When a district has been consistently Republican for almost the entirety of a century, it takes a great deal of optimism and passion for a Democrat to make a substantial run for Congress as Roy Cho is doing in New Jersey’s 5th District.
The odds seem stacked against Cho: His opponent, Scott Garrett, is
a six-term incumbent; Garrett also has more than $2.6 million already on hand to fund his campaign while Cho has around $400,000. Cho is also only 32—currently, only 7% of the House of Representatives is under 40.
Despite his age, Cho has found time to work in both the state and federal government and the private sector. After his graduation from Brown University with a degree in political science, Cho worked as an aide under then NJ Governor Jim McGreevey. From there, he went on to work as special assistant to Jamie Fox, then Deputy Executive Director of the Port Authority. Cho later worked full time, while securing his juris doctorate from Georgetown University, as correspondence director for Byron Dorgan, who, at the time, was a senator from North Dakota.
“I would go to work in the day full time and then I would go to my class and then I would come back at night to finish my work,” Cho said. “I remember leaving the Senate halls at 2-3 in the morning sometimes and it was just always so amazing, fascinating and inspiring for me to be able to walk out of that building and just look at it and think about all the incredible decisions that were impacting people all over the world that were happening based on every relationship and handshake that people have.”
Cho noted the disconnect between America’s existence as the most powerful country in the world and the little everyday things it did like answering every single question or comment sent in by constituents and sending birthday cards to North Dakotans turning 100. This is, for him, is “something that at a very simple level kind of reminds me of the greatness of what government can do and what government can be.”
This was only a reinforcement of the idea of government he had learned as a child. Cho and his parents immigrated to the U.S. when he was just one. His mother worked at a grocery while his father worked at a warehouse. The manager of the warehouse told Cho’s father that they wanted to open a branch in Jersey City, and that he could manage it if he was able to secure a bank loan.
As a recent immigrant, he had no credit, making a bank loan an impossibility. After some research, Cho’s father drove down to Trenton, NJ and met with Richard Font of the Economic Development Authority. He made his pitch about why the warehouse was important for Jersey City and Font, impressed, promised to drive Cho’s father from bank to bank until he was able to secure a loan.
“So, from a very young age, my parents always made a point to my sister and I that what happens in government at the local, state and federal level matters. There’s a human, tangible impact to what happens or doesn’t happen in government,” Cho said.
Cho made his interest in running for office known early on in his career, but Fox advised that he work in the private sector first to expand his scope of experience and knowledge. Cho first joined Dewey and LeBoeuf as an associate and then Kirkland and Ellis, from which he is now on leave as a mergers and acquisitions and private equity attorney. The varied employment has taught Cho to take a nuanced approach to politics.
“To say that we are going to make policy decisions based upon ideology and partisan politics over what just makes common sense and pragmatic sense is very shortsighted and ultimately, I think, very dangerous for the future of our country,” Cho said. “I think if we’re going to continue to remain relevant and continue to remain powerful, it’s important for us to bring that nuanced approach.”
Garrett’s law degree is one of the few similarities he has with Cho. Another is their position on Israel. Cho considers himself a strong friend and ally of Israel for two primary reasons. The first is the similarities he sees between both Jewish Americans and Korean Americans and South Korea and Israel.
Cho’s first major exposure to the Jewish community was in fourth grade—most of his friends from then through high school were Irish, Italian or Jewish. He has been to a tremendous number of bar and bat mitzvahs, and he has since noticed that both the Korean and Jewish American communities emphasize family, education and hard work.
The second major reason Cho is a major Israel supporter is because he firmly believes Israel is the United States’ strongest friend and ally in the Middle East. The “aggressive and robust” support he believes Israel deserves comes down to financial aid and the resumption of sanctions against Iran.
“It’s in Iran’s interest to have nuclear power…We have to make sure that Iran is going to act against its own self-interests and what’s worked so far is sanctions and I think the temporary reprieve that we have on sanctions right now is frankly dangerous,” Cho said. “Despite a friendly tweet that goes out, it [the possibility of Iran enriching uranium] poses an existential threat to Israel.”
By Aliza Chasan