A Republican From 2004 Is Running for Congress in Virginia

Can a GOP candidate who talks about human rights and democracy promotion win in 2014?

A counterintuitive campaign: Scholte
©2014 Richard A. Bloom
Ethan Epstein
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Ethan Epstein
May 1, 2014, 5 p.m.

On a March even­ing, at a meet-and-greet in a spa­cious, well-ap­poin­ted North­ern Vir­gin­ia home, GOP con­gres­sion­al can­did­ate Su­z­anne Scholte did something that not many politi­cians — Demo­crat­ic or Re­pub­lic­an — are likely to do dur­ing the 2014 cycle: She talked pas­sion­ately about pro­mot­ing free­dom in for­eign coun­tries. She told her audi­ence of ap­prox­im­ately two dozen middle-aged people about a North Korean refugee she had helped to res­cue, and trum­peted her back­ground as “someone who has spent dec­ades pro­mot­ing hu­man rights abroad.” “We’ve got to stand up for free­dom and demo­cracy and hu­man rights,” she said.

These were strange words to hear from a Re­pub­lic­an in 2014, at a mo­ment when the party seems in thrall to the quasi-isol­a­tion­ism of Rand Paul. Then again, Su­z­anne Scholte is an un­usu­al can­did­ate. Not many con­gres­sion­al can­did­a­cies are news­worthy in for­eign coun­tries, but in mid-Feb­ru­ary, the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s pa­per of re­cord, wrote an art­icle about Scholte’s cam­paign, call­ing her “a con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ist who has widely cam­paigned for hu­man rights in North Korea.”

The seat Scholte is seek­ing — which rep­res­ents wealthy sub­urbs and ex­urbs to the west of D.C. — is held by Demo­crat Ger­ald Con­nolly, who won reelec­tion in 2012 with 61 per­cent of the vote. In oth­er words, she is pretty clearly an un­der­dog in the race.

Still, as­sum­ing that Scholte wins the GOP nom­in­a­tion at a con­ven­tion this month — which seems likely, giv­en that she has racked up en­dorse­ments from former Vir­gin­ia Gov. James Gilmore and Tom Dav­is, the last Re­pub­lic­an to hold the seat — hers will be a cam­paign worth watch­ing. Ar­gu­ably, it will serve as a test case for wheth­er voters have any ap­pet­ite left for ag­gress­ive in­ter­na­tion­al­ism — a stance that, just a few years ago, defined the Re­pub­lic­an Party but now seems largely out of fash­ion.

A long­time North­ern Vir­gin­ia res­id­ent, Scholte began serving as head of the De­fense For­um Found­a­tion — an or­gan­iz­a­tion that pro­motes strong de­fense spend­ing — in 1988. Dur­ing her ten­ure, she says, she real­ized that “you need to fo­cus on the coun­tries that are a threat to the U.S. And every coun­try, without ex­cep­tion, that was a threat to the United States was also a threat to its own people.” Over the next sev­er­al years, she began or­gan­iz­ing pub­lic testi­mony from So­viet, Chinese, and Cuban de­fect­ors. 

In 1997, she spear­headed the first con­gres­sion­al hear­ing fea­tur­ing North Korean de­fect­ors — a former col­on­el in the North Korean army and a dip­lo­mat. And for the next dec­ade and a half, Scholte be­came con­sumed by the is­sue. In 1999, she or­gan­ized the first con­gres­sion­al hear­ing on North Korea’s ghastly gu­lag. She went on to found the North Korea Free­dom Co­ali­tion, an am­al­gam of some 65 NGOs work­ing on hu­man rights, and in 2008 she was awar­ded the pres­ti­gi­ous Seoul Peace Prize. Over the past sev­er­al years, she’s also be­gun to fo­cus on the plight of the people of West­ern Saha­ra, who are liv­ing un­der Mo­roc­can mil­it­ary oc­cu­pa­tion.

Scholte says “a strong na­tion­al de­fense” is what an­im­ates her con­gres­sion­al cam­paign. “I’m very wor­ried about na­tion­al se­cur­ity,” she ex­plains. “We have got to be second to none. We’ve got to re­main strong.” In Con­gress, Scholte says she’ll rel­ish be­ing able to con­vene hear­ings about hu­man-rights ab­uses oc­cur­ring across the globe.

To be sure, in keep­ing with the zeit­geist, Scholte feints in a tea-party dir­ec­tion from time to time. She says, for ex­ample, that it was the IRS scan­dal that promp­ted her to enter the race. She also prom­ises to re­peal Obama­care and “re­duce our de­fi­cit by cut­ting waste­ful spend­ing.” A de­vout Chris­ti­an, Scholte sits on the ex­ec­ut­ive com­mit­tee of the an­ti­abor­tion Susan B. An­thony List.

But she’s also a fierce op­pon­ent of se­quest­ra­tion, which Con­nolly voted for as part of the 2011 debt-lim­it deal and which she says has been “dev­ast­at­ing to our na­tion­al se­cur­ity.” None of this is sur­pris­ing when one con­siders that tens of thou­sands of cur­rent and re­tired gov­ern­ment work­ers, plus people who work for gov­ern­ment con­tract­ors, reside in the dis­trict — or when one con­siders that her hus­band, a de­fense work­er, lost his job as a res­ult of se­quest­ra­tion. Nev­er­the­less, it’s bra­cing, com­ing from a can­did­ate rep­res­ent­ing the party of Scott Walk­er.

One po­ten­tial elect­or­al boon for Scholte is the loc­al Korean pop­u­la­tion. The dis­trict in­cludes An­nandale, home to one of the largest Korean-Amer­ic­an en­claves in the United States. (Per­haps be­cause of this con­stitu­ency, Con­nolly has not been in­dif­fer­ent to the plight of North Koreans. In 2011, he co­sponsored the suc­cess­ful North Korean Refugee Ad­op­tion Act, which boos­ted U.S. ef­forts to aid child refugees from North Korea. His of­fice de­clined to com­ment for this piece, on the grounds that Scholte has not yet won the nom­in­a­tion.)

All in all, some 40,000 vot­ing-age Korean-Amer­ic­ans live in the dis­trict, ac­cord­ing to Scholte’s cam­paign. But as many as 30,000 aren’t re­gistered to vote. If they re­gistered, they’d rep­res­ent between 8 and 9 per­cent of the elect­or­ate; as it stands, Koreans are about 2 per­cent of the vot­ing pub­lic. To that end, Scholte plans an ag­gress­ive re­gis­tra­tion drive. 

Ul­ti­mately, however, the Korean vote alone is un­likely to lift Scholte to vic­tory. If she’s go­ing to de­feat Con­nolly, it will be be­cause a num­ber of voters make the coun­ter­in­tu­it­ive de­cision not to treat hu­man rights and for­eign policy as an af­ter­thought. Scholte is op­tim­ist­ic about that. “The 11th Dis­trict of Vir­gin­ia is a highly edu­cated area and a melt­ing pot of im­mig­rants,” she notes, point­ing out that “many North­ern Vir­gin­ia res­id­ents fled per­se­cu­tion to live in Amer­ica.”

In late April, Scholte took a week off from cam­paign­ing to travel to South Korea, where she launched bal­loons — car­ry­ing Korean trans­la­tions of the U.N.’s Uni­ver­sal De­clar­a­tion of Hu­man Rights — over the 38th par­al­lel. Need­less to say, she was the only Amer­ic­an con­gres­sion­al can­did­ate there.


The au­thor is an as­sist­ant ed­it­or at The Weekly Stand­ard.

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