When Rep. Michelle Steel, who now represents California’s 48th congressional district, was contemplating her first run for political office, she was cautioned against it.
Michelle, who was born in South Korea and came to the United States in 1975, speaks three languages, and English is her third. People close to her advised that her accent might hold her back. But they were wrong.
She had served two terms on the Orange County Board of Supervisors when she was elected to Congress last year. She won her first political office in 2006 when she was elected to serve on the California State Board of Equalization. The board handles administration and collection of taxes in the state. Steel’s interest in that job stemmed from her immigrant mother’s experience with American taxes. When Steel won the office, at the time she was the highest ranking Korean American in elected office in the country and the highest-ranking elected Republican woman in California. Steel, who went on to become chairman of the Board of Equalization, won a reputation as a staunch advocate for small businesses and lower taxes.
While operating a business in California, Michelle’s mother was sent a big bill by the State Board of Equalization which was a mistake. Instead of contesting the bill, Steel found out later that her mother had simply paid it. “When you are first generation in the U.S., and you don’t speak English well, you get scared when tax agencies send you a letter. So, my mom paid a tax that she didn’t owe, plus penalty and interest on the top of it. When I found out about that, I started wondering. That is something that might happen in Third World countries, but not in the United States. A seat on the board opened up. So, I told my husband that I was going to run for this seat to help small business owners.”
Steel’s interest in running for a slot on the California State Board of Equalization that job stemmed from her immigrant mother’s experience with American taxes.
“When I was serving as a State Board of Equalization member, I found out there was a really bad program that, before people could get a business permit, when they did not have credit, they had to make a deposit with the Board of Equalization of $5,000 to $50,000. When you’re opening up any stores, retail stores or big stores, you need your money more than ever. So, this wasn’t a good program to start with. But worse, the State Board of Equalization was supposed to give the deposit back after three years, if you pay these taxes on time. But when these taxpayers were asking for refunds, instead of refunds, they got audits. The state was holding more than $400 million in deposit money inside of the State Board of Equalization.”
Steel braced for battle. The board wasn’t easily persuaded to send the deposits back to their rightful owners. “Well, you know, tax agencies,” she tells IWF, “when you ask for a refund, there’s no such thing as a refund in their dictionaries. It took me seven years to abolish that program, but I returned all the deposits back to the taxpayers when I was there.”
When Steel ran for Orange County Board of Supervisors, she had established such a reputation for defending the taxpayer that Howard Jarvis Taxpayers’ Association PAC, a leading low-taxes organization, endorsed her. The late Howard Jarvis, you will recall, was a pioneer tax activist, who pushed Proposition 13, a landmark property tax limitation initiative. “Michelle has a long history of fighting government bureaucracy and standing up for taxpayers,” the group’s president said.
Hers is a quintessential American story. Michelle Eunjoo Park was born in South Korea in 1955. Her father had been born in Shanghai to Korean parents. Her mother and father both fled North Korea during the Korean War. They met in Busan (formerly Pusan), a South Korean city that became a refuge for North Korean refugees. Her maternal great-grandfather owned a lumber yard in North Korea, where her grandfather was helping out. “The communists came in, and gave my grandfather 24 hours to leave. They said he could carry out whatever he could with one carriage, one horse. But other than that, this is no longer yours. Everybody was holding their pots, rice, and whatever they can carry out from that house.”
During her family’s escape, Michelle’s mother had to hide for a long time in a field of eggplants. “She never cooked eggplant in my life because she was hiding inside of the eggplant field, so she never, never cooked eggplants. She said, ‘I’m never going to eat that plant again.’ So, that’s the way it was. They had to pay for the guides to help them get on boats to take them South.”
“Some of my mother’s younger siblings were crying and she had to close their mouths because nobody must hear them. It was pitch dark. Then they can come down in the boat to near Seoul. And then from there they walked to Busan.” At one point, Michelle’s mother, who was responsible for her small siblings, had to hoist her three-year-old sister on top of the train—it was the only space left. She spent the ride making sure someone held onto the child.”
Michelle grew up in Seoul and Japan, where her father was stationed. She speaks Korean and Japanese. She came to the U.S. before the rest of the family. “It was my father’s decision,” she recalls. “I had completed one year of college in Japan, and my major was English. I was speaking English with Japanese pronunciation. And my father says, ‘You are an English major, I want you to be a diplomat. You have to go to America to learn proper English.’ So, he sent me here first.”
After her father died three years later, other members of the family, including her mother, decided to emigrate. Michelle explains, “My fourth aunt—I always call them the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th aunt, because I have so many aunts. My fourth aunt came to the United States with her husband around 1970. My fourth aunt invited my grandmother. My grandfather had died before my grandmother came. So, my grandmother came, and they used to live in Washington, D.C., or really the Silver Spring, Md., area. My mom came with me to Los Angeles in 1978. I came here in 1975.”
While studying at the prestigious Pepperdine University (from which she earned a degree in Business Administration at the Graziadio Business School), Steel helped her mother, who had opened a shop selling apparel for men. “I had to do a lot of work because my mom’s English was really bad. So, I was a buyer. I was a salesperson, and I did the hiring, firing, and everything while I was going to school full-time.”
Rep. Steel worries that young Americans are romanticizing socialism.
While playing tennis on the courts of the old Ambassador Hotel (which was near the Korean section of Los Angeles), Michelle got to know another tennis enthusiast, Shawn Steel, whose conservative politics dovetailed with her own. Shawn, who would go on to serve as Republican Party Chairman for the state and has been a national committee member since 2008. Steel’s future mother-in-law was not sold on the match. “My mother said that ‘No, you cannot marry him.’ My mom was shocked that I was dating a white person. At that time, it was very rare. But we dated three years and I’ve now been married to my husband for 39 years and he’s a saint. He’s just a great man. But my mother was upset.”
Fortunately, Michelle’s grandmother stepped in and convinced her daughter that Shawn was the right man for Michelle.
Needless to say, Steel became a great fan of his grandmother-in-law and he and his mother-in-law ended up being close, despite the rocky start. Shawn Steel is a lawyer with a practice specializing in personal injury cases. The Steels have two adult daughters.
Rep. Steel worries that young Americans are romanticizing socialism. “I think in America, younger generations, who have so much here, so much freedom, so much everything, are admiring socialism. They have never experienced what a socialist country is. A socialist country is so different. I hope some of the young people have learned from Covid-19, where you have to wait in long lines outside of the market, and then when you went to the market you couldn’t find any toilet paper. That is what socialism is like. They should go to another country, like Venezuela, North Korea, China, and learn what these countries don’t have, what we have in the United States. I am so grateful I am a U.S. citizen. Just think, even with my accent I can be elected to Congress.”
She told the Ripon Society Forum that the results of last year’s elections showed “that minorities who may look or speak differently from most not only have a place in this Republican Party, but can be elected to the United States Congress.”
She continued, “I’m a product of the American Dream: a first-generation immigrant who succeeded in this country and was given the honor to serve my community. I ran for Congress on my record of fighting for taxpayers and protecting public safety. I stuck to facts and common sense and worked hard to meet the residents of my district. In Congress, I’ll stick to my commonsense principles, seek to lower taxes, and reduce business regulations to help hard working Americans succeed.”
We predict that Michelle Steel won’t have any trouble making herself heard on Capitol Hill, which will be very good news for hard working Americans.