an
easy thing to be an immigrant family.
IO: Like many Korean American immigrants, they are really anxious to teach their
children at the best place, like America.
JC: Oh, sure. My parents were very, I think, similar to many Korean immigrants that I
see. They stressed that education was really important. Doing well in school was
probably the most important priority that my parents had for myself and for my sister. I
see that as very typical amongst many Korean immigrants and, sometimes, maybe even
too much the way they’re stressing the school, putting the pressure on to do well in
school. [chuckles] That’s very typical. I think Korean immigrants have defined success
that you do well in school. You go to college and go to a very good college and, then, do
well in college, and, then, good things will happen if you can get a college degree. I think
that’s very true. That’s a very good recipe for any immigrant group coming here to focus
on making sure that your children receive not only a high school education but a college
education. That was kind of the recipe that many Korean immigrants have fulfilled over
the many, many decades.
IO: Is that unlike the other immigrants parents? I think, as an undercurrent for their
children probably greatly education affected your parents’ priority?
JC: I think many immigrant cultures stress the education, but the Korean immigrants, I
think, really, really stress that. They make it a top, top priority.
IO: How does that compared to other immigrant groups?
JC: I don’t know if I can make that comparison. All I know is the Korean experience,
and I know it’s very much stressing on the educational achievement.
IO: Where did you go for elementary school? How was your early life?
JC: My first schooling was at Homecroft Elementary School, which is in Saint Paul,
kind of in the Highland Park Area, when we lived at the Sibley Manor Apartments.
Interestingly, Sibley Manor Apartments, too, just like the Skyline Towers, is comprised,
today, of many, many African immigrant families that live there, as well. When we lived
there, Homecroft was the first school. Interestingly, my son, William, he goes to
Homecroft right now for preschool.
IO: [chuckles]
JC: In Saint Paul, they call it Early Childhood Family Education, ECFE. So, today, he
goes to Homecroft, which is kind of really interesting. My first school was in Saint Paul


at Homecroft, and, now, my son, William, goes there for ECFE classes with my wife,
Youn. So that was my first school.
Then, we moved to Eagan. My parents saved enough money to buy their first house. We
grew up in a part of Eagan, which is what I would call the working class part of Eagan.
It’s down by Cedarvale, which is along Highway 13 and Yankee Doodle Road. It’s kind
of considered to be like old Eagan where the first kind of development occurred in Eagan.
Most of my childhood, I’d say from first grade all the way until about tenth grade, was
growing up in Eagan. That neighborhood [was] very predominantly white. In fact, in
terms of minority kids growing up in that area, we were kind of the lone Asian family.
Maybe there was two Asian families in the immediate neighborhood, and, then, one
African American. Otherwise, everybody was white, kind of a middle class type
neighborhood. So my first school was Rahn Elementary, R-a-h-n. It still exists today. I
went there from first grade up until sixth grade. Then, I graduated and went to Saint
Thomas Academy Middle School from seventh to eighth grade. Then, I went to Saint
Thomas Academy High School from ninth until twelfth grade. Saint Thomas Academy is
located in Mendota Heights, kind of close to where I grew up. When I went to Saint
Thomas I think my parents wanted me to get a Catholic school education and, also,
probably thought I needed a little bit more discipline. [chuckles] So it was a good school
for that.
IO: Do you have any interesting story?
JC: Of growing up?
IO: Yes.
JC: Well, I think growing up as a Korean immigrant family, even for kids growing up,
your parents come from a different culture, but, then, growing up, you go to school in
American culture. So all the time as you grow up, this is very typical for, I think, all
immigrant families. I see a lot of that playing out with the Hmong community and all of
that stuff. Because you grow up kind of Korean but more American, growing up in
society, but your parents are more Korean, it’s always a challenge to deal with all of
those various issues. Then, just growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, at that time, I think
our society has come a really long ways in terms of accepting other cultures. Today, I
think, it’s much more welcoming in the schools, much more welcoming. In fact, there are
some people who seek out diversity. They want their kids to go to a school that has other
types of cultures and races. Back then, in the 1970s, early 1980s, no one really talked
about that or it wasn’t something that was encouraged. I think our society has come a
long way. Just growing up, it was never an easy thing. I think awareness that you’re also
Korean probably didn’t happen for me so much until much later in life. I would say not
even until after the age of eighteen. Growing up, when you look around and you see
everybody who is not Korean, right, and not Asian, I think it’s very difficult to have the
Korean identity even as a Korean immigrant. I just viewed myself as just like everybody
else, but everybody else was not Korean. Those are things growing up in Eagan,
Minnesota, where that’s kind of what the neighborhood looked like and all of that.


IO: What was your dream at an early age in Minnesota?
JC: When I was a young boy, I liked to play sports a lot. I loved to play hockey and
baseball. As a young child, probably my dreams were to be a professional athlete.
[laughter] Then, you realize you’re not as good, so that’s not going to work out. Those
were just kind of the early dreams. I don’t think I ever had a dream of being a lawyer or
anything along those lines.
IO: How was your father’s, parents’ dream?
JC: I think just typically like many, many other Korean immigrant families, they
probably would have loved it if I would have become a doctor or some professional, like
a lawyer, all of that. That’s kind of very typical where they’re pushing you most
importantly to get good grades, to go to college, and, then, do something professional
after that.
IO: Was there any conflict?
JC: Like many families, growing up, it’s never easy, especially when you have
differences of culture like that, but nothing very typical of Korean immigrant families.
That’s the thing when you grow up in this country, in America, there’s ways to think and
the American culture is very different from Korean culture. Korean culture is so different.
IO: Very demanding.
JC: Very demanding things, yes.
IO: We can do everything.
JC: That’s very true. Yes.
IO: So tough for the mentality and the physically. They can actually accomplish all of
their dreams.
JC: Yes. [chuckles]
IO: Is there any special, even if you talk about a little bit cultural duality, cultural barrier,
or language barrier? You don’t have any special language barrier, probably. My son also
came over here at the age of three.
JC: Oh, same situation.
IO: At the age of four, he started to learn English while he increasingly forgot the
Korean language.


JC: [laughter] Yes. I can’t read Korean. I can understand Korean a little bit, and I can
speak a little bit, but not that well, only because we came here when I was three years of
age. I think just like many other Korean kids growing up here, they speak a combination
of Korean and English when they’re communicating with their parents. That was really
the only type of Korean that I would speak, so that I could speak with my mom and dad.
Otherwise, just growing up in American society, you don’t use Korean, so you lose that
and you forget that. Then, maybe, you have a wanting or a need to wish you could speak
it later in life better. I can’t read Korean but I can understand a little bit but not a
complicated conversation.
IO: At an early age, generally, Korean immigrant parents are teaching their children
Korean. Sometimes many years after because of their job and their life’s so busy
probably in your memory parents have tried to teach you…
JC: Oh, yes, my parents made me go to Korean school on Saturday mornings, but I
didn’t really enjoy it. [laughter] We ended up I think I was able to not go because I didn’t
want to go to Korean school.
IO: Can you tell me about something bad happens, like you’re an Asian, you’re a
Korean? How were your school years? Did you have any special experience?
JC: I always remember that as a part of growing up. I think when you are a different
culture growing up in any culture, there’s always going to be that. I remember that going
back all the way since schooling started in kindergarten or first grade or second grade, so
all of that. There’s always somebody that will call you names because you’re Asian. A lot
of times, they don’t even know the difference between Korean or Filipino or Japanese or
Chinese. Especially, I think, in the neighborhood where we grew up in Eagan, many of
the families that lived there and the kids that lived there, they didn’t really have exposure
to other cultures. I think a lot of that was just based upon ignorance. I got through that
just like everybody else does. When you grow up, there’s always somebody on the
playground or somebody who calls you names or whatever it might be based upon how
you look or what your culture is. I’m sure that, even today, that exists for some people,
but I think times have changed, too. I see that’s there’s probably less and less of that.
Yes, all of that existed all the way through, you know, until, probably, college. Part of
that is just kids being kids. Their family experience and all of that wasn’t broad-based.
That’s just what I had to deal with growing up, but I came out okay.
IO: When did you first realize(you were a Korean or an Asian)? You talked a little bit
about it at the age of eighteen or something when you went to college, you met many
Koreans. When did you first feel that you were a Korean or an Asian as a minority?
JC: I think when you get older. I can’t really pin point it, but I just know it was
sometime after eighteen. I think when you become an adult, you start to reflect more on a
whole bunch of life issues, one of which is your identity. You reflect on your parents.
You reflect on who you are. Then, you start realizing that who you are is not just


American, but there’s also a heritage there about being Korean American and all those
things. I can’t think of any specific moment or point, but you just have more of an
understanding and awareness. I remember all of that probably occurred in college or after
IO: I want to hear about your college life. College is very important.
JC: Yes, it is.
IO: For someone’s future dream or future job.
JC: College was a good experience for me. I went to Marquette University in
Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Marquette is a Catholic school. It’s a large school; it’s about,
maybe, 10,000, 12,000 students. It’s a large, private type of school. It’s located in a very
challenging neighborhood. It’s in the downtown area of Milwaukee. Surrounding
Marquette is a lot of poverty.
I got really involved in college. I decided to start an organization focused on helping kids
through a tutoring program, kids that were at risk at school who weren’t doing well with
their reading. So I organized about two hundred students to do tutoring and mentoring for
kids who were at this middle school. A lot of these kids were not doing well in school,
and it was kind of a tough neighborhood. So I organized that, and it was my first
experience, I think, of kind of focusing on doing something like public service and doing
something for other people, and doing community leadership. That was a really good
experience. I learned a lot and I also recognized in myself that I really like to do that, help
other people and to think about the bigger perspective of how do we make our
community and society better.
IO: I became aware of that. One of Saint Paul’s former mayors, I remember, in 2009: I
helped a Korean broadcasting videotape as its documentary program about Medtronic’s
business story. At that time, the mayor, I talked a lot with him. He[the former major] has
got an artificial heart. He was talking about the national poverty in the 1980s, probably
Minnesota also in 1980, across America probably, the policy issues of poverty. But, still,
that issue keeps coming up. Probably your college life in addition to your scholarly
JC: The organization was called Students Enhancing Education. The acronyms were
SEE. Because of that, I received a number of leadership awards for the college. There
was a number of them, but I can’t even remember what they were. Yes,
IO: After college at Marquette University, you transferred to Hamline [University, Saint
Paul]. Why did you choose that area, change into law?
JC: I graduated from Marquette University, undergraduate, with a psychology degree.
Then, I went to my first year of law school at Marquette University. I was there for a
year, but I knew that after I had spent a year at Marquette—that was five years total—I


wanted to come back home. I got very interested in politics and things like that. I wanted
to get involved in the mayor’s campaign. I finished my first year of law school at
Marquette and, then, I transferred to Hamline. In between, in the summertime, I got a job
on a campaign, a mayor’s campaign in Saint Paul.
IO: What was the name?
JC: Bob Long, L-o-n-g. That was 1993. The candidates for mayor at that time were
Norm Coleman, and Andy Dawkins, and Bob Long, and there was a Marcia Abner, and
John Mannillo. Many people ran that year. Norm Coleman ended up winning.
IO: Oh.
JC: Yes, in 1993. But I worked on Bob Long’s campaign in 1993. That was my first
campaign that I got involved with.
One year later, Bob Long, ran for Ramsey County attorney and so did Chris Coleman, the
mayor of Saint Paul today. So Bob Long, Chris Coleman, a guy named Tom Fable, and
then Susan Gaertner, those were the four people that ran for county attorney. Susan
Gaertner won. Then, she’s been there for sixteen years. But back in 1994, I worked on the
county attorney campaign for Bob Long.
IO: That’s interesting.
JC: Yes.
IO: Related to what you do today.
JC: If someone told me back in 1994, ―One day, you will be the county attorney,‖ I
wouldn’t have believed them.
IO: Still you have many years left to become a lawyer, finish Hamline Law School.
JC: I graduated in 1995.
IO: After that, what was your professional job?
JC: After that, I started at a law firm called Hessian, McKasy, & Soderberg. It was in the
IDS Center [in Minneapolis] on the forty-seventh floor. I worked there, too, while I was
in law school. I worked there from like November 1994 when I started. I worked as a law
clerk all the way through law school. Then, I started there as an attorney after I graduated
from law school in 1995. I stayed there till about 1998. There, I was doing a lot of kind of
commercial litigation work. I also started developing a practice around government
relations and government affairs.
[break in the interview]


JC: 1995, I also graduated as a fellow from the University of Minnesota Humphrey
School. I was a Humphrey Fellow for 1995. That was a really good experience, too.
IO: Why did you choose that?
JC: I was very interested in public policy and that fellowship is for people who are
interested in public policy or interested in doing something like that maybe later in life.
While I was in law school, I applied and I got in as a fellow. A lot of that was because of
some of the work that I did back in Milwaukee for Students Enhancing Education. I think
that was one of the reasons I was chosen.
IO: [unclear]
JC: Yes. So I did that.
Then, in 1995, I started at the Hessian, McKasy, & Soderberg law firm. Then, I moved in
1998 to the Kennedy & Graven law firm [in Minneapolis]. I made partner at the law firm
at a pretty young age. I was only thirty years of age, which is very young to be a partner.
That would have been January 2001, I believe, is when I made partner there. I did a lot of
work around representing cities and local units of government up at the Legislature and
all of that kind of stuff. I was just kind of in private practice representing many, many
different clients doing different types of legal work, the government relations also, some
litigation and municipal type of law, until 2005. I had a very successful private practice
doing many different things. I was honored by being ―Super Lawyer‖ by [Minnesota]
Law and Politics and all of those things. But, you know, those are just things where I had
a very successful private practice.
Then, I got a call out of the blue from Mayor [Chris] Coleman in 2005, after he became
IO: Before you became the city director of lawyers, probably before that you as a
professional lived a general life. I think that[the city director of lawyers]’s a turning point
for your life. Can you tell me about your starting and finishing of that period?
JC: During the 1990s after law school, I was always active in politics, doing community
type volunteering work, and all of that. Then, I talk a lot about how I got a call in 2005
from the mayor of Saint Paul, Chris Coleman. I had met Chris through all of that active
engagement with political stuff. Nineteen ninety-four is probably when I first met him
when he was running for county attorney. Then, I got to know him more when he ran for
city council in 1997. Then, he won in 1997, and, then, of course, he decided to run for
mayor in 2005. It was interesting that I never really expected that he would call me to be
city attorney, because I had actually supported his opponent, Rafael Ortega, for the DFL
[Democratic Farmer Labor Party] endorsing convention. But, you know, Chris Coleman
and I have known each other for a long time, and we maintained a friendship. I think
Chris understood why I didn’t support him, because, at that time, when I was in private


practice, my largest client was something called the Ramsey County Regional Rail
Authority. They’re the ones that do the light rail construction and all those things, and
Commissioner Ortega was the chairman of the Rail Authority. So when he told me he
was running for mayor and asked me to support him, I said, ―Of course, I would.‖ So
Chris, I think understood why I would not support him. It wasn’t any reflection on him.
In fact, it says a lot about him that he would appoint me as his city attorney. So he called
and I accepted.
I accepted because I knew that, really, if I didn’t take this opportunity that I was being
offered by Mayor Coleman, I would never, ever have some opportunity like this again. At
that time in my career, I was thirty-five years of age. I was a young partner. I was making
a good salary, and I know if I stayed doing what I was doing, my salary would continue
to increase, and, then, it would become even a larger pay differential between what I
would be making and what you get paid to be the city attorney. I knew whether it was
city attorney or to run for the Legislature or to do anything in politics or public service, if
I didn’t take that opportunity to do that type of public service, I would never have that
opportunity again or it would not make sense. Do you see what I’m saying? At that time
in 2005, I was just very newly married and we didn’t have any children, so really no
financial obligations to think about. [chuckles] So I just jumped at that chance, and I
knew that this was a great opportunity to do something that I was passionate about, which
is to serve the public. Remember the story I told you about Milwaukee when I organized
the students for the tutoring program? I really enjoyed always the opportunity to do
public type leadership, to try to organize people, and try to do something good. So I took
this opportunity. Being a city attorney and doing a good job in that role, very much, I
think changed my life to get me focused on trying to continue on in doing public service.
That’s why I ran for this position, because of that experience.
IO: What were your great accomplishments for four years as a city attorney?
JC: When I look back, I think the biggest accomplishment that I had was to get people in
the office, not only in the city attorney’s office but, also, even around in the criminal
justice system, to maybe think about things differently. I think my tenure as city attorney
people will look back on and say that I was able to change a lot of things and focus of the
office, one of which is to really champion on some of these kind of lower level crimes, to
think about justice and public safety in a different perspective, one of which was to utilize
like diversion programs. Instead of sending someone to jail for two or three days for a
minor offense, why not try to do something where we get them to stop the behavior, and,
then, not do it again? That’s the most important thing. But, sometimes, the traditional
approach of we have a consequence for somebody and, then, we send them to jail for two
or three days, that doesn’t always work. It might work in the sense that we’re punishing
that person, but the criminal justice system is not just about punishment. It’s also about
rehabilitation, and I think the most important thing is so that people stop their behavior
and, then, don’t do it again. A lot of times, what I see are people that come in the system
there might be chemical dependency or mental health issues or they’re very poor. A lot of
times, what’s happening is because of the fact that they’re poor; it’s driving some bad life
decisions. Then, also, just the background of a lot of people that come into the criminal


justice system, they’re cognitive skills in determining what is right and what is wrong and
thinking through consequences that if I do this, I’m going to hurt someone else. If I steal
something from somebody, there’s a victim, that I’m stealing from that person. They’re
not necessarily thinking like that. They’re thinking I want this today. I want it and I’m
going to get it. There’s things that we can do, I think, to try to intervene and get people to
get better cognitive skills so that they understand what they’re doing is wrong.
IO: Recidivism…
JC: Yes, that’s a big thing for me is to try to stop recidivism. I think a lot of days, we
don’t spend enough time on that. We spend too much time thinking about what’s easiest
and, sometimes, what the easiest thing to do is just to put people in jail.
IO: How has your college area, psychology major, affected?
JC: I think the psychology major was interesting in the sense that it gives you an
experience to look at things from a perspective that there’s things that could be attributing
things to behavior in their certain pathology or things that people suffer from. So you
understand, I think, that aspect of it all. Sometimes, I think, we are always wanting things
to be so logical, but that psychology background gives you an understanding that people
suffer from various different things and things of that nature. Yes.
IO: Can you tell me about issues like during your professional job, including a city
attorney…? I think you are in that diversity in American culture. You probably met a lot
of immigration issues. What was your thought? What was the most important
immigration issue, if any?
JC: Like immigration issues, not so much every day. I think if anything, it’s mostly
about my election and the campaign that I ran. Because I ran for office and because I was
successful, I run into people all over our community, and many of the people that are just
so excited about my election tend to be people who are immigrants themselves or really
embrace the concept that America is a country of immigrants. I think people who have
that strong belief that America our strength is our immigrant population and they accept
that we’re changing as a country, people like that, or people who themselves are
immigrants, whether they came from Russia or they came from China, Africa, a lot of
people, once they learn about my background, they’re very excited about my being in
public office and, then, my running for county attorney. In fact, I think that was one of
the neatest things that I experienced as a candidate. I recognized that my candidacy meant
so much not only to people who, like me, were immigrants but, also, people who have
this very strong belief that this country is a country of immigrants. I think it was very
satisfying for many to see somebody who was not born in this country succeed in kind of
an electoral way, because that’s, in a lot of ways, a validation of who we are as a
IO: I think you had a good speech at the last October Korean Service Center, that it’s the
most important for Korean American immigrants, that the Korean Service Center has


now became one of the top five across Korean Americans in the United States; that’s the
service program for immigrants. I think you got a good speech at that time. What was
your speech content?
JC: My message was, I think a lot of times, especially Korean American immigrants, we
have that model of doing well in school, but, ultimately, a lot of times that leads to
seeking a professional career that’s more private focused, whether it’s, maybe, being a
lawyer or a doctor or a business person, something along those lines. But, a lot of times, I
see a lot of very successful Korean families and their children grow up to be mostly in the
private sector. My message there was to encourage more participation amongst Korean
immigrants and Asian immigrants, not only in professions that would be more public in
nature but, also, just getting involved and participating in civic life. I think as immigrants
when you’re a new immigrant, typically, families will be very focused on the survival
IO: Yes.
JC: They’ll be very focused on just educating their children. But participating civically
in the future of our country and to actually take ownership of our country, I really believe
that America belongs to all people, all citizens, and the citizens in this country are very
diverse. A lot of times, the people that are participating, a lot of times the new
immigrants don’t feel that connected. A lot of times, it’s because where they come from
maybe politics was corrupt or maybe because someone like them had no say in
government. Here, in America, it’s very, very different. You can be anyone. You can be
the president of the United States. You can be the governor. Anything is possible
politically in this country. In fact, we are a democracy, so it’s about the people. When I
think about who, as county attorney, my boss [is], well, that’s the people. [chuckles] I
work for the people. People don’t work for me, but I work for the people. That’s a
concept of American democracy. What I’d like to see is more and more Asian
immigrants become more involved civically in the future and think of themselves that
they have a stake in the future of this country. So they should be more involved
politically. Whether they’re a Democrat or a Republican, it doesn’t matter that they’re
more engaged in participating, that they’re more engaged in volunteering. I don’t see as
many Asian Americans as there should be volunteering for just anything, like the
American to volunteer for the Red Cross, to give blood, to volunteer as a tutor after
school to help kids who are struggling with school. I would like to see more and more
Asians become more involved in the future and have a stake in our community.
IO: For their own representation.
JC: Not only for their own representation, but just for the future of our country. Our
country is only as good as people are willing to participate and care for it.
IO: Yes.


JC: So my message is that in an American type of democracy, all people really have a
responsibility for the greater good to participate. Obviously, people should participate so
that the Asian American community is represented, but, also, what I’m suggesting is for
the benefit of our country. I’d like to see more Asian Americans, all people, participating
actively and caring about American democracy and where we’re going from here,
because the future is really up to us as citizens. That’s the beauty of this country.
IO: That speech was right before your election.
JC: Yes.
IO: After the election, you came up into Korean Association’s general conference,
general meeting, and also, on January 5th, there was a swearing in. At that time, you were
with us speaking about your parents. You said that they didn’t even think about that you
could be a county lawyer, that’s a big history, I think, for a Korean American in the U.S.
Can you tell me about that?
JC: Yes, I think when most immigrant families come to the United States, the concept
that I just articulated about the American democracy, that it really belongs to all citizens,
those are things that we’re not really thinking about. [laughter] We’re thinking mostly
about just surviving, number one. Right? In fact, many immigrants who come here come
here as refugees. If you look at the African immigrants, you look at many immigrants like
the Hmong, they’re coming here because they’re trying to escape something very
horrible, a horrible situation. The Korean immigrant experience is a little bit different
here in Minnesota. It’s not so much a refugee type of situation. It’s more seeking a better
life. But, still, you’re very focused on the many challenges of living in a new homeland.
You don’t speak the language as your primary language. There are many customs and
cultural differences that the majority culture has that you don’t know about or that you’re
soon learning. Then, the challenges of even trying to educate your own children in a
different culture, in a different system, is very, very overwhelming. I think a lot of times,
people are so focused on that, the thought that your son or your child would become
something in a very important role in government, is I think difficult for all immigrant
families to grasp. But, in a lot of ways, the fact that it’s possible in this country that
someone like me could become elected as Ramsey County attorney, that’s what makes
people feel so good about this country. In fact, I think this is really not possible like, as an
example, in Korea. If someone from another Asian country moved to Korea, right, and
wanted to become the chief prosecutor, elected prosecutor, could that be possible?
Probably not.
IO: No, no.
JC: But that’s the case for most countries. For some reason, in America and some other
countries, like maybe Canada and other places, it is possible. I think that’s the beauty of
this country and why my particular election was very captivating for people who have
been here for many, many years. It says so much about our country.


IO: Many Korean immigrants, Korean generations, have a shadow of Korean War. In
Minnesota, there are many, many Korean War veterans. With them, how did you
experience with them?
JC: One of the most interesting experiences that I had as a candidate and campaigning
for Ramsey County attorney was, actually, an accidental meeting that I had with Korean
War veterans. It was the day of the election, and I happened to be just kind of driving
around looking for things to do during the Election Day to do some campaigning. I came
across a meeting of the Korean War veterans that was happening in Roseville, just by
accident. There was a whole room full of people, but it was a very special moment, where
during their meeting, I was able to actually speak. One of the wives of the commanders
went up and talked to her husband and said, ―You should let him speak.‖ So I was able to
do that. It was really nice, because I was able to thank them for their service in Korea
and, also, suggest and tell them that I probably wouldn’t be standing right there at that
moment in time but for their service in Korea. I think that was a very meaningful
statement and observation that meant a lot to a lot of people. Then, I got a chance to talk
to them after their meeting. A lot of them actually had voted for me. It was about two
o’clock in the afternoon on Election Day. After having some of those conversations
where people had said that they had already voted for me, I think I had that pretty solid or
very sure feeling that I was going to win around two o’clock in Election Day. Yes.
IO: You had a chance of coincidence.
JC: Yes.
IO: In 2009, you got award from the International Municipal Lawyers Association. What
was the award about?
JC: This probably goes to your question number twenty or whatever, about the same
director of city attorney’s office. I talked a little bit about it in my previous answer, about
just kind of changing and reforming the system and making some changes. I was really
proud of being recognized actually by all of my city attorney colleagues in the United
States and Canada as being the top city attorney in North America in 2009. I got that
award [Joseph Mulligan Award] primarily because of the work that I talked about, about
trying to find innovative solutions to get people who are coming into the criminal justice
system on low level offenses not to come back again, you know that whole issue or
recidivism in addressing that. So one of the things that I’m really proud of—you asked
me what I’m most proud of—is that type of approach and having success at it.
One was that driver diversion program where we’re helping lots of people who are
driving without a valid driver’s license. Instead of trying to throw all those individuals in
jail, which does us no good, we try to help them get their license back and pay back their
fines that they owe to government and, then, get them a license as quickly as possible so
that they can drive to work and do those things instead of taking a different perspective.
That was a very different way of looking at things.


IO: I think you may talk about more campaigning. During the campaigns, a lot of
happenings, staff members hard time campaigning. You appreciate the celebration of
election night and your victory. Can you talk a little bit more about campaigning?
JC: It’s a long, long campaign. In fact, it probably started back in April of 2009 for an
election that was occurring in November 2010. So it was a long, long process. Actually,
the campaign started from two of my friends who kind of tried to recruit me to run on
Facebook when I was city attorney. So they started up a Facebook site. But it really took
off. Within one weekend, it had over hundreds of supporters, and, then, over time, it just
continued to grow. That was an interesting experience of just trying to put together a
campaign. I was always very overwhelmed by the fact that there were so many people
who wanted to help. A lot of those individuals that really wanted to help were people that
were very captivated by the fact of what my background was, not just because I was
qualified for the position, not because I was a city attorney and the things that I had
accomplished, but some of my support was, clearly, because their spirits were kind of
uplifted and kind of motivated by the fact that I was an immigrant to this country seeking
higher office and that I was someone who was different.
There was a lot of people who just because of that got very involved in my campaign and
I think that speaks a lot to kind of where we’re at as a society, where that is something
that is valued by people. In addition to that, there was a lot of people that got very
involved in the campaign, like my parents. My mom and dad spent a lot of time working
on the campaign, putting up lawn signs and things like that. I think that was really
wonderful to see. Remember, we talked a lot about how immigrants come here and there
focused mostly on just surviving and doing what you need to do to raise your family, but
you don’t think too much about connecting to the political process or the civic or the
community stuff? It was great to see my mom and dad become very involved in the
campaign, to put up lawn signs all throughout the county. So it was an incredible amount
of work. I, also, saw that in the broader Korean community here in Minnesota and, also,
around the country. Here in Minnesota, there were a lot of people in the Korean
American community that were very captivated by my campaign, because my personal
experience and who I was spoke to them exactly in terms of what their American
experience was of coming over here and having all if the various challenges that all
immigrants face, but, then, also being Korean. It was great to see so many people help,
participate, whether it was through coming to a fund raiser or putting up lawn signs.
There were some people who went out and helped campaign and did door knocking and
all that kind of stuff. Then, beyond the Minnesota Korean American population, I got a
lot of support from Korean Americans nationally. That’s because there have been some
Korean Americans who have already run for really, really important offices, like Sam
Yoon, who ran for…
IO: Boston mayor
JC: Yes, the mayor.


IO: From outside of Minnesota. He[Sam Yoon] is the second generation. Is there any
encouragement from them?
JC: Yes, it was great. Because they had already run for a very high-profile race, they had
developed a group of other Korean Americans throughout the country that were very
interested in supporting Korean American individuals who were running for important
positions. So Sam Yoon, who was a former council member in Boston ran for mayor in
Boston, he helped me get connected to a number of those individuals, and we raised a
very good amount of money just from people that I had never met before, people that just
because I was Korean American and they knew I had a good chance of winning, they
wanted to help me get over the top. So that was really nice to see.
[someone else speaks – unclear]
IO: I think I put that kind of story on my Facebook at that time, after the election, that
sixteen people, seventeen people, across America, Korean second generation, got into the
public office. What was thinking about…
[break in the interview]
JC: There are so many other Korean Americans that won their elections. I think that is
really great. It says a lot about how far the Korean American community has come in
terms of being engaged in our civic and political aspects of our country. It was really
great to see that. I think there will be more and more of that happening. In fact, there was
one particular candidate [Steve Kim] who didn’t make it, but he was running for attorney
general in the State of Illinois, which is a really hard race to run in a statewide election. I
think that will happen at some point where we’ll see a Korean American get elected at a
much larger level.
IO: Yes.
You got in your future plan: City attorney is different from county attorney. What is your
plan in the future for community?
JC: The job that I was elected to do to be county attorney is a really, really important
job. It’s not as high profile as some other positions like the Minnesota attorney general or
things like that, but it’s a really, really important job. My goal is just to do a really good
job in that role, and to make change in the criminal justice system. It takes a long time.
It’s hard to get something done in one, two, or three, or even four years. In fact, it takes
many years, many terms, I think. I’m going to be really focused on just trying to get the
job done and do a lot of the things I talked about during the campaign, to try to address
some of the recidivism that we have amongst juvenile crime and try to get kids who are
getting into trouble on the right track in life, to focus on domestic violence and do
everything that we can to prevent it and to hold the people who break the law accountable
for that. The list goes on and on of all the things that I want to accomplish. I think the
most important priority for me is just to do a good job. Typically, the person that has


been elected to county attorney, they tend to do it for a long time. So I don’t know what
the future will hold for me, but, all I know, is that I’m just kind of committed to doing a
good job and, then, whatever happens with future opportunities, they’ll come about
because I’ve done a good job in what I’m doing today.
IO: I think in our Korean immigration history, your wining of your county attorney
election is a lot of significances for your family and you and our Korean community and
furthermore, to Asian Americans, you know. Your ceremony on January 5th swearing in,
at that place, what were you thinking about. What was your thought?
JC: It was just a really neat day. I was actually a little bit surprised by so many people
that showed up when I took my oath of office. The whole third floor was packed with
people that were supporters of myself and Matt Bostrom [Ramsey County Sheriff]. It was
really neat to see that. I’m very aware that that there’s a historic aspect of my swearing
in. I know all of those things. But I think what was probably just most on my mind was
just the enormous responsibility that I have of being the elected Ramsey County attorney.
So my thoughts were probably mostly on getting ready to get down and get to work, start
getting to work on those things that I wanted to do. I was kind of relieved when all of the
swearing in stuff was all over with, because that’s very ceremonial. Then, I got to focus
on the job. [chuckles] What’s most rewarding is just to start thinking about that. That’s
why I worked so hard during the campaign was to get the honor and the privilege to be
able to do the job and to serve the public.
IO: Do you have any last words? You can talk about your parents. What is the
significance of speaking as an interviewee to this oral history?
JC: Sure. I know with respect to my personal story, I’m glad that I had the opportunity
to kind of tell it a little bit and I hope, in a lot of ways, I really believe that my story, even
though part of my story is about being elected as Ramsey County attorney, in a lot of
ways, though, my story really is just like anybody else’s story of kind of that immigrant
experience. I think there’s a lot of commonality amongst immigrants who come from
anywhere whether it’s Russia, or Africa, or wherever it might be. There are differences,
lots of differences, but there are also many, many commonalities. What I predict in the
next ten, twenty, hundred years is that there will be people just like me, somebody who
was born in Africa or someone born somewhere else who will be elected to high
positions in the State of Minnesota and not just here in the state but across the country.
We’ll one day look back upon the wave of immigrants; I came here to this country in
1973. During that time period, there were many, many Asian immigrants that have come
to this country. Then, we saw in Minnesota a high influx of Southeast Asians, Hmong
immigrants coming to this country. I really think a hundred years from now, people will
be looking back on that and thinking of it as just a part of our history and nothing more or
nothing less. Today, when we look back on Minnesota history, we think of the Irish
immigrants. We think of the German immigrants. We think of the French immigrants like
in Frog Town [Saint Paul neighborhood] and all of those things. Well, there will be very
similar types of stories and neighborhoods that will exist in Saint Paul based upon kind of
our immigrant story and will look very, very different, I think, in the future as well.