James K.E. Kim is one of the newer faces among the would-be movers and shakers J in District of Columbia politics. In October, he became Mayor Marion Barry's advisor on Oriental affairs, and since February, Kim has been attending the mayor's cabinet meetings. Two weeks ago, when Barry held a birthday party and fund-raiser in Georgetown, Kim sold 100 tickets at $20 each to Asians in the city.
Kim and others in Washington's Asian community say they have taken this new step into D.C. politics because they are concerned about the future of Chinatown in the wake of the construction of the convention center. They also are concerned about the rise in crime as more Koreans open corner stores around the city and come face to face with street crime. And mostly, Kim says, this group is concerned about getting a share of the wealth being generated in the city by development.
The main topic of conversation among the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos and Vietnamese on the five tiers of the gilded Georgetown Park shopping mall was whether Barry would support changes in the Minority Contracting Act, which sets aside as much as 25 percent of all city contracts for recognized minorities. Barry and the City Council changed the act in 1980, redefining "minority" in a way that excludes Asians (as well as Hispanics from Spain). That change had the effect of keeping Asians out of the bidding for city contracts in the sheltered, noncompetitive market intended to help minority businesses.
More importantly, the change in the law also took Asians out of position to participate as minority contractors on projects awarded to developers by the city's urban renewal agency, which usually requires that minorities get some jobs and contracts as the project is built.
The feeling among city officials at the time the law was changed was that Spanish and Asian Americans were not suffering discrimination in the business world equal to that encountered by American blacks and people from Central America, South America and the Caribbean.
That decision cost the Asians and Spanish money. Ronald Yee, of the Y&M Steel Co., in Millersville, Md., said his company lost a contract last week on a project at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue because it no longer qualifies as a minority. He says it could lose another contract this week.
"It's totally ridiculous," Yee said. "Either you have a law for minorities or forget the whole thing. There isn't a law in all the federal government that defines minorities without including Orientals--not the Department of Transportation, not the Small Business Administration."
"As a precedent," he said, "it allows other people with different interests to start efforts elsewhere to eliminate Orientals and it hurts our credibility in the marketplace. Some contractors don't know if it's District law alone or if the federal government may follow."
"It insults us," said Kim, the mayor's unpaid advisor on Oriental affairs, who works as a minority development specialist for Metro.
"There are 124,000 of us (Asians) in this area, 60,000 in the city," Kim said. "Hispanics have only 70,000. So why discriminate against us?"
If Barry changes his position on excluding Asians from the minority contracting act, Kim promises that he can attract money and support for Barry. The mayor, however, says he has yet to make up his mind.
"I'm looking at it," Barry said. "All constituencies have their own needs and own particular problems. I just have to try to keep them balanced off. That's the democratic way of life. If I, as a good politican now, can get them some help, nothing under the table, that's all legitimate."
Kim says he is willing to wait, but not forever. Other candidates are courting Asian support.
Harrison Lee, head of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, an umberella group for 21 other Chinese organizations, says the mayor also has other issues to address before he gets money or support from the Asian community. The number one issue is crime.
Chinatown restaurateurs, Lee said, feel Barry has not done enough to protect them from robbers. Similarly, Koreans, who are operating a growing number of corner stores in the city, feel police protection is inadequate and want the mayor to make their safety behind the store counter a priority.
On the plus side, Barry has pledged that half of the units in a new housing unit being built in Chinatown will be set aside for Chinese senior citizens and most of the rest for low-income people in the Chinatown area. Chinatown and its people bore the brunt of displacement caused by building the convention center.
A simple "yes" on the contracting issue could win Barry political friends in the city's Asian community, which the 1980 census tallied at 6,636-- considerably smaller than Kim's estimate. Barry then would have to explain to other potential political friends in the black and Hispanic community why the rationale used to change the law earlier had suddenly become passe. In politics, making new friends can be a risky business.