The Neighborhood News: Why do you think with all his connections, money, endorsements and position, Mark Ridley-Thomas [MRT] couldn't quite reach 50% of the vote?

Grace Yoo: Because people want change. Because most voters know that he and Herb Wesson are trying to very undemocratically just exchange seats. Many voters are also aware that Mark Ridley-Thomas is probably running for mayor, [he didn't deny it at a local townhall] and the election is in two years, 2022, so he will not be able to give attention to our issues in CD10. And finally now with the FBI investigation targeting City Hall councilmembers for corruption, voters are thinking, "We really want someone who wants to do what's right for CD10."

TNN: One of the concerns that people have is that MRT brings years of experience to his position while you would be a newcomer to City Hall. What experience do you bring that makes you feel confident the transition to the seat of power would not be a big learning curve?

GY: The fact that I've been Executive Director for 15 years of two national nonprofits [The National Asian Pacific American Bar Association and the Korean American Coalition, the LA chapter] demonstrates that I have experience managing a staff and budget and running an operation. I know how to reach out, grow organizations and sustain them in difficult times. I've run my own small business, operating my estate planning law firm for the past five years.  I have been Commissioner and Vice President of the Department of Transportation. So I understand how the City operates, having interacted with local, state and federal government agencies. I understand a lot of the protocol and am comfortable in knowing how things work. And of course, I know Robert's Rules of Order.


TNN: I'm sure you are aware of the current corruption scandals at City Hall involving Mitch Englander and Jose Huizar. In February 2019, Forbes magazine pegged the California Central District in Los Angeles as the second most corrupt city in America, with 1,534 corruption convictions between 1976 and 2016. CityWatchLA has reported the Feds had busted a political fundraiser, who claims to have delivered hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to an as yet unnamed LA City Council member. Then the LA Times reported the cash bribes went to Council member Jose Huizar, and  the City Hall corruption investigation was ongoing. [after this interview took place, Jose Huizar, Councilman for District 14, was arrested by the FBI on a federal racketeering charge] Mark Ridley-Thomas has been embroiled in two scandals involving huge donations and the securing of questionable benefits to his son Sebastian Ridley Thomas. During redistricting, the constant expectation and demand of Korean businesses to pony up donations for decades of CD 10 funds came to light. You have been advocating for change at City Hall that directly targets the procedures that allow corruption to take place. How can one person change this?

GY: I know how one person can make all the difference. During the redistricting that occurred in 2012, Helen Kim was a commissioner who made sure that every time she saw a backroom deal occurring, she put it on the record, putting the other commissioners on check. When you're able to do this, it means the others will try to listen because they know this is all being recorded, and when you follow the bread crumbs, you're going to be able to find the corruption. So, when you have someone like me who's going to say, "This isn't right. This is against the law. And we're putting it on the record," it's going to be harder for corrupt individuals to continue their same path. I would be a roadblock to this easy way of pay to play. I would start with Councilmembers actually having to vote on each agenda item. Did you know that when a vote comes up, the board indicates an automatic YES, unless the member pushes the No button? If you went out for a bathroom break or stepped outside for a short minute and a vote is taken, you've automatically voted YES. Unreal, right? I would advocate that the councilmembers are required to physically push a button to vote YES or NO.

TNN: Regarding the backroom deals City Council is often accused of making with developers,  how would you find out when these deals are going on especially if they know you're a whistleblower? Wouldn't they work hard to keep that information from you?

GY: That may be true. I remember appearing before PLUM [Planning and Land Use Management] at City Hall about the Catalina Tower development.  It was a 27-story, 269-luxury units apartment project surrounded by one-, two- and three-story buildings. Although the Mayor and Councilmembers had approved it, there were serious errors in the approval process. I said, "This is against the law; you leave me no options but to take you to court." My group, The Environmental Justice Collaborative, along with Fix the City did sue. We won, the judge ruled against the city and forced a proper and full environmental impact review. A layperson coming out and protesting and appealing, doesn’t have as much weight and you can easily be ignored, as City Hall did when I protested. As a Councilmember, they're going to have to talk to me and engage with me. I'm going to continue to be a fierce opponent for corruption. And when I'm there, constantly asking for answers to my questions, it's going to be hard for them to ignore my concerns. And if they continue to ignore me over and over, I will ask things like, "Are you being bribed?" I have no qualms about saying this because we know that this is what happens inside City Hall. That is the culture that has been cultivated.

TNN: Do you feel that you have anyone on the City Council who will support these efforts?  Anybody who is sympathetic to your sensibility?

GY: I am of the belief that not every single person in that chamber is corrupt. I think there's an atmosphere of fear where you need to get along or else, but I'm not one of those people. I don't mind being the person bringing attention to something that seems wrong. So, I believe we're going to find the right people in there. And I think when I stand up,  others will stand up with me. I think right now, there are strong players who have kept everybody in check, but they will be termed out or taken out and we will have new fresh people who will do business differently.

TNN: I think especially since this corruption has exploded.

GY: Exactly. I'll come in at just the right time, a new fresh era.


TNN: So some, not all, people in the Black community have the experience of being disrespected by some, not all, Korean businesses that have set up shop in black communities. And that is an issue. Those people are concerned that you may not have their backs. I mean this is a real issue that's come up in discussions. So how do you address this concern?

GY: I'm not interested in being a councilwoman for one particular strata of income level or one ethnic community; I'm really in there to be a councilwoman for everybody. I understand that there are these beliefs by certain community members. And I’m confident I’ll be able to alter the current perceptions by bringing about positive change across a spectrum of communities. I’m aware of and really care about each person and the variety of difficult circumstances different people are in. I think my ability to really understand and have genuine conversations with people gives me confidence that we can change how things are done. I think I will have trust levels with Korean Americans so that I can ask them to do more for local communities. I would like to ask that the Korean business owners do more to engage the local community, make the local community people feel heard and listened to, and make changes that will benefit them and the community they serve. I have played the mediator role for misunderstandings that have occurred between people and communities. I’ve always been that middle bridge person because of being a first generation immigrant. Being a non-native English speaker, I became a more careful listener to people who didn’t speak English as their first language.    


TNN: What are the needs in this diverse CD10 community of Koreans, Orthodox Jews, Ethiopians, African Americans, white, wealthy, poor, that they all share?  That have not been getting the attention they deserve?

GY: Everybody would like good City services. And I said I would be very transparent. There are parts of the district that get their bulky items picked up within a day or two, and there are other places where it takes months. I’d like to take our wonderful 311 system and expand it so that you could go online and see the queue for all requests, not just your own.  I would work to amplify and make public the requests for services and services rendered. We want to know that the order of response is preserved.


TNN: Small businesses had been neglected during the outgoing CD representation. There were no channels or organized effort to reach out and help them. Now with coronavirus, many small businesses will go under or hang on by a thread. Do you have any ideas that focus on setting up a permanent resource within your office to aid small businesses in District 10? And how would it function?

GY: I think navigating City Hall is not easy and it should be. We need our small businesses to thrive because they're the ones that bring in the local jobs; therefore we're losing out if our small businesses go under. I want to make sure that we protect everybody. That not only means the folks who don't have a home, and the folks who are struggling to stay in their apartment, but also the small business owners who need to be taken care of at this time.

TNN: I talk to small businesses because of my business and I hear all the stories about what they're struggling with, and one of the common complaints is they have received very little support from current CD10 officials.  Some of the businesses like to put things out on the street to attract the drive-by traffic and then suddenly they were being visited by city officials and were told they couldn't do that.

GY: It’s ludicrous that we have different sets of rules for different parts of the City for the same thing. It's okay on certain streets like Vermont, but it's not okay on Pico? No, that's not fair. Look, I'm going to be responding and responsible to all my constituents. And that means small business owners, that means elderly, that means little children.  My office will definitely engage with and help the vulnerable.


TNN: The coronavirus is reshaping the landscape. I mean nobody knows where this is going or how it's going to end or the actual effect it's going to have on our communities and on tax income for the City. So it's a real unknown, the real wrench that's been thrown into everybody's work and it’s happening just as all these elections are about to come up. What are your thoughts about this? Have you been thinking about how it may reshape the way you campaign?

GY: This is the time when grassroots really is going to make the difference. Because it's all about how effective you are in reaching out to community members who are leaders who can speak on your behalf because the regular meet and greets are not going to be happening. We're going to need trusted precinct captains or block captains, the old fashioned method. And this is going to be just, "How quickly can I deploy my enthusiastic volunteers and supporters to help me to get to the people?"


TNN: What do you think are some of the most pressing environmental issues that City Council should be addressing?

GY: Oil drilling is a concern. Not fully closing the one on Adams.  The City should shut them down because they are not in compliance. And lack of enforcement is causing our people to be less healthy. Because of the coronavirus and people not driving as much, our air quality has improved. I'm hoping that one of the positives that comes out of this is we can do a lot more telecommuting work from home. That would be huge. There are environmental laws on the books that aren’t being enforced. So enforcement of these laws to protect the environment is something I will definitely pay attention to.


TNN: Let’s talk about the job the city is doing building homeless housing.

GY: The City does not spend our tax dollars wisely. We spend $700,000 in CD 10 to build one unit in one apartment complex, which on average has at least 40 units so it's about $28 million to build one apartment complex. Right? That's crazy. Now if you don't provide affordable housing in your building, then you can give to the City's housing fund who are only asking for like, I think a quarter million, $250,000. I'm like, "That doesn't even build one unit the way you guys are spending it." So why would the city agree and allow these developers to only pay $250,000 into the housing fund? Things don't add up. You can trust that when I get in there, I will fight for and ensure that the developers pay the amount of money that will actually build one unit of affordable housing. I think the City does a great job of saying, "Look, this is what we're doing and here we go." Yet they don't go back and look at the details and look at the cost and figure out how to be more efficient so it would result in some real cost savings. We have lost sight of the housing goals that need to be met. I worked in the nonprofit world where we weren’t working with limitless money. We had to look at the true reality of, "How much money do we have? And is it within our budget? And can we do this? And then how do we get creative? And what do we do? And how do we get support?" We need housing for everybody at every income level. Let's not limit our idea of what a home is supposed to be like. For some, a 200 square foot tiny house would be welcome and appreciated.

TNN: Yes, especially for transitional living.

GY: Exactly. Oh, and look at these new young, freshly out of college students who are now opting to be just like they were in college with four or six roommates in a one bedroom. And they each get tiny little spaces within it.

TNN: A Councilperson gets a substantial amount of money for what is referred to as discretionary funding.  It allows the councilperson to spend that money on whatever they choose or their community. It's very easy to  be pretty secretive about how these funds are spent. Would you be transparent with how your discretionary funds are spent?

GY: Yes. I'm going to be transparent in all the things I do. I also want the public to know how our money is spent. Not just for me but for everybody.  There is something wrong with the fact that each district gets different amounts of discretionary funds. You probably are aware they receive money for allowing billboards; they get money when they sell furniture, when city real estate is sold in their district. It's like, "Wait, shouldn't that just go to the city pot?" But it doesn't. It comes to the council office. So one district may get $5 million and another just may only be able to get $1 million. That doesn't seem fair. I know it's going to be hard for people to give up, if you're the district that gets the $5 million or $10 million a year versus the district that only gets $1 million or $2 million, it's going to be hard to get the guys who get the $5 million and $10 million to agree, "It should go into the same pot then divide it all equally."  If we share the pot and get it distributed evenly, that would be fair. I'm looking for some fairness. I think government should be much more responsive and government needs to be prepared for these big pandemics. I think COVID-19 has shown us how unprepared we are. I would like to be a councilwoman who goes in, takes care of the needs of the present, but also plans for future crises so that we're prepared. I think the example I'll give is one I learned from my father. He drilled it into me at an early age. It was the ice cube tray. It needed to always be full. I was not allowed to take one or two and not refill the tray. You would also never see my parents without enough gas in their tank. Some people take their gas all the way to the quarter line or to the empty line before refilling. In our family, if it went below half it was filled. Preparation is something that was definitely drilled into me as a child.


TNN: So, why should people choose you over Mark Ridley-Thomas?

GY: Because I'm the person who will roll up her sleeves and get to work and not be concerned about running for another office after I get sworn in to represent City Council District 10. My focus and my intentions are for the betterment of the district and its people, its residents, and not my political career.

To read full interview, Click Here



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Established in August of 2008 by writerartist Dianne V. Lawrence, The Neighborhood News covers the events, people, history, politics and historic architecture of communities throughout the Mid-City and West Adams area in Los Angeles Council District 10.

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