On more than one occasion, Chris Chyung had a front door slammed in his face while campaigning against state Rep. Hal Slager.
“They told me, ‘Go back to China!’” recalled Chyung, who was born in Merrillville and raised in Munster. “I’ve never even been to China. My parents, who are both physicians, were born in Korea. So at least get your racism right.”
Chyung, who lives with his parents, beat Slager by 82 votes on Election Day last month. He earned more than 12,000 votes the hard way, by pounding sidewalks, meeting strangers, attending community forums.
“The notion that we could actually pull this off was unfathomable when we began,” he said.
Slager, a long-term Republican from Schererville, served 10 years there as a town councilman and with three two-year terms as a state representative. He had name recognition, General Assembly experience, and a much deeper war chest of campaign donations.
But the young Democrat from Dyer simply out-hustled Slager, knocking on thousands of doors – sometimes the same doors three or four times during his campaign – while surfing a small blue wave of voters in the 15th House District, which covers Schererville, Dyer, St. John, and parts of Griffith.
“So far, everyone has been nothing but pleasant to me. But it’s still the honeymoon period,” said Chyung, who begins his two-year term Jan. 3 when the General Assembly convenes in Indianapolis.
Chyung will become the first Asian-American state legislator in Indiana’s history, according to my research, a fact he’s fully aware of.
“It’s absolutely an American success story,” he said. “Still, at the end of the day, it’s all about getting business done for the state of Indiana.”
Chyung has been getting down to business by researching policy topics, drafting bills, meeting with interest groups, and listening to constituents. He’s been learning about issues ranging from child advocacy and Medicaid to taxation and the annual debate on our state’s time-change controversy.
“I’ve been super busy,” he said when I caught up to him in between appointments.
Chyung recently attended a crash-course orientation hosted in Indianapolis by the Indiana Legislative Services Agency, which offered one-hour primers on key issues. He is already receiving calls and texts from constituents, asking about concerns — everything from pot holes on their street to education reform.
“I’ve got a list of dozens of things to do before I take office,” he said, checking his smartphone’s calendar.
After chatting with Chyung for more than an hour about his life as a rare Asian in a sea of Caucasians in his voting district, and his bright political future, I found him to be affable, eloquent, articulate and, more importantly, humble and hungry.
“I’m still digesting my victory. And so is my family,” he said.
Chyung’s parents arrived in this country during the aftermath of the Korean War, eventually landing in Chicago where they completed their medical fellowships. They later moved to Northwest Indiana, where they still practice.
They continue to hope Chyung will follow their career paths as physicians, similar to his two sisters and his brothers-in-law.
“In grade school, I thought I would be a doctor, too, but I don’t like seeing blood,” Chyung joked. “I have no plans for medical school at this time.”
He also never planned on becoming a public servant or state officeholder. Raised in an upper middle class home, the Munster High School graduate leaned more conservative than liberal. His parents typically voted Republican in presidential elections.
He dabbled in real estate after attending college in New York City to become an industrial engineer. He’s not married and doesn’t have children.
In 2016, when national politics became the daily conversation, Chyung began showing an interest in local politics. He volunteered for Habitat for Humanity and other endeavors, eventually attending meetings of the Lake County Young Democrats.
“My family and I began self-identifying as Democrats,” Chyung said.
He learned that his district’s state rep, Slager, was “out of step” with its people. Chyung tried contacting Slager, who never responded to him, Chyung said.
“A lot of people feel their representative is not listening to them, and so did I,” he said.
Chyung tried suggesting that other Democratic candidates run against Slager, but no one stepped up.
“So I did,” Chyung said with a shrug, “even though I knew we would be outgunned on many fronts by Mr. Slager and the state’s Republican Party.”
In 2017, at a local political forum, a college student from Crown Point asked about his campaign efforts. After talking with him, Chyung brought on Sam Barloga as his campaign manager.
“Honestly, there were points in the campaign where I thought it was such an uphill battle that it couldn’t be done. But we made a plan to stick with our message of transparency and good governance, and bring that message to the doorstep of as many voters as possible,” said Barloga, who knocked on more than 10,000 doors.
With just over $100,000 in campaign funds, and a few high school volunteers, Chyung was victorious, stunning Slager and likely everybody else.
“Chris was quite the candidate,” Barloga said. “He had his heart in the right places, and voters were quite impressed. They wanted a new voice in Indianapolis.”
It’s been almost a month since the election and Chyung has yet to hear from Slager — to offer congratulations or to share office details.
Still, Chyung notes Slager is a constituent.
“If he wants to talk with me about any issues on his mind or projects he was working on, I’m available,” Chyung said. “Just like for all of my other 65,000 constituents.”