LOS ANGELES — In November, Kevin de León convened a press conference for the Korean-language media.
"Annyeonghaseyo" — hello — he greeted the journalists before making the case for why he should be Los Angeles' next mayor. If elected, he will appoint a Korean American deputy mayor, he said.
Last week, another mayoral candidate, Rick Caruso, rolled out Korean-language ads, touting himself as the only one who can "clean up" the city.
Karen Bass has met with Filipino and Korean residents, among others, as her campaign prepares to launch ads in Mandarin, Korean and Vietnamese by the end of the month.
As the June 7 primary approaches, candidates Joe Buscaino and Mike Feuer are also courting Asian American voters through town halls and endorsements.
In past elections, Asian Americans were sometimes considered an afterthought, a source of campaign cash more than votes.
This year's election is different.
Candidates are wooing the city's fastest-growing ethnic group, who make up nearly 1 in 10 voters, through town halls, ads in Asian languages and interviews with ethnic media.
The array of languages spoken by Asian residents with immigrant backgrounds makes voter outreach tricky, but the candidates are giving it a shot.
"In my line of work, I have not seen, even at the presidential level, sort of the level of the ad buys and the translation in all the different languages happening for a community like the Korean American," said Steve Kang, director of external affairs for the Koreatown Youth and Community Center.
Asian Americans could be "the decider or the swing vote," Kang said.
A poll released Monday by the University of California, Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times showed Caruso and Bass tied for first, with de León a distant third at 6% and the nine other candidates at 2% or less.
In a recent interview, de León said he has advocated for Asian Americans, including by co-authoring a resolution for California to formally apologize for the persecution of early Chinese immigrants.
"It is not just showing up in the community but actually doing things in it," said de León, a Los Angeles city councilman who previously served in the state Senate and Assembly.
If elected, de León would be the city's first mayor with Asian heritage, as his late father was of Chinese descent.
Fluent in Spanish, he is familiar with his Latino heritage, in a city that is nearly half Latino, but he only found out about his Chinese background a few years ago.
De León has at least one enthusiastic fan in Koreatown — Michael Chang, a businessman who paid for a large poster plastered on a building on Olympic Boulevard.
"Mr. Kevin! I love you. You're the only one I have!" the poster reads in Korean, below the English words "Kevin de León, Los Angeles City Mayor."
The Berkeley IGS poll for the Times showed that about 40% of likely voters remained undecided.
In Koreatown on a recent evening, more than a dozen residents interviewed by the Times said they had not heard about the election or had not been paying much attention.
As he was grabbing dinner at Koreatown Galleria, Euljin Lee, 70, said he had recently met a mayoral candidate at the same spot. But he couldn't recall the candidate's name or much about them.
Bass and Caruso started their Asian outreach later than de León but have recently made stops in Asian American neighborhoods, including Koreatown.
Bass, a Democratic congresswoman who is chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, has emphasized endorsements from Asian American colleagues, including Democratic Reps. Judy Chu and Ted Lieu.
Bass has spoken of her work addressing anti-Asian hate crimes, as well as pushing for equity and Asian-language outreach in the distribution of COVID-19 relief money.
A group called Pin@ys for Karen Bass for LA Mayor has held virtual meet and greets, focusing on the Filipino American community.
But Bass has had to do damage control for remarks she made 30 years ago after the L.A. riots, which were resurfaced by the Korean-language media a few months ago.
In 1992, as a community organizer, she told The New York Times that "like a miracle, a large chunk of the (liquor) stores we wanted to close were burned to the ground."
Bass apologized during a February meeting with a group representing Korean American liquor store owners.
In a statement, Bass said that her comments were "taken out of context and misconstrued" and that South L.A. community members at the time were trying to close down all problematic liquor stores, regardless of who owned them.
She said she had assured the Korean liquor store group that "while the concerns about the stores were not about the race or nationality of the owners, I understood how my comments could have been hurtful."
Caruso, a billionaire developer who recently poured $10 million of his own money into his campaign, is the only candidate with the financial resources for extensive advertising at this point in the race.
His Korean-language ads on YouTube and television largely mirror his English-language ones. In a one-minute video on his Twitter account, subtitled in Korean, Caruso made a more direct appeal to the community, speaking about "celebrating the culture that's so vital to this city."
During a meeting last week with Korean leaders, Caruso called ads in the community's language "a sign of respect." He has highlighted his support for Asian American small businesses, connecting it to his policies on crime and homelessness.
"People are working hard every day to pay their rent, put food on the table," Caruso said at a press conference for the Korean-language media last week. "When there's a smash-and-grab (robbery), for small businesses, who do they turn for help?"
His relatively late entry into the race means he has not had time to accumulate many endorsements. This week, he secured the support of Peter Kang, chairman and president of the Korean American Chamber of Commerce.
Endorsements from well-known Asian American politicians can be important, even if they are from areas outside the city, said Sara Sadhwani, an assistant professor of politics at Pomona College who specializes in Asian American voting behavior. She cited Chu, who represents a San Gabriel Valley district.
"Is this person ... a trusted messenger in the community?" she said. "Chu has been very vocal on the issues facing Asian Americans, not only in her district but nationwide."
Buscaino, an L.A. city councilman, has the support of Councilman John Lee as well as former Councilman David Ryu, who are both Korean American. Ryu has called Buscaino a "reliable vote" on issues affecting Asian Americans.
In a statement, Buscaino's campaign said it plans to do a "robust digital buy" in Korean, Chinese and other Asian languages. Buscaino recently held a meet and greet at North Hollywood's Wat Thai temple following de León and Feuer.
Feuer, the L.A. city attorney, has focused on reaching voters directly, touring all of the city's neighborhoods.
In March, he visited Cathay Manor, a low-income senior housing complex in Chinatown. Feuer's office has filed criminal charges against Cathay Manor's owners for failing to fix broken elevators and other maintenance issues.
Feuer has made combating anti-Asian hate a campaign priority, attending events on the issue and underlining that he was the sole candidate to mention it at recent debates.
Hate crimes are a salient issue for many Asian American voters. According to a survey commissioned by the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State Los Angeles and the California Community Foundation, two-thirds of those polled said they have been worried about being a victim of a hate crime since the pandemic began.
The survey also found homelessness and the COVID-19 pandemic to be top issues for the majority of Asian Americans.
Aquilina Soriano Versoza is executive director of the Pilipino Workers Center, which is organizing a candidate forum focused on Asian American issues.
She wants candidates to have answers about addressing hate crimes, wage theft, immigration rights and gentrification in neighborhoods like Historic Filipinotown.
In Eagle Rock, which is represented by de León on the City Council and has a large Filipino community, Ed De La Cruz sees the race as a two-person contest between Bass and Caruso, based on polling and campaign money.
Bass appeals to him more, he said. Caruso's wealth and his pledge to not draw a salary if he becomes mayor are turnoffs for De La Cruz, who was visiting Eagle Rock to shop at a Filipino supermarket.
"Whenever a guy tells you I am not going to take a dollar of salary for the year, that makes you leery," said De La Cruz, a 67-year-old immigrant from the Philippines and a longtime resident of Echo Park. "I don't know what he has done for L.A."
De La Cruz is also concerned about homelessness and public safety, saying "more policing won't hurt."
Unlike many voters, David Sheng was engaged enough in the mayor's race to try to get a ticket to a debate at the University of Southern California last month. He waited outside the venue but did not succeed.
Sheng, 42, a Van Nuys resident and small-business owner, compared de León to Michael Woo, the city's first Asian American councilman, who nearly won the mayoral election in 1993.
"De León becoming mayor will encourage more Asians to go into politics," Sheng said. "If there is a half-Asian mayor, that can be a role model for the Asian community."