An evening with Sam Yoon at DFA Boston

I first met Sam Yoon on a Wednesday night in January, 2005, almost a year before his election to the Boston City Council.  He and another new candidate for City Council, John Connolly, addressed the monthly meeting of DFA Boston and took questions.  I remember coming away from that discussion very impressed with Yoon: with his passion; his deep understanding of Boston development issues and the BRA; his ability to speak about religion in a way that inspires those who don’t share his, rather than turn them off.  I had not yet decided to support him, and asked him some questions he didn’t know the answer to.  I even had some doubt about whether, when he told me he’d try to learn more about the issues I asked him about and get tell me later what he decided, he really meant it.

Over the course of the year, Sam Yoon attended three more DFA Boston meetings, more than any other candidate.  He answered all of my questions.  He gained our trust, our support, and eventually, the endorsement of Democracy for America, our national parent organization.

A year later, on the first Wednesday of January, 2006, Sam Yoon came back to DFA Boston for the fifth time.  He had just been inaugurated to the City Council, and we spent nearly an hour discussing Boston city issues with him.  I took notes…

[ Come to the April DFA Boston meeting this evening, 7pm, at the USES Harriet Tubman House, 566 Columbus Ave @ Mass Ave, accessible by #1 bus, orange line (Mass Ave stop), and green line E (Symphony stop) ]

Yoon began with a short talk about where he sees himself, and what he plans to do.  As a brand new Councilor, he feels that he’s not ready to make promises yet.  Everyone he talks to wants something, and he worries that if he’s not careful, he’d spread himself too thin.  He wants to focus on the things he thinks are most important.

He came into office with these priorities in mind:

  • Housing: In particular, BRA reform, which is something he talked a lot about that first January a year earlier.  He’d like to start out privately, talking to people and figuring out what he can accomplish, before making any public pronouncements.
  • Schools: Pilot Schools seem to be a good compromise between charter schools and public schools.  They allow the city to experiment with schools based on themes or with different policies, but keep them in the public school funding structure.  The teachers union is negotiating a new contract, and he’s been talking to the Boston Teachers Union president about this.

    [ Update: In mid-February, an agreement was reached between Boston and the BTU, clearing the way for pilot schools. ]

  • Public Safety: He was initially skeptical about calls to hire “N more” police officers, teachers, and so on.  Doing so takes resources.  But after looking into it, he’s convinced that having more police offices, in and of itself, really makes a big difference.  He mentioned Freakanomics, which presents data supporting this view.

    In response to a question from DFA member Laurie, he talked about “unpacking the layers” of crime statistics.  For example, crime as a whole may go down but the rate of homicides may stay the same.  He acknowledged that it’s a complex issue.

So, the big issues for Sam Yoon are housing, education, and safety… and the overarching issue that affects them all: the budget.  He’d like to learn the budget, and more than that, he wants to be able to explain it clearly and simply to citizen groups.  He wants to help the residents of Boston understand the city’s budget.

Then it was time for questions.  The first question was about (*drumroll*) … the blue laws.  You may recall there was a bit of excitement when Super 88 was forced to close on Christmas.  Yoon thought the herald story may have overplayed him a little bit.  His feeling is that there is a legitimate constituent concern, and we should have a conversation about how best to address it.  He understands the role of laws mandating days off, and he understands the legitimate interests of different cultures in observing their own holidays.  He told us a story he had heard about a Rabbi from Brookline who lobbied to allow wine sales on Sunday, by talking to each and every legislator one by one, until the crafted an exception for the Jewish businesses in Brookline (many of them are open Sunday and closed Saturday).

[ Note: at this point in my notes, I wrote "preparing for issue campaigns...?" but I'm not sure what I was referring to. ]

Fran from the Boston ward 5 committee asked the next question: We’ve got a list of things the mayor wants from the state legislature, but not how we can help make those things happen.  Sam spoke about home rule petitions, and how surprised he was as he learned just how much power the state has over cities in Massachusetts.

Hyoun asked him about his relationships with his endorsers, now that he’s on the council.  Yoon said it seems everyone wants to meet with him, not just the people who endorsed him, and he’s happy for that.  He’d like to work with everyone.  He mentioned that state senator Diane Wilkerson had come to his inauguration party, and he’s worked with her before.  Sal DiMasi, the speaker of the house, had been asking him to come meet, and he was planning to do that soon.

Doug asked about “school choice”, and the system Boston uses to assign children to schools.  Could an improved system save money?  Yoon said this issue is “as political as you can get”, with quickly established camps.  One camp supports what they call “neighborhood schools”, which in practical terms means to increase the walk zone slots at each school from 50 to 75.  That would mean each school would get more children from nearby (the “walk zone”) and fewer slots would be available for children from other parts of the city.  As of January, Yoon didn’t support any such reform, due to lack of information.  For example, how many schools are currently oversubscribed for walk zone slots?  How are children distributed with the current system?  We have no data beyond the anecdotal, and without data, an informed position is impossible.  He plans to find out what data is available but hard to find, and work on getting the city to do more research.

Andrew asked, how can we in DFA help you (Sam Yoon) to help us give you strength to accomplish a progressive agenda.  In response, Yoon said, “see where my votes came from: who elected me?”  He showed us charts his campaign had been producing of the vote breakdown from different parts of the city.  It’s surprising how many votes come from South Boston – they know what it means to vote.  Percentagewise, he may have done better in Chinatown, but he actually got a lot more votes from South Boston.  His campaign hadn’t crunched the Roxbury numbers yet, but he imagined it would be similar.  DFA should concentrate on elections, to build momentum, win, and take credit.  That is the path to political strength.

Before he decided to run for office, he had worked with members of New Majority, and they wanted to focus on issues.  Sam disagreed: he thought it was critical to get behind candidates.  He was inspired by the strength the movement got through electing Felix Arroyo.  That may have figured into his decision to run, himself.

Also, we should come to city council meetings!

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Thu 27 Apr 7:00 AM