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30 October 2018updated 03 Nov 2018 6:36pm

Blue Wave: Meet Andy Kim, the 36-year-old former Obama aide running to protect healthcare in New Jersey

Kim says he was inspired to run in reaction to the incumbent Republican Tom MacArthur’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

By Sophie McBain

This is the fifth in the series of New Statesman America profiles of the “Blue Wave” of new, young, progressive candidates in this year’s midterm elections. You can find the others here.

Andy Kim, a 36-year-old former national security adviser to the Obama administration, says that one of the reasons he decided to run for Congress was the birth last year of his youngest son, August. Kim and his wife were warned late in her pregnancy that there were complications: his son was dangerously underweight.

Kim remembers watching the news at the time of Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. In May last year, his congressman, Tom MacArthur, drafted an amendment that would have allowed insurers to increase premiums for people with pre-existing health conditions, which could make health insurance prohibitively expensive for many Americans.

“There was a moment when I talked with my wife. And I said, if we get through this, and our baby is born at a stable weight and we’re able to move forward as a family, then I’m going to do whatever I humanly can to hold [McArthur] accountable for what he did,” Kim tells me.

His son is now a healthy toddler. And Kim is in good stead to beat McArthur, who has held the seat since 2015, in November. New Jersey’s third district has been represented by a Republican in Congress since 2010. It voted for Obama twice and then in 2016 it voted for Trump. The race looks close, and several polls have put Kim just ahead of McArthur.

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Kim says he believes that healthcare should be a universal right, though he has told voters he is still looking at various models to determine whether a single-payer healthcare system (often referred to as Medicare-for-all) is the best system. When I asked him if he supported universal health insurance, he replied “well, I certainly want to make sure that everyone in the country has healthcare…that should be the goal moving forward.”

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He says he has spoken to many families on the campaign trail who are struggling with healthcare costs, whether it’s young parents financially crippled by a child’s illness, or older Americans only taking half of their prescription medication because they can’t afford to take the full dose, or others having “to make decisions between paying for their medication and paying for food on the table.”

“These are not choices that people in the richest, most powerful country in the world should have to make,” Kim says. As a student, he volunteered at homeless shelters and was struck by how many people lost their homes because of illness. “Right now, 40 per cent of Americans can’t handle a $400 emergency. That is just staggering in terms of healthcare here,” he says.

Kim’s parents are from South Korea and emigrated to New Jersey before he was born, when they were in their twenties. His father grew up in an orphanage and had polio as a child, his mother grew up in a poor farming family. After arriving in the US, his father studied for a PhD in genetics and dedicated his career to researching cures for diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s, and his mother worked as a nurse in New Jersey. Kim says he is inspired by his parents’ commitment to public service, and that he wants to give back to the community that supported him.

“I’m aware that there are zero Korean-Americans in Congress. And I think as I’ve been going through this and thinking about what it means for me, what I will say is I think our country will benefit from having a Congress that looks a lot more like the rest of America. And that means in terms of economic diversity, in terms of religion, race, ethnicity, gender. We need more diverse, representative government,” he tells me.

Like many of the young and diverse first-time candidates New Statesman is profiling ahead of the midterms, Kim has been selected by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC)’s Red to Blue list, which gives extra support to promising Democrats running in flippable seats. Although Kim has pledged not to accept corporate PAC money, he has substantially outraised McArthur, fielding donations from across the country and raising over $2 million from donors.

The father-of-two is a former Rhodes scholar, who studied international relations at the University of Oxford, and who first joined the Obama administration in 2009 as an Iraq expert at the state department. In 2011, he was deployed for five months as a civilian adviser in Afghanistan. He says that working in national security has underlined for him the importance of setting partisan politics aside. “We can’t have people in the situation room in the White House or the commander’s office in Afghanistan making decisions that are based on politics, or what’s going to help win elections. We should be focused on what’s best for the American people.”

“A major challenge that we are facing in government is that we need more leaders that are of the mindset of service, with a focus first and foremost on the American people. Not on corporate special interests or parties,” he says. “Of course, I’m going to stand firm on the values that I believe in. And of course I’m going to be a champion for the causes that I think are important for the future… I’ll want to work with people that are focused on what’s best for our country, and just move past this moment of American politics that has become so corroded by hyper-partisanship. I’m sick and tired of it,” he says.

Kim says he is pledging a very different form of leadership for New Jersey. As well as refusing corporate donations and setting aside partisan politics he says he will hold an in-person public town hall to listen to local concerns. “What I promise the people of this district is I’m going to be the most accountable, accessible and transparent member of Congress there is, across the board. That’s what they deserve,” he says.