Immigrant Mother’s Love of US Fueled Kim Effort to Set Things Right After Capitol Riot

February 4, 2021 by Dan McCue
Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., cleans up debris and personal belongings strewn across the floor of the Rotunda in the early morning hours of Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021, after protesters stormed the Capitol in Washington, on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON – Even a month removed from the event, Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., still talks of the foreboding surrounding Jan. 6 with a sense of urgency.

“You knew something was going to happen,” he told The Well News recently.

“I told my staff not to show up for work that day. I told my wife not to come down to D.C. with our kids that week … There was just this deep tension building up in the days leading up to the certification of the Electoral College vote,” Kim said.

“You knew that events were setting up for some kind of collision,” he added. “I mean, President Donald Trump had been calling on his supporters to converge on Washington on that day for quite some time — over a month — and so you knew something was going to happen.”

“As for what actually did unfold that day … it is still just kind of beyond my imagination,” Kim said. 

What happened, of course, was an unprecedented siege of the U.S. Capitol that next week will be the subject of an equally unprecedented impeachment trial — the first ever to be held in U.S. history after the subject of the trial has left office.

On the afternoon of Jan 6., thousands of irate Trump supporters intent on blocking the formal final count of the Electoral College vote, overwhelmed police lines and breached the Capitol building, breaking windows and wrenching open doors.

While members of Congress gathered in joint session scrambled, the mob made it as far as the Senate chamber, the rotunda and other areas in the heart of the historic building.

“I was worried about there being, maybe clashes on the street … some violence outside … I could even imagine protesters coming right up to the exterior of the Capitol, but I certainly never in my wildest dreams imagined they’d get inside,” Kim said.

“I mean, it wasn’t just that people breached the Capitol. We actually lost control of the U.S. Capitol for a time. It was just beyond imagining … and then I’m sure you could imagine what it was like to have to call my wife, and to have to call my mother, and tell them I was all right, because I knew they were watching this all unfold on television,” he said.

Kim, a second-term Democrat from a congressional district Trump won twice, has a reputation among his colleagues for being the kind of lawmaker who works hard for his colleagues and doesn’t court publicity for himself.

That’s why no one was surprised when National Guardsmen patrolling the Capitol after the final tally was completed, came upon Kim, on his hands and knees at 1 a.m., helping to clean debris that the mob had left behind in the rotunda.

Not long after, an Associated Press photographer, a member of the reporting pool covering the count, also happened upon Kim, who by then was moving from the Rotunda to the building’s Statuary Hall, with a plastic bag and cleaning supplies in hand.

Fellow Rep. Tom Malinowski, also a New Jersey Democrat, told the photographer that the moment he happened upon was typical of Kim.

“He was clearly not doing it for an audience. … It was for me the most poignant moment of the long night,” Malinowski told the AP.

“It was a very instinctive decision,” Kim said this week. “We had concluded the Electoral College count — to show the American people that we can move forward, despite what had happened earlier in the day … and I was walking through the Rotunda, saw the mess left behind, and just felt I couldn’t walk out of that room leaving it in that condition.”

Nearby, Kim saw a roll of trash bags that members of the Capitol cleaning crew were using and he decided to grab some. For the next hour and half, he picked up trash wherever he found it. After leaving Statuary Hall, he moved on to the crypt beneath the rotunda, then began walking the hallways on the second and third floors of the Capitol.

“When you see something you love that’s broken you want to fix it,” Kim said matter-of-factly. “I love the Capitol. I’m honored to be there. This building is extraordinary and the rotunda in particular is just awe-inspiring.  It really broke my heart to see it in that condition. I had to do something.”

Weeks later, on Twitter, Kim responded to questions about his cleaning the Capitol by posting a photo of his first trip to Washington, D.C. In it, no more than five or six, he poses with his mother, an immigrant from Korea, and his sister on the Mall with the Capitol building in the background.

A young Andy Kim, with his mother and sister, outside the U.S. Capitol. (Photo via Twitter)

“She took me to the Capitol and taught me to love and care for this nation that gave us everything” Kim wrote.

“I remember that trip quite vividly, despite being so young,” Kim said. “I remember particular moments, like standing on the Capitol steps, facing the mall, and looking across and seeing the Washington Monument. This was in the days when they let you climb up the stairs in front of the Capitol and I just loved scampering up and down those steps.”

Kim also recalled seeing the Capitol Rotunda for the first time on that trip.

“It’s a briefer memory, but I do distinctly remember thinking, ‘This is the biggest room I’ve ever seen!’ That’s my memory of it. I mean I was a kid who grew up in the city, and then the suburbs and I had just never been inside a room was that big and that inspiring.

“The other thing I remember is the smile on my mom’s face as she took us around,” he continued. “She didn’t know all the facts to point out about the Capitol. She couldn’t say ‘On this or that date in history, this happened here.’ But she just had a real smile of joy on her face, being able to show us all this.

“And now, I have kids of my own and when they come down to the Capitol, I take them around to the places I visited and have photos of them in almost the exact same places I stood in as a kid. It really comes full circle for me,” he added.

Kim represents the 3rd District, which stretches from the Philadelphia suburbs along the Delaware River in the west, across New Jersey’s pine barrens to seaside Ocean County.

He launched his campaign in 2017, returning to live in the southern New Jersey town he grew up in after a career in Washington and abroad. 

A University of Chicago graduate and Rhodes Scholar, Kim served from 2013 until 2015 as the Iraq director for the Obama administration’s National Security Council.

Before that, he was the Iraq director at the Pentagon within the defense secretary’s office. He also previously served as a civilian adviser to generals David Petraeus and John Allen in Afghanistan.

“You know, I have a photo from that same trip that we visited the Capitol, of me with my mom and sister on the South Lawn of the White House. I actually printed it out and kept it on my desk in the White House,” he said.

“Those were amazing experiences. To be able to walk into the White House and the Capitol building and to celebrate what it means to be a American,” he added.

Kim credited his childhood experience with inspiring his career as a public servant, but he said being a dad is what cemented his decision to run for Congress.

“As a dad, I’m worried about so many aspects of my kids’ lives, not just things related to the foreign policy I did before, but things like health care and education, and I thought Congress would be a great way to kind of channel my nervous dad energies and help shape the world they’re going to grow up in.”

Bringing things full circle again, Kim called being a member of Congress “an enormously beautiful and rewarding experience.”

The son of Korean immigrant parents, he became the first Asian American to represent New Jersey in Congress after he was elected in 2018.

Being a trailblazer is secondary to his family.

“I mean, being able to take my kids to the Rotunda and having them look up and say, ‘Wow’ … it was like going back in time, like it was me and my mom. And it made me really proud that I could give my kids the experience my mom gave me,” he said.

Of course, Washington, D.C., post COVID and especially in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot is a far different place than even Kim’s children experienced on their first visit to the city. Today, fences and security checkpoints are everywhere. One wonders, sometimes, if it will ever get back to being a place that fires imaginations young and old.

“I think it has to,” Kim said. “I think we have to preserve that feeling. It’s something I feel very, very strongly about — in regard to the Capitol, in particular. That’s the people’s house, right? That’s the whole idea of that building.

“And while I know we’re going through security reviews and things like that right now — and they are necessary — we have to find a way to continue to make the building accessible to the American people,” he said. “When I was a kid, my mom and sister and I literally walked through the White House! You went to the visitor’s center, passed through the metal detectors, and you could just join a tour. You didn’t need an appointment.

“You lose something important when you lose that,” Kim continued. “As young as I was, that trip made ‘the government’ much more tangible to me. When you build fences and the closest you can get to the White House is seeing it from Constitution Avenue, it makes it all less inspiring. And I really worry that we are moving in that direction.

“I think that that would be a real detriment to the District of Columbia, to the Capitol building itself, and to our country,” he said. “If it doesn’t feel like people can have that same relationship with the Capitol that I had as a kid and that my kids have enjoyed, that would be a real tragedy.”

Kim said when he thinks about the reaction the photographs of him have gotten — both one of him cleaning the Capitol after the riot and the other, of him with his mother outside the building so long ago – he sees it as a confirmation that people still want a politics “that is grounded in public service, grounded in civility, and grounded in decency.

“People still want to see that leadership is not about yelling and screaming on the House floor or sending out tweets that are throwing shade at each other. They want leadership that, at least sometimes, is about rolling up your sleeves and solving the problems in front of you.

“That’s what I try to do in my own district,” Kim said. “We did 30 town halls in my first two years in Congress, and I’m continuing to do that. We’re heavily engaged right now when it comes to vaccine distribution. And I’m supporting service projects aimed at reducing the number of people experiencing hunger and homelessness as a result of the pandemic. 

“In short, I’m trying to run a very tangible, hands-on operation in my district,” he said. “But I’m a workhorse, not a show horse. I’m just trying to get things done. And I’m very encouraged by the response that I’ve gotten. At the end of the day, I hope it showcases for the American people that there is a better way … that we can handle our governance in a better way … and that we can understand what politics really mean.”

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