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John Choi officially enters race for Ramsey County Attorney

A few weeks back, we reported that St. Paul city attorney John Choi was forming an exploratory committee for Ramsey County Attorney. Now he's made it official. At his official announcement ceremony Choi was surrounded by such supporters as St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, as well as state senators Mee Moua and Satveer Chaudhary, Ramsey County commissioners Rafael Ortega and Toni Carter and three members of the St. Paul City Council, among others.

Choi announced his 2010 bid for the Ramsey County Attorney’s office at a press conference today at the Skyline Towers apartment complex in St. Paul. The location was not arbitrary: it’s where Choi’s family initially settled after emigrating from South Korea when he was three years old.

“I’m running for county attorney because I want to make a difference in the criminal justice system and to ensure the safety of our community,” Choi told the audience. “I have a proven record of leadership and I want to continue to serve this community which has given so much to me and my family.”

The current Ramsey County attorney, Susan Gaertner, is running for governor. There are two other candidates currently vying for the post: Ramsey County prosecutor Dave Pinto and former assistant attorney general David Schultz.

For the past three years, Choi has served as the city's attorney.

 “When John came to me and said he was thinking about running for county attorney, I quite frankly suggested he shouldn’t,” Coleman (pictured) told the crowd. “That was just being selfish on my part, because I knew that the work that he did in the city attorney’s office needs to continue.”

At the event, Choi touted his work combating gang violence, mortgage fraud and domestic violence:

“The people in Ramsey County want a proven leader who will effectively manage a prosecution of 300 employees and a $38 million budget. That is no easy task. They want a leader who will prevent juvenile crime and find innovative ways to prevent criminals from re-offending.”

And here's a little more on his bio from the Twin Cities Daily Planet:

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.”

Let's hope that Choi has plenty of opportunities in the future to serve as well.

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