For all of its political fervor, New York City is still a place where it is possible for state lawmakers to toil in relative obscurity for years. Such was the case with Ron Kim, a five-term Democratic Assemblymember from Queens whose clash with Governor Andrew Cuomo over the state's underreporting of nursing home deaths has catapulted him into national view.
Reports of what Kim described as a threatening phone call from the governor have given way to a broader (and long-simmering) discussion of Cuomo's aggressive political tactics, as well as brought added urgency to the effort to strip him of the emergency powers he has held during the pandemic. By all accounts, Cuomo, a three-term Democrat whose popularity had soared last year during his streak of daily coronavirus briefings, is now facing a crisis that could damage his legacy and political future. He has called the attacks on him politically motivated and accused Kim of lying about their phone conversation.
Kim now finds himself on the other end of the spectrum. The 41-year-old legislator, who last week self-deprecatingly referred to himself as a "nobody from Flushing," has wasted little time in grabbing the spotlight. He has penned two op-eds in Newsweek and the Guardian calling for Cuomo's impeachment and a full investigation. And in a sign of his newly minted national profile, he said that former members of Bernie Sanders's presidential campaign recently reached out to him and are now advising him on his media strategy. The list of lawmakers who have joined his call for an investigation includes Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
On Wednesday, he upped the ante, holding a press conference with several elected officials in front of City Hall demanding that Congress open an official investigation into Cuomo. Hours earlier, a former aide accused the governor of sexually harassing her over a three year period.
"Ron Kim has a moment that comes to few people," said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran political consultant. "He can make himself a larger figure than an assemblyman."
Mike McKee, a prominent tenant rights activist who serves as the treasurer of the Tenants Political Action Committee, said he was already planning to approach his board about making contributions to Kim's campaign. The PAC raised nearly $120,000 for Democratic candidates in the state legislature last year, a lower than usual amount due to the pandemic, he said.
"He's been really terrific on tenant rights," McKee said of Kim, adding: "He's grown into a real leader on progressive issues."
Like many elected officials in New York, Kim has shifted left, which some view as opportunistic but which he has attributed to his political evolution. In 2018, he notably joined the flank of progressive led by Ocasio-Cortez to oppose the development deal that would have brought Amazon to Long Island City. He has also fought to decriminalize sex work in New York City, an issue that dovetails with his support of the defund the police movement.
In 2015, Kim came under scrutiny in a NY Times story for seemingly retracting his support for a law protecting nail salon workers from wage fraud. The Times cited donations from nail salon owners as the reason for his change of heart, an allegation that Cuomo raised in the wake of his recent dispute with Kim. At the time, Kim vigorously disputed the story, saying he was objecting to certain emergency regulations written by the governor's office apart from the law that required salon owners to purchase special wage bonds.
To date, his forays into citywide politics have not been successful.
His very first campaigning experience came in 2009, when he tried running for the City Council seat of his former mentor John Liu. He never made the ballot. "It was one of the most excruciating things I ever went through," he told Gothamist this week in an interview.
In 2019, he ran in a very crowded race for public advocate that was ultimately won by Jumaane Williams.
The defeat did not stop him from asserting himself in the mayor's race. Through his endorsement of Andrew Yang, Kim has positioned himself as an elected official with potential influence on city politics should Yang win.
Sheinkopf said Kim could try to forge a coalition among young progressive voters, including Asian Americans who are becoming a growing political force in New York City.
However, Kim, who is the first Korean American to be elected to the state legislature, is wary of identity politics.
"It's easy to show up and use my identity and keep the status quo," he said. "It's much harder to say that there is something fundamentally broken about the economy."
Kim was noncommittal about his political aspirations. He and his wife, Alison Tan, who unsuccessfully ran for City Council in 2017, have three young daughters. "It will depend on where we are as a family," he said.
In many ways, Kim has been primed for the political stage more than most. Politics has been his only career.
"Ron is by no stretch a nobody from Flushing," said Liu. Kim arrived at Liu's City Council office as a college student, not in pursuit of a job but with a list of complaints he had collected from the community. Liu decided to give him an internship.
The unflagging immigrant work ethic, both its promise and its futility, is a reoccurring theme in Kim's biography. He arrived in Flushing at the age of seven from South Korea. His family was sponsored by an uncle named Son Kim who had made his way through dental school but for lack of job opportunities wound up joining the U.S. Army. He eventually rose to the rank of captain and along the way became a staunch Republican. In what now seems like a progressive joke, Ron, an only child, was named after Ronald Reagan.
Kim's father was an engineer by training but he decided he would go into the grocery store business, a well-trodden path for Korean immigrants. The family's first store was on 72nd Street and York Avenue in Manhattan.
"That’s where I grew up," Kim recalled. His parents worked nonstop, he said. He slept in the car, while they drove to and from Queens, and to Hunts Point to buy produce.
When he was in the sixth grade, someone suggested to his parents that it would better to move to Riverdale, an affluent Bronx neighborhood lined with stately homes and good schools. Soon after he started public school, a tutor suggested that Ron take a test to get into one of the private schools in the area.
He got accepted into Riverdale Country School, where the tuition was in the tens of thousands of dollars. But his father, who by then had opened a second grocery store in Spanish Harlem, made a commitment to this son that he would pay for everything up until college.
They gained entry into an exclusive club, with no understanding of the breaks afforded for families like theirs. "We didn't even know there was financial aid," Kim said. On occasions when they were late on their payments, his father would send him to the school with an envelope stuffed with cash.
His family scrimped and saved, subsisting on ramen at times, he said. While many of his classmates had homes on Park Avenue and the Hamptons, he lived in a small one-bedroom apartment. Throughout his time at Riverdale, Kim never invited a single friend to his home. In hindsight, he said, "I don’t think any school was worth that much."
After he graduated from Hamilton College, which he attended on a full scholarship, he accepted a job for $24,000 a year as a community liaison for State Assemblyman Mark Weprin. He worked 70 hours a week; he attended every community meeting and got to know the stakeholders, decision makers, and how policies are made. It was government 101.
"The moment you deliver results, it’s one of the most gratifying moments," he said "It is the feeling that can never be replicated in any kind of finance or private sector job."
Like many of the immigrants he represents, Kim owes his foothold in the country to the family member who came before him. In April, Kim's uncle Son died in a Queens nursing home. The suspected cause was COVID.
Kim became one of the earliest to raise concerns about the state's nursing home policy, which allowed facilities to readmit patients that were sent to hospitals with coronavirus. He and others have argued that the decision paved the way for outbreaks in nursing homes. Cuomo and his health commissioner have maintained the infections were brought in by staff members.
After a week of press interviews and television appearances, Kim seemed weary. On Monday, he sensed that members of his party wanted to move on rather than pursue a confrontation with the governor. During a Zoom conference, two lawmakers accused him of being the bully rather than Cuomo, he said. He logged off after that.
He insisted he is not interested in pursuing a "takedown of Cuomo." Rather, he wants to continue shedding light on the state's nursing home fatalities, which now stands at more than 15,000. He said his focus has always been on the impacted families.
"I’m not going to have this platform forever," he said. "And I plan on seizing it to give voice to these people."
UPDATE: The original version of the story stated that Kim said he did not plan to run for another term in the Assembly. He has since said he did not intend to suggest that. McKee also later revised the amount the Tenants Political Action Committee raised last year. He said the amount was closer to $120,000 and was for all candidates in the state legislature, not just the Assembly.