Meet Ellen Park: The first Korean woman elected to NJ Legislature – NorthJersey.com
It’s been a whirlwind week for Ellen Park.
The Englewood Cliffs attorney made history Tuesday as the first Korean woman to be elected to the New Jersey Legislature, representing the 37th District Assembly of Bergen County.
But election night was bittersweet for Park. Aftershe sailed to victory, she watched others on her Democratic ticket struggle.
“It was very exciting, we were pretty much under the impression we won,” said Park, 49. “We were concerned with others in the district.”
She spent those nail-biting moments on election night surrounded by her family, including her husband Richard Ma, who is an attorney, her sons Dante, 15, and Axel,12, her parents and her in-laws.
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The family was cautiously optimistic on election night. It wasn’t the first time Park ran for office and they had been disappointed before.
Park ran for Englewood Cliffs council in 2015 and lost by just 26 votes. She ran again the following year and won, serving on the borough council from 2016 to 2018. She took some time off from politics to focus on her family and her work before entering the Assembly race.
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Wasting no time to get a feel for her new job, Park headed to Trenton on Thursday. While meeting and greeting her new colleagues, she realized that she is not only the first Korean woman elected to the state Legislature, but also currently the only East Asian representative. The other five Asian American state lawmakers are of South Asian descent.
Park and her Democratic running mate, Shama Haider, who is of Pakistani descent, defeated Republicans Perley Patrick and Natacha Pannell.
“Having Ellen and Shama join the Legislature is historic,” said Karlito Almeda, a Filipino American Democratic Assembly candidate for the 39th district in northern Bergen County who lost his election. “Despite the diversity of the state, there isn’t that much representation within the Legislature. Their wins help elevate the interests of Asian voices.”
Representation is important, Park said, especially in light of hate crimes against Asian Americans during the pandemic. Growing up, Park didn’t see many elected officials who looked like her.
Asian Americans make up more than 6% of the U.S. population but fewer than 1% of elected leaders across all levels of government, according to a study by the Reflective Democracy Campaign, which promotes diversity in politics. In New Jersey, Asian Americans account for 11% of the state’s population with less than 2% in representative positions.
The 37th district represents several Bergen County towns with sizable Asian populations including Leonia, Fort Lee, Teaneck, Tenafly and Palisades Park. Kevin O’Toole, a biracial Korean American, represented the 40th district of the state Senate that covers Bergen, Essex, Morris and Passaic counties from 2008 to 2017.
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Park caught the attention of Palisades Park Mayor Chris Chung while serving as a councilwoman. It was Chung who suggested Park when the Bergen County Democratic committee leaders were looking for a candidate to represent the 37th district.
“I recommended her because I thought she was qualified for the job,” Chung said. “She had the desire to serve the community.”
An immigrant from South Korea, Park came to the United States at age 6 and could not speak English. She grew up in Sunnyside and Flushing, Queens, as a latchkey kid with her sister, Jinny, while her parents ran a flower shop in Ridgewood, Queens.
As an immigrant, Park saw the needs of the Korean community, many of whom spoke little or no English. It prompted her to get involved in the communities she lived in.
“I saw a need,” Park said.
Park’s first foray into politics was a voter registration drive on Main Street in Flushing in 1996. A graduate of Bronx High School of Science, she went on to earn a political science degree from New York University.
“Being Asian American, I would like to implement Asian history to be taught in schools, she said. “We’ve been here 100 plus years. We are part of the history of this nation.”
One of the platforms that Park ran on is outreach. Getting out information to all of the district’s residents is important whether it’s in Spanish, Chinese or Korean, she said.
She also hopes to pay it forward by mentoring young Asian Americans to get involved in politics.
“It’s about the community, the future,” Park said. “Hopefully, there will be more people who see the vision.”
Mary Chao 趙 慶 華 covers the Asian community and real estate for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news out of North Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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