Community Organizer Hailie Kim Takes on School Defunder Julie Won in Contested Queens Council Race

Daughter of Korean immigrants emphasizes public education and her opponent’s vote to cut school funding by more than $400 million.

John Tarleton Feb 20, 2023

City Councilmember Julie Won ran as a progressive when she won a crowded 15-candidate primary in 2021 to represent District 26 in Queens. To the surprise of many of Won’s supporters, she voted last year to back Mayor Eric Adams’ austerity budget that included hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to public school funding. 

Will Won’s constituents hold her alliance with the Mayor against her? Or, will she be able to coast to re-election on the power of incumbency and the advantages in fundraising and endorsements it confers?

Hailie Kim is counting on the former. She finished eighth in the 2021 primary and is back for a second try after stepping down from her position as a community organizer with the Minkwon Center to enter the race. A daughter of working-class Korean immigrants and a democratic socialist, Kim cites Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s meteoric rise as inspiring her to believe that someone like herself could run for public office and win.  

The 26th district, which encompasses parts of Long Island City, Astoria, Sunnyside and Woodside, has been a bastion of support for New York’s electoral left in recent years. It has overwhelmingly backed AOC in her congressional runs and also helped send socialists Zohran Mamdani and Kristen Gonzalez to the state legislature. Kim, who attended PS 150 and the Baccalaureate School for Global Education in Queens, has put her support for public education at the center of her campaign 

Protesters rally outside City Hall on June 13, 2022 shortly before City Council voted to approve a city budget that cut $469 million from the Department of Education while fully funding the NYPD. Sue Brisk.

The Indypendent: Why are you running for the seat in District 26? What do you think is lacking in the current representation the district is receiving?

Hailie Kim: I’m running to push back against the Eric Adams austerity budget. In the current city budget, the police budget was increased at the expense of more than $400 million in cuts to education and millions of dollars more in cuts to parks and libraries. And this budget was passed two weeks early. Even after mid-year adjustments, my neighborhood’s elementary school was cut by a million dollars. 

As you were saying, Mayor Eric Adams and City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams (no relation) reached a handshake agreement on an austerity budget on Friday June 10,  and it was pushed through City Council by a vote of 44-6 on Monday June 13. How would you have handled that situation differently?

I think being bullied into passing a budget two weeks early is ridiculous. I think there needs to be more internal organizing on the Council. There needs to be more co-governance with organizations like DSA and the Working Families Party to ensure that council members are actually doing their job. If a student of mine hands in an exam a half hour earlier than I gave them time for, I tell them to look it over again because something might be missing.

Kim hopes to be the next democratic socialist elected from Western Queens.

Tell us about your background and what you do today.

I moved here to the district with my family from South Korea at the age of five. It was in 1998, during the economic crisis in Asia. Our family was severely impacted by it. And as an adult, it’s very clear that the impact came from unchecked crony capitalism. When we got here, my mom started working as a nail tech. She is still a nail tech and my dad works as a home-care attendant. 

Working as an educator at CUNY-Hunter College, I saw the economic disparities among our students. When I started working with housing organizers, I learned to organize and to be an advocate for things like jus- cause eviction and was arrested multiple times at protests. 

I also organized to implement a Hate Free Zone initiative. I was the campaign director. We had rallies and events to bring communities together in response to the occasion or attack. But we realized it was imperative that we think of hate not just as being anti-Asian but whether it’s sexism, whether it’s homophobia, transphobia, whether it’s racism against different people of color, it was imperative that we all as a community get together in order to prevent hate from happening — and understand that solutions to to hate don’t come from policing.

What did it mean to you to recently have members from the progressive Jewish community join you at a vigil in Sunnyside for the victims of two recent mass shootings in California?

It just really encapsulates the spirit of solidarity we all need in moments like this and beyond. I think we can’t just get together to mourn when bad things happen. We need to actively be working on a day-to-day basis to prevent these bad things from happening. Gun violence should not still be an issue in the U.S. And we should have more access to mental-health-care centers than guns, but that is sadly not the case.

For people who aren’t familiar with your corner of Queens, how would you describe your district and the various communities that are in it? 

There was a day when I was canvassing and within a 10-minute period I engaged with someone who spoke Spanish, and then Russian, and then Korean. I think this is one of the districts that should be leading the way in terms of showing the rest of the country what can happen when different ethnicities, communities and cultures actually come together. 

Roosevelt Ave. in Woodside, Queens, which Hailie Kim is running to represent. John Chu

What’s your position on whether one test should be the basis for students entering elite public high schools?

The law which allows this needs to be abolished. I know that’s a controversial position within the Asian-American community. But I think we do need to look at forms of public education that don’t segregate children from each other.

There’s been a lot of talk about how the Asian community is becoming more conservative. Why do you think that’s happening? And, why do you think that by running as a boldly progressive candidate, you will be effective in meeting this moment?

Even the Korean Republicans I speak with think it’s a travesty that education funding is being cut, which we can link to policing. Our communities have historically been underserved, unreached, overlooked. For Asian Americans who have come to this country, one of our top priorities is education. For families like mine, education decides whether you’re able to retire at age 60 or 70 or have to worry about your finances as a senior. These are priorities that a lot of people have not spoken to yet. 

Do you support defunding the police? If so, what does that mean to you? And how would you approach it?

I have advocated for a $3 billion reallocation of funds from the NYPD into social services. A lot of people are very vague when they mention social services. But to me, that means an extra $1 billion for public education, $1 billion extra for mental health care services, and $1 billion for jobs programs. We would be using less than 1% of the city’s overall budget to create 25,000 new jobs in the public sector. It would provide people with another option other than going on unemployment. It would be a mix of short-term positions for people between jobs, and it would be there as an option for people to say “no” to exploitative jobs and work in the public sector instead. 

Councilmember Julie Won ran as a progressive when she won a crowded 15-candidate primary in 2021 to represent District 26 in Queens.

Another recent hot-button issue in District 26 has been the fight over Innovation QNS. What are your thoughts on how that was handled as well as the final outcome?

I think we need to reframe how we think about housing. We should not be depending on private real-estate developers and their largesse to pay for affordable housing. 

I think there were a lot of issues with how our community was not brought into this. It’s the job of the councilmember to bring in members of the community that aren’t already politically engaged. Not a single town hall was actually held by the councilmember. There was a town hall held by the actual developer that was poorly attended because it was held when most people have to work.                                                                                                                                                

And finally, what do you say to people, especially progressives and socialists, who might be feeling discouraged by electoral politics and wonder if it is worth the effort?

I understand where people are coming from. But especially with local politics, it’s very important to how we live our lives. It affects the teachers we have in our classrooms; it affects the number of schools being built in a neighborhood. It affects the constituent services that are offered by the council member’s office. And the less engaged we are, the less we can actually accomplish.

We also can’t just elect people. We need to hold them accountable, which is something we’re coming to terms with on the left. Maybe it’s because I’ve only been a citizen since 2019, but I’m not jaded. I am not in it because I think things are going to be easy in the long run. I lost the last election, but I still have faith. We can’t let a few setbacks discourage us. It’s a part of living. It’s a part of learning. Right? It applies to politics as well. 

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