RICHMOND — Two little words. They looked like an easy way to make a lot of people happy.
On the campaign trail, Terry McAuliffe (D) said that as governor, he’d make sure that new school textbooks note that the Sea of Japan is also known as the East Sea.
The promise was important to Northern Virginia’s large Korean American community, who see the Sea of Japan designation as a painful relic of Japanese occupation.
But the pledge has turned into a huge headache and partisan showdown for the new governor. It leaves McAuliffe with an unhappy choice: angering one of the state’s largest trade partners (Japan) or alienating a key Northern Virginia voting bloc (Koreans).
It has also given Republicans, who’ve become angry at what they see as the governor’s increasingly combative agenda, a chance to make him sweat a little. McAuliffe’s advisers have privately asked lawmakers to kill the legislation, according to four people close to the situation. But the GOP plans to pass the measure and send it to the governor’s desk, forcing him to take a stand — even if it’s on the name of a sea on the other side of the world.
“It’s time for them to learn you can’t please everybody all the time,” said Del. Peter F. Farrell (R-Henrico). “It’s time to do the job.”
The proposed textbook change was expected to be an obscure affair, the sort of quirky niche issue that pops up every session, enlivening the overwhelmingly staid work of legislating with unexpected subjects like pickle safety and pet burial.
But the measure ignites passions among Korean Americans who lived under Imperial Japan, said Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), who is married to a Korean American. He recalled how his father-in-law was given a Japanese name when he attended school in Korea during World War II.
“This is big stuff,” Petersen said. “A lot of people who survived this — not only are they alive, but they’re living in Annandale.”
Petersen also taught English for years in Japan and expressed his love for that country. But he said Koreans are more passionate about restoring the East Sea name.
“I don’t think the average Japanese citizen cares about it,” he said. “Korean Americans, because of the fact that their country was subordinated and colonized, and [they] fought back to reclaim their identity, they tend to be conscious of those issues.”
Besides, he said, “In Virginia, there are a lot of Koreans. There are very few Japanese.”
Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate teamed up with companion bills decreeing that in new textbooks, the body of water that separates Japan and the Korean Peninsula would be identified as both the Sea of Japan and the East Sea.
The bills, which attracted nearly 20 co-sponsors, seemed like easy if offbeat sells in the General Assembly. Then Japan weighed in.
Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae sent a letter to McAuliffe in late December, even before the governor’s swearing-in, warning that the dual name designation could harm trade relations.
The Embassy of Japan hired four McGuireWoods lobbyists to press their case, arguing that the General Assembly was stumbling into a matter of foreign affairs. Last week, the embassy dispatched Sasae to Richmond to sit down with McAuliffe and legislative leaders.
“Japan has been the second largest source of foreign direct investment in Virginia, with almost $1 billion dollars in the last five years,” Sasae’s letter said. “Around 250 Japanese companies are investing in Virginia, employing 13,000 Virginians in 2012. Japan has also been a major export market to Virginia (2012: $475 million). . . . I fear, however, that the positive cooperation and the strong economic ties between Japan and Virginia may be damaged if the bills are to be enacted.”
Not to be outdone, Korea plans to send its ambassador to the Capitol on Thursday.
Korea does not have the same economic weight to throw around in Richmond. Where Japan is Virginia’s second-biggest investor, Korea does not even make the top 20. Japan is the 12th largest buyer of Virginia agricultural exports, while Korea comes in around 30th.
But unlike Japan, Korea has a large and politically organized community of expatriates in Virginia. They packed the Senate gallery last week to see the bill clear that chamber, and dozens attended a subcommittee meeting Wednesday, when the House version stayed alive only through unusual parliamentary gymnastics. It returns to the subcommittee for reconsideration Thursday.
Even if the bill does not win the subcommittee’s support, it is within the purview of the chairman of the full Education Committee to revive the bill. Republicans, who have long seen McAuliffe as capable of blithely telling an audience whatever it wants to hear, said that’s exactly what they plan to make happen so that the bill eventually winds up on McAuliffe’s desk.
“We plan to make McAuliffe make that decision,” said one Republican, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss private party strategy.
McAuliffe, in writing, in community forums and on Korean TV during the campaign, promised to support the joint designation of the sea, as did his Republican rival, then-attorney general Ken Cuccinelli II. McAuliffe has not publicly stepped away from his East Sea pledge, but his office has declined to take a stand on the legislation, saying only that the governor will review it if and when it gets to his desk.
“We don’t focus a lot on legislation that has yet to pass,” said spokesman Brian Coy. “There are thousands of bills. . . . When and if the time comes to evaluate it, he will do so carefully.”
Some Korean American leaders, already furious that McAuliffe did not appoint any Asians to his Cabinet, say the governor has backed away from his pledge. “It’s a little bit shocking,” said Peter Kim, who leads the group Voice of Korean Americans. “The Korean community is very upset.”
Republicans, who have been trying to make their party more attractive to minorities, think the kerfuffle gives them an opening that could help in this year’s U.S. Senate race and the 2016 presidential contest.
“He’s in the middle of an international incident right now, and he’s backed into a corner,” said Jason Chung, the Republican National Committee’s Asian and Pacific American affairs communications director. “This will affect Hillary Clinton, because they will remember Terry making promises and Terry being Hillary’s primary surrogate in Virginia. This will make them think twice about Secretary Clinton.”
But some legislators say McAuliffe was wise to take a second look at something that sounded like a good idea “in the throes of a campaign, [when] you haven’t had the time to really do a full analysis of something,” as Del. Joseph D. Morrissey (D-Henrico) put it.
McAuliffe’s staff has been lobbying legislators to kill the measures, focusing its efforts on the House now that the Senate has already approved its version, according to four people familiar with the efforts but not authorized to speak publicly about them.
“They’re taking the bill very seriously, yet they don’t want to take an official position,” Farrell said of the administration.
Coy said that the administration was “monitoring the issue, but I don’t think a great deal more than that. We are monitoring a lot of bills, as you might expect. . . . This is the General Assembly’s decision to make.”