At 21, U-Michigan senior sets sights beyond exams to civic duty
By LYNDA LIN, Assistant Editor, Pacific Citizen
Eugene Kang has his mind set on becoming a city council member this summer. For the Aug. 2 election in his hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Kang is working with a campaign manager and volunteer staff at campaign headquarters (his house) to make signs and go door-to-door. He tells voters he champions affordable housing options and vehemently opposes instating more taxes.
He also wants to reform the University of Michigan’s reputation, which he says suffers from headline-grabbing incidences like fraternity hazing and sorority marijuana scandals. If elected, he wants to improve the communication between the university and the city.
Kang is 21. He is a senior at the University of Michigan majoring in English and Philosophy. During his summer break, he’s not on vacation or parked in front of PlayStation II — he’s planning to beat out Stephen Rapundalo, a former Republican mayoral candidate who later changed sides to become a Democrat, to represent his section of the city, Ward 2.
If elected, Kang will be the first Korean American council member in his municipality.
Kang says his opponent is his “polar opposite” and in almost every sense, Rapundalo is. The former Republican is chair of the city’s park advisory commission, a homeowners association president and a member of the citizens advisory committee.
But Kang says he’s not intimidated.
“This guy has the right kind of background for [city council] … he’s a lot older and he has a lot of experience,” said Kang. “But I have a burning desire to do this.”
“I really love Ann Arbor. I love the vibe. That’s what really spurred me [to run]. What better way to give back to the community?” he added.
So he formed a campaign led by a thirty-something law student, collected enough signatures to get his name on the ballot and then began persuading voters to look past his young age and inexperience, which he knew would be a problem.
“I was bracing myself for that [attitude]. ‘21-years-old? Grow up a little bit and we’ll think about it!’” he said with a laugh. He knows that when he knocks on voters’ doors, he has to change their minds.
“They’re thinking ‘He’s younger than my own son! I don’t even trust my kids with money and here I’m supposed to trust him with the city’s money?’”
But so far he said residents have been very supportive.
“People have been saying that it’s great that a young person in Ann Arbor is interested in participating in civic duty.”
Residents most frequently ask what he can bring to the table and Kang tells them that when they go to vote in August, they are not voting on experience they are voting on a perspective that’s different from the dynamics on the current city council.
“Ann Arbor has a homogenous city council with members who are career city servants,” said Kang. “I am asking for a measure of trust.”
The city council is divided into five wards representing each section of the city. The race for Ward 2 in August marks the end of Republican representation in the city. Ward 2’s current council member, Mike Reid, was the lone Republican. He decided not to run for reelection when his term runs out this summer.
The timing was perfect for Kang whose civic sensibility was awakened last summer during an eight-week Washington, D.C. internship where he realized that he was well informed about state and national issues, but not local. He threw himself into research about Ann Arbor, the city where his parents settled after leaving Korea.
At the University of Michigan, Kang said he has always been politically active. Last year, the university and the city collided over a proposed couch ban ordinance, which if passed by the city council, would have put an end to university students’ love of lounging on their porches. When the students made statements to the city council supporting their couches, Kang said council members were condescending.
“They talked to us like we were three years old. ‘Thanks for sharing your concerns. Let the big boys handle this,’” he said. “That’s unacceptable.” Especially in a city where almost 25 percent of the population is between 18-24.
The couch ban never went into effect and then Kang started thinking, what if young people could play a role in shaping legislation and not just protesting it?
“Eugene is great. He is incredibly bright,” said University of Michigan Professor Marvin Krislov who taught Kang in two courses. “I think it’s great that a young person has gotten involved and he’s also gotten other students excited about his campaign.”
“He has an advantage having grown up in Ann Arbor. He’s very thoughtful and perceptive. I think he’s ready and I know it can be done,” he added.
But not all skeptics have been convinced.
Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje met Kang for the first time recently at the city’s July 4th parade and while he echoes the sentiment that having a young person aspiring for the city council is exciting, he thinks “21 is pushing it a little bit on the young side.”
“Most folks in the city council come with more seasoning,” said Hieftje, pointing out that most council members serve on city boards and commissions before making the transition to the city council.
Win or lose this August, Kang said he’s showing the Asian Pacific American community the importance of being civic minded. He sees an importance in getting the APA community to feel like a legitimate political group.
“There is a need for [APAs] to be more visible. Whether I win or not, the importance is making people see the political process as a possible avenue for change,” he said.
The plan seems to be working so far. Some of his parents’ friends who didn’t even vote in the presidential election have told him that they are excited about casting their votes in August.
And if he emerges victorious, Kang even has a plan to balance civic duty with his studies.
“The luckiest part for me is that you’re only in class 2-3 hours a day. There’s still almost 14 hours of useable time.”
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