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Sam Yoon, Activist For Mayor08:46
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Boston mayoral candidate Sam Yoon accompanied the jazz band on the piano at a recent fundraiser for his campaign at a bar in Roxbury. (Bianca Vazquez Toness/WBUR)
Boston mayoral candidate Sam Yoon accompanied the jazz band on the piano at a recent fundraiser for his campaign at a bar in Roxbury. (Bianca Vazquez Toness/WBUR)

Sam Yoon is addressing a meeting of real-estate developers and non-profit workers. A group of young, well-educated professionals is a perfect crowd for Yoon. But he still starts the same way he always does.

"If I could just take you back to my birth," Yoon says to a crowd of about 75 people, who immediately laugh.

"Real briefly. In 1970. And I do say 1970 so those of you who are good at math, can tell I'm 39 years old," Yoon goes on. "And I say that because I still get carded when I go to a bar. I want you to know, and especially for those of you who are voting this year, I am not fresh out of college."

The next thing he typically talks about is his parents. How they left South Korea when he was a baby so Yoon would grow up in this country.

"We were growing up in central Pennsylvania. Yes, it's Amish country. Very few people who look like me," Yoon says. "So this is a natural question: Why did we come from Korea to this place? For our education."

Yoon went on to study at Princeton University. He taught middle school in Trenton, N.J., for a couple of years before going back to school at Harvard. Yoon studied economic development at the Kennedy School of Government, and then went to work at non-profits around Boston focused on affordable housing.

In 2005, he won a city-wide seat on the Boston City Council, thanks mainly to minority voters and white progressives.

RECENTLY, YOON'S CAMPAIGN PACKED SLADE'S BAR AND GRILL in Roxbury for a fundraiser. Yoon wowed supporters when he accompanied the jazz band on the piano. A virtual who's who of Black Boston showed up for the event, including attorney James Dilday, who lives in Dorchester and has supported Menino in the past. But not this time.

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"I think that Sam Yoon is showing the minority community that he is one of them," Dilday said. "That he feels the issues that they feel. He understands what their needs are, and that he can communicate with them in a way that Menino cannot."

Dilday says Menino has been entrenched for a long time and took the minority community of Boston for granted.

Voters like this should worry Mayor Tom Menino. He has long counted on African Americans, Latinos and lefties, according to Larry Dicara, a former long-time city councilor who continues to watch City Hall. He says Yoon could be the biggest threat to Menino.

"It's really a question of Sam Yoon being very similar to many of the people who are the non-traditional voters," DiCara says. "He is not from Boston. He is highly educated. He is left-of-center. These are folks who voted for Deval Patrick. They voted for Barack Obama. And the question is: Will they vote? And if they vote, they could vote for Sam Yoon."

Yoon appeals to young people and new voters, in part because his campaign tries to make the mayor look like a throwback to another era.

Yoon talks a lot about transparency and how we wants to decentralize power away from the mayor's office. Here are two good examples of that. He wants half of the school committee members to be elected, instead of all being appointed by the mayor. He also wants to abolish the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the quasi-governmental agency in charge of land development in Boston.

"The Boston Redevelopment Authority controls billions of dollars of real estate and land in our city and it is a a black box that is controlled by one person, by the mayor," Yoon says. "That institution is obsolete. And we should get in line with the rest of the country where cities have, it's called a 'planning department,' that's accountable to residents."

Yoon's colleagues from his days as an activist say he would be a collaborative mayor, and look for the best solutions regardless of where they come from.

Jeremy Liu worked closely with Yoon in 2002 at the Asian Community Development Corporation, a non-profit in Chinatown where Yoon was in charge of housing. Yoon spearheaded a campaign to get back an important piece of land from the Turnpike Authority to build affordable housing in Chinatown. He wrote legislation, lobbied Beacon Hill, and organized residents and business owners.

Yoon's campaign worked. "It's the biggest victory the community has had working together proactively for what it wants to see happen," Liu says.

According to Yoon, this victory changed his view of government. "This is when I realized that government played a major role that change and progress happens on a grassroots level," says Yoon.

YOON SOON RAN FOR CITY COUNCIL. But the inside of government hasn't been so comfortable. His colleagues still don't take Yoon very seriously. Attend a meeting and you see at least one councilor roll his eyes and turn the other way whenever Yoon stands up to speak.

Yoon admits to "rookie moves" in the beginning, but also complains that the group has no power. It's a place where many of the councilors went to grade school together, and some work closely for the mayor.

"There's one chief and 13 Indians, you know. That's how it is around here," says John Tobin, one of the 13 city councilors.

He says Yoon learned early on that good ideas don't get you very far on the council. During his first year, Yoon came up with a plan to help older residents when they sell their homes. He wanted to lower the interest rate on their property taxes.

"Sam filed a piece of legislation to reduce it to the state recommended 4 percent," Tobin says. "He got some good press on it. I signed on to it. The next week, at the next council meeting, there's an executive order from the mayor's office reducing the percentage from 8 percent to 4 percent.

"So, there's a little joke around here about when an idea is stolen by the office in the other corner of the fifth floor, you've been "Wi-Fied," Tobin says. "I remember standing up and saying, 'Sam, welcome to the club. You've officially been Wi-Fied.' "

Once that happened, Yoon quickly chose another strategy: Going back to the community. During that same first year in office, he started a sort of traveling road show on the city budget. He gave power-point presentations from Dorchester to Beacon Hill.

Yoon claims this as his most significant achievement during his four years on the council. This may have won big points with voters, but Tobin says it annoyed the other councilors. Many of them dismiss Yoon as naive and question his moxie, running for mayor after just two terms on the council.

Tobin admires Yoon's independence, but says he can't imagine him as mayor. He considers him far too wonky. But he also says Yoon knows what voters want.

"You run at-large for the first time and win, that's quite an accomplishment," Tobin says. "Michael Flaherty didn't do it, John Connolly didn't do it, Felix Arroyo didn't do it the first time. And this kid did it.

"You got some people who come in with name recognition, they've been around the block a few times, they worked at agencies, they've got a thousand first cousins," Tobin goes on. "And Sam came in with none of that. His name recognition was zero, except outside of Chinatown and maybe his street in Dorchester."

Yoon says he's heard it all before, that he's "too green", and not ready for the job. If voters want career politicians, Yoon says they should vote for Menino or City Councilor Michael Flaherty.

However, if voters want someone with direct experience working in schools and creating affordable housing — someone who will transform Boston — Sam Yoon says he's the only choice.


This program aired on August 3, 2009.

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