If St. Paul City Attorney John Choi can take the political thumping around he got from both sides in the Republican National Convention prosecutions last year, can he handle the rough and tumble of a political campaign?
His friends at the “Run Choi Run” campaign think he can.
In 2006, as a young lawyer with a good practice, John Choi went for a job with less pay, but more visibility and a great deal more power. At the invitation of Mayor Chris Coleman, he became the St. Paul City Attorney.
Over the last three years, Choi has championed various public causes on behalf of the city, and at the end of 2008, was embroiled in the most challenging diplomatic, legal and political event of his career when the Republican National Committee came to town and an avalanche of 627 potential prosecutions poured into his office in the aftermath.
Recently, he was presented with another leadership opportunity. The imminent resignation of Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, necessitated by her bid for governor, meant that a higher level, but similar position would soon open up. The difference is, the county attorney is elected, not appointed. He would have to run for it.
Choi announced in late May that he was forming an “exploratory committee” to prepare for a possible run for county attorney. He made the official announcement at a happy hour event held in Sweeney’s Pub in downtown St. Paul (Ramsey County comprises the St. Paul metropolitan area), and the gathering of about 60 was sprinkled with young professional Korean American political activists and others from the local Asian American community.
Many of those gathered heard about the possibility of a Choi candidacy from a Facebook group, dubbed “Run Choi Run,” invented to raise interest and draft Choi for the candidacy before he had publicly expressed interest in the seat. Choi’s supporters have joked since then that everyone except the candidate himself knew about the expected candidacy because Choi does not have a Facebook site of his own.
The joke is not true, Choi avowed. He discussed the idea of the Facebook site with the two founders, but never got to preview it before the launch. He just told them to “go for it,” he said. The results were better than expected, and the interest group quickly attracted more than 350 members. It is true, however, that Choi does not have a Facebook site of his own – he claims to be “seriously thinking about it” now that the group has attracted so much attention.
Other possible candidates for the Ramsey County Attorney position include: attorney David Schultz, assistant Ramsey County Attorney David Pinto, and Roseville City Councilmember Tammy Pust.
A St. Paul resident since his immigration from Korea at age three in 1973, Choi’s parents lived in various apartments while he was young. Choi now owns a house in the South Highland neighborhood, very close to one of his favorite childhood homes, the Sibley Manor on West Seventh Street, which he liked as a kid because it was right by the Mississippi River. His father worked at the Coca-Cola plant, and also wrote for the Korea Central Daily newspaper (Joong-Ang Ilbo). His mother worked at Unisys Corporation until she got laid off in the mid-80s, and then got a job as a nurse, a qualification she earned through her education in Korea.
From age six until 16, the family lived in Eagan, and Choi went to St. Thomas Academy High School in St. Paul. His family belonged to the Korean Catholic church (Church of St. Andrew Kim) which recently relocated to the neighborhood of the Sibley Manor.
After high school, Choi went to Marquette University in Milwaukee, majoring in psychology. After a year of graduate school at Marquette, Choi transferred to Hamline University in St. Paul to go to law school “and because I wanted to get back to Minnesota,” he said. He and his wife Youn Lee moved to the South Highland neighborhood about two years ago.
Choi remembers his interest in law and social justice starting in college. He helped start an organization that partnered at-risk middle school students with interested college students for tutoring, mentoring and friendship. “That experience in a lot of ways opened my eyes to a number of things, and made me aware of things beyond my own little world.” He remembers the ’92 presidential election, between Bill Clinton, Ross Perrot, and George Bush Sr. as the first political campaign that really captivated his attention.
After transferring to Hamline Law School in 1992, he got hired by Bob Long, a St. Paul city councilman in the Highland neighborhood who was running for mayor. Long ultimately dropped out of the race because he didn’t get the endorsement by the democratic party (known in Minnesota as the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) ). The endorsed candidate, Andy Dawkins, was subsequently defeated in the mayoral race by (former U.S. Senator) Norm Coleman.
After the political campaign, Choi worked at Long’s council office as an intern. Since then, he has worked on various campaigns and some DFL committees, including the state party’s executive committee. In 1995, Choi became an attorney and worked commercial and government relations projects at the Hessian, McKasy and Soderberg firm for three years, and then went to the Kennedy and Graven firm, which specializes in municipal representation, becoming a partner in 2001, at age 30.
At that point, he said “things were going great. I was doing the type of work I loved, and then out of the blue I got a call from Mayor [Chris] Coleman. He was trying to get me to be a part of his administration as city attorney.”
Choi had supported Coleman’s opponent Rafael Ortega in the election. The two democratic candidates were fighting for the DFL endorsement to take on incumbent Republican mayor Randy Kelly. “It says a lot about Mayor Coleman that he overlooked that,” Choi said.
The invitation was something of a surprise, Choi said, recalling that it took until about halfway through his lunch with Coleman at the St. Paul Hotel for him to infer the mayor’s agenda for the meeting.
Because of his successful and growing practice at Kennedy and Graven, Choi said, there were some pros and cons to weigh. The “clincher,” Choi said, was the look on his dad’s face when he told him he had been asked to take the job of city attorney. “It showed how proud he was that his son, who was not even born in this country, was going to be the St. Paul City Attorney,” he recalled. “So, the choice was pretty clear that this it was a great opportunity, to be a part of something better and bigger than yourself, and to actually contribute, as an immigrant, as a Korean American, as an Asian American.”
Choi said he recently told Mayor Coleman how he had been given a great gift in “putting me in a position to learn more about myself, reconnect with my passion and put me in a place where I could lead.”
Leading the management, policymaking and budget of the city attorney’s office, which employs 70 people, distinguishes Choi’s present job from most other attorney jobs. As the city attorney, Choi said, “the responsibility pretty much falls on you to manage many aspects of the budget, personnel, manage resources, make decisions that are important decisions. You decide where the office will spend its time and expertise and energy.”
The city attorney’s job is an immense position of power that can be used in many ways, Choi said. “The way I define how to use that power is to really make our community better, safer – where you pick up the phone and you get someone to do something. That’s part of leadership.”
The three years of being the city attorney have provided Choi with a wide variety of experience. At the outset, he said, he wanted to have influence over some “key policy areas.” In the past, Choi said, “the city attorney’s office has been known as the agency that provides legal advice, that defends the city in its lawsuits, that prosecutes criminal cases. In addition to that, I wanted to get the city attorney’s office to a place where we are directly involved in making this city more livable and more safe.”
Choi said this year marked the first time a “civil gang injunction” was used against gang members appearing together at a city event. Using such an injunction required special legislation through which a gang could be considered a “public nuisance” an enjoined from appearing within a certain specified geographical zone for a short period of time. The purpose was to prevent the circumstances that often result in crimes and disruption to public events.
A law to allow such injunctions was drafted and passed by the Minnesota Legislature in 2007. It is similar to laws existing both in Texas and California. “Then for over a period of about a year and a half, we struggled to develop the right case,” he explained. “We kind of had a Eureka moment when we thought up a plan to use this new statute to protect our community festivals.”
There was a growing list of examples of how community festivals in St. Paul were being disrupted by gang activities. “We decided Cinco de Mayo would be a good festival to focus on because they had a shooting there the previous year.” A gang-related shooting occurred in the vicinity of the Cinco de Mayo festival, in West St. Paul, right after the festival parade ended in 2008.
The injunction was worded to prevent 10 members of the so-called “Sureno 13” gang from congregating in a specified area of St. Paul during a 36-hour period covering the Cinco de Mayo festival. They were not prohibited from attending the festival, but could not attend in the company of other gang members. There were other activity restrictions; for example they were prohibited from using gang signs or gang colors.
The results of the injunction were positive, Choi said. “There were known gang members at Cinco de Mayo but none of them were wearing their standard outfits. They were wearing something else.” Overall, he said “it was a proactive way to treat this kind of activity, and I think we are going to continue to use this method for other festivals and even high school sporting events as well.”
Nuisance behavior by particular businesses, such as bars, have been legally pursued by the city attorney’s office as well, Choi said. In pursuit of public safety issues, his office has also drafted a law to prohibit the possession of toy replica firearms. With city attorneys from across the nation, Choi’s office has begun a national litigation group of cities that want to hold the lending community accountable for the mortgage foreclosure crisis.
Probably the most demanding time of Choi’s career as city attorney was the Republican National Convention (RNC) held September 1 and 2, 2008 in St. Paul. The city attorney’s office was responsible for either prosecuting or declining a total of 672 complaints made by the police including crossing police lines, interfering with arrest, vandalism, blocking intersections, and other charges having to do with activities at the demonstrations.
Choi said the complaints were assigned to 50 prosecutors who systematically investigated the 672 cases, many of which had little evidence accompanying them. Sometimes, the prosecutors had to go through hours of videotape to try to identify the suspect and any evidence of the alleged criminal event that took place. Choi said he encouraged his staff to investigate each charge with an equal degree of care. There was little evidence, and hundreds of hours of videotape to sort through.
Over time, he said, his office assembled lists of cases that would be tried and others that would be dismissed. On December 1, the first of the 672 cases were dismissed, and in the months following, 80 percent of the cases were dismissed. “So far, we have had three trials involving 10 defendants,” he said.
Most of the cases were fraught with problems for various reasons, including the vagaries of free speech issues. There were many questions of proof of identity because the perpetrators wore masks or hoods to hide their faces from the video cameras.
Choi explained police standards for probable cause for arrest are low compared with the level of probable cause prosecutors need to make a case stick. That happened with the RNC cases with more frequency than in the more ordinary daily arrests. During the convention, police mass-arrested and held people for infractions such as running from the police or trespassing.
Radio and web host Amy Goodman (Democracy Now), along with two of the show’s producers Nicole Salazar and Sharif Abdel Kouddous, were three of the alleged RNC offenders. They were treated roughly by the police – Kouddous was slammed against a wall and Goodman’s face was forced to the ground and she sustained a bloody nose and other injuries. The whole series of events was caught on videotape and broadcast nationwide, resulting in heightened awareness of apparent police brutality during the RNC arrests.
The co-producers were charged with a felony “probable cause riot” and Goodman with interfering with arrest and obstructing a peace officer (a misdemeanor charge). The charges were later dropped by the Ramsey County Attorney’s office, and Choi’s office.
Choi is still careful in talking about this case. There were possibly thousands of e-mails in protest of the arrests of these journalists because of the graphic video and the national publicity on Goodman’s show and in other media. “I’m glad we did not prosecute this because it would have been a hornet’s nest,” he said, adding that technically, Goodman’s breaking through a police line was illegal and a prosecutable offense.
Choi said that in the past, he examined records of charges for interfering with an arrest, as part of a project to prove or disprove racial disparities in police charging policies in the city. He found that African American males were much more likely than any other group to get charged with a misdemeanor for objecting to or interfering with an arrest. The city has changed these policies as a result, and it happens less frequently than it used to. “But every night, an African American man will be charged with something very similar to what Amy Goodman did. Where are the hundreds of e-mails objecting to that?’
There is still plenty of work to be done “to ensure justice is serving everybody,” Choi said. “I think I can say all this because we are doing some stuff that is clearly addressing some of these issues, but sometimes I feel like I’m doing it alone.”
In the end, Choi said, he was satisfied that his office reviewed the cases and dismissed them “the right way.” He can ignore criticism on one side or the other concerning the 80 percent dismissal rate. “Typically, a prosecution office would not necessarily be proud of that number, but I am proud of how we got there. I know it was based not on anything to do with politics, or trying to help the police, or trying to kowtow or placate or any party or individuals I would associate with. It was nothing about that. It was just about the cases reviewed on their merits, and the results of that process.”
His experience with the RNC cases “has tested me in a lot of ways,” Choi said, from responding to accusations of favoritism or prejudice, being pressured to take one kind of action or other, the sheer volume of the work, the national focus and attention from all kinds of media – the RNC cases had it all.
“I took all of the political criticism and fallout and made sure it stayed just with me, and I never really shared much of that with my prosecutors. I tried to allow them to make decisions and do the review without any of that pressure,” he reflected. “I think that’s something that’s very important to the next Ramsey County attorney. Politics and prosecution should never mix. It’s not about a personality. It should always be about justice.”
Choi’s Facebook site Run Choi Run is still active, and his official website is www.votejohnchoi.com
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