DFL candidate Susie Strom, if elected, would be the first Korean adoptee House member | By Martha Vickery (Spring 2022)
Minnesotan and Korean adoptee Susie Strom declared candidacy this spring for an open seat in the new House District 36A (northern metro area), which is vacant due to the redistricting process.
The primary is in August, not very much time for a young professional who has never run for office before to meet and persuade her future constituency. Because the opportunity was suddenly there, and she sees it as an opportunity to serve, Strom took the plunge.
Just recently, she said, it occurred to her to reach out to the state’s legislative library, to double check whether, if elected, she will indeed be Minnesota’s first Korean adoptee state representative. She believes she is. She may also be Minnesota’s first woman veteran. The weight of these “firsts” are a bit overwhelming to think about right now. “It’s kind of surreal,” she said.
The desire to take on a task in order to serve is strong in her, Strom said. “I don’t know if it is wrapped up in my adoptee identity, this wanting to pay back to community; I just saw it as a really good service opportunity. But I didn’t know what to expect. I just sort of jumped in.”
In a follow-up email on the ‘why run and why now?’ question, Strom said that representation is also important to her. She noted that Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) demographic is one of the fastest growing in the U.S., but continue to be severely underrepresented in elected office, she said. “Here in Minnesota, where we take pride in welcoming diverse groups of people, there is such a deep importance in having our elected officials be a reflection of the multi-faceted Minnesotan community. Also, with the unfortunate rise in anti-Asian sentiment, ensuring that there are advocates in local, state, and U.S. government to voice AAPI concerns, as well as the concerns of other underrepresented groups, is now vital.”
Strom was approached about running for office by a member of the Senate district caucus. She and her husband thought about it for a week, considering the commitment and the timing, and talked about it to others. “We figured if no one stood up, I should probably run,” she said. After signing on to be a candidate, Strom quickly got the endorsement of the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party (the DFL, Minnesota’s name for its state Democratic party), because there were many open seats and the party needed candidates.
After redistricting of the northern suburban area, the new district 36A includes Centerville, Circle Pines, Lino Lakes, North Oaks, and parts of White Bear Township. She expects to run unopposed in the primary, but she knows she will be up against a Republican opponent in the general election, set for November 8.
Getting elected in the new District 36A will not be a slam-dunk for the first-time candidate. The district is a mix of blue and red voters. She is expecting challenging work ahead as she prepares to meet voters and tell them why they should vote for her.
In addition to her experience as a lifelong Minnesotan, Strom points to her qualifications as an attorney and as a military prosecutor. After getting her juris doctorate (law degree), Strom enrolled in the Army through a process called “direct commission” as an officer in the Judge Advocate General Corps. She went through required officer basic training followed by three months of military law training in Charlottesville (Virginia), then went to Fort Drum, New York.
After that, she was assigned to a base in Osan, South Korea, for an artillery brigade, where she lived from 2017 to 2019. Military lawyers can be assigned to numerous programs, including defense of military members accused of a crime, various legal assistance services, or as a prosecutor, representing the government in military court.
Strom was assigned to a special military prosecution unit devoted to sexual assault prosecutions and advocacy for sexual assault survivors. Before Strom started working in the unit, there had been some high-profile military sexual assault cases in which the survivors did not have adequate protection or advocacy during the judicial process. The program was begun to improve protection for survivors.
Strom was on active duty for about five years, then left active service, returned to Minnesota, and has been back for about three years. Her oldest daughter was born in Korea. She transferred to the Army Reserves and was with a unit at Fort Snelling (St. Paul), but is now serving in a unit in New Orleans for her required time in Army Reserves.
Strom’s husband is Marcus Strom, also a Minnesota Korean adoptee, the couple now has two girls, ages four and one.
Strom believes parents have many concerns in her district, and statewide, about education as children return to school post-pandemic. “Our senator Mr. [Roger] Chamberlain, dedicated zero dollars to education” in the last budget, she remarked. More help is needed she said, as “parents are navigating a lot of hard choices.”
Like many high schools, the Centennial High School in her district is dealing with some troubling cultural and racial issues, she said. “There has been a BIPOC student group that started taking on these issues and raising awareness.” Among many values students should learn in school, “we need to honor cultural and human diversity and teach our kids about that,” she said. “I don’t want my girls to have to deal with some of the stuff I dealt with when I was growing up.”
There are concerns about the environment, related to the many lakes and natural resources in the district, “and I think the climate crisis is on the minds of a lot of people,” she said. Health care is also a major issue for all, and especially for the many elders who live in senior housing in the district, she said.
Working with law enforcement was a big part of her prosecutor career during active duty. Officers from security forces would work with her to apprehend suspects and gather evidence, and she depended on their work and expertise, she said. Because of this experience, she is thoughtful about the role of law enforcement, and believes there is no way to make the complexity of the problem around police violence go away with any one fix.
Strom talked about how some of the gnarliest problems, like crafting a better law enforcement model, are treated with simplistic answers by some elected officials. “It can’t be one thing – it’s a 360 approach that’s needed, and we need to be working on the different pieces all at once,” she said. Strom said safe communities also start with stable housing from the beginning of childhood, and families that can afford basics, like food, quality education, and many other pieces. She also believes in working on good relationships, so that law enforcement will be better connected to and trusted by the communities they serve. “You can’t solve it by saying ‘we’re going to put more police on the streets.’ “
Up next in the campaign is continuing to get endorsements, door-knocking and having a kick-off event in the early summer that will include Korean adoptees and rest of the Korean American community. “I’m really proud of being a Korean adoptee, and want to pay homage to all the things we had as Korean adoptees when I was growing up,” she said.The Strom campaign has signed up for access to voter information about the re-formed district, which will help the campaign’s strategy. She has submitted a draft of a narrative that will become a flyer for door knocking, in which each candidate articulates their campaign platform.
There may be debates required between Strom and the endorsed Republican candidate between the primary in August and general election November 8. Strom said she is slightly behind where she should be at this point in the campaign, but, she said, her staff and volunteers have been pushing so hard they are now catching up. They will be ready soon to launch the summer and fall campaign season.
The Strom campaign has a website with more information at: stromformn.com
Martha Vickery is a long-time professional journalist and long-time amateur Korea watcher, co-founder of Korean Quarterly, and editor since its founding in 1997. She has raised three now-adult children, two of whom are adopted from Korea, with the help of the Korean American community in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area.