The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 20, 1999

Campaign '99

Korean American group insulted by GOP rejection of debate:
Rejection of debate portrayed as racism

By Matt Archbold
and Meredith Fischer

A Korean American community action group yesterday accused the Republican candidates for Montgomery County commissioner of racism, citing their decision not to participate in a debate scheduled for next week.

In response, the candidates, District Attorney Michael D. Marino and mortgage banker Jim Matthews, issued an apology to the Council for America My Country in Blue Bell, calling the matter a misunderstanding and not racially motivated.

"We feel very much insulted," said Im Ja Choi, a spokeswoman for the group and one-time Republican candidate for county register of wills. "I think it is prejudiced against the Korean community that they are not coming to this. . . ."

"They are not letting us be part of the process. I am a Republican, and I wanted to do everything I could for them. Now, I am ashamed."

The debate, part of a political forum to which all candidates for countywide office were invited, marks a first for the organization, which formed earlier this year.

Sang Joo Kim, chairman of the group, said the Republican candidates' late decision not to attend the debate represented "willful and deliberate sabotage."

According to Kim, the organization initially contacted the Republicans Sept. 29 but did not receive their refusal until about 5 p.m. Monday -- just eight days before the debate, which is scheduled for Tuesday.

In a letter of apology sent yesterday, Marino and Matthews said: "Please accept our most sincere apology for the misunderstanding . . . which obviously occurred between the Montgomery County Republican Committee and your council."

According to Marino and Matthews, a prior decision not to commit to more than one debate -- the pair participated in a League of Women Voters forum last night at Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School -- was among the reasons they declined the group's invitation.

"I would sincerely hope that this would not result in accusations of racism," Matthews said.

Marino said he never intended to insult the Korean community and challenged the assertion that the Republicans' refusal was racially motivated.

"It is an absurd accusation," Marino said. "Just because we don't do what they want us to do? We have declined other invitations as well."

Informed of the apology, Choi said Marino and Matthews had done nothing wrong in her view, but she blamed county GOP chairman Frank Bartle for "sitting on the invitation" for weeks.

Bartle called the racism charge "not accurate."

"We have done a great deal to show we are an inclusive party, and we are very interested in the well-being of all people," he said yesterday. "But that doesn't mean we can on a week's notice be at every debate."

Bartle said the candidates had agreed during the summer that they would attend only last night's League of Women Voters debate.

"We have handled this in the same manner in which we have handled other such requests," he said.

The Democratic candidates, Ruth S. Damsker and Wendell W. Young 3d, yesterday said they planned to attend the group's forum next week.

1998 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.