Growing up in a foreign country was difficult for Justin Hwang.
He emigrated to the United States from South Korea with his parents when he was young, settling in Los Angeles. He didn't speak much English, and because the family was living in motels around Koreatown where everyone spoke Korean, there were few opportunities to learn.
Then everything came to a head when his mother abandoned the family.
"I can still remember her walking out the door, getting into a silver Toyota Camry, and telling me she would be right back," Hwang said. "That was the last time I saw her."
He and his father moved north to Seattle to be around family, and later, Hwang moved to Vancouver to work in shipping agencies run by his relatives.
"I was starting to think of what I could do for myself, but I was discouraged because of the language difficulties," he said. "Finally I chose to get into culinary because you can be in the kitchen and follow the recipe — not much talking needed."
He graduated culinary school in Pasadena, Calif., before eventually moving to Oregon to open his first restaurant, Joy Teriyaki, in Gresham in 2006. He now owns and operates more than 30 restaurants in the region, including his most recent endeavor, Joy Poke, in the Gresham Station Shopping Center.
Hwang has become a mainstay in the community as a business leader and volunteer, but those early struggles continuely stoked a desire to do more. So, Hwang is vying to claim a seat in Salem as the Republican nominee for the soon-to-be vacant Senate District 25 seat.
"My family came here with empty hands," Hwang said. "I have something I can give back now."
The seat, which represents Fairview, Gresham, Troutdale and Wood Village, is open after longtime Senator Laurie Monnes Anderson decided not to run for reelection. Hwang will face-off against Rep. Chris Gorsek, who is the Democratic nominee. The two previously ran against one another for House District 49.
"I have a willingness and work ethic to show up and represent East County people," Hwang said.
As a business owner, Hwang understands how difficult the pandemic has been on the community.
He has been working seven days a week to fill in gaps across his many restaurants, moving around the region to lend an extra pair of hands as needed. Making things more difficult has been the racism swirling around COVID-19, often referred to as the "China Flu." Hwang said sales have been down because of a fear of eating Asian food.
"I'm saddened to say the Legislature simply has not done enough to provide immediate assistance to our small businesses," he said. "We can't have a Band-Aid solution."
He said it was the response from Oregon Governor Kate Brown that has led to the current economic crisis. If elected, he would advocate for more relief programs to get businesses back on their feet.
On homelessness, Hwang points to the need for the loosening of land-use laws to build more affordable housing. He is also worried about how the mental health crisis and drug epidemic play a role in Portland's growing number of homeless people.
Education is also important to the candidate, especially supporting Mt. Hood Community College — where he serves on the MHCC Foundation.
"Community colleges and trade programs can help our future generation learn skills and lower their expenses," Hwang said. "Our MHCC has been abandoned by our local elected officials for a long time."
Hwang said the focus needs to be on advocating for more funding, perhaps by carving-out a tax specifically for community college funding with language to ensure the money is fairly allocated to all schools.
Community policing and justice has also been on Hwang's mind, especially after a recent incident at one of his restaurants in downtown Portland. He said during one of the peaceful protests that was co-opted by those spreading violence, some individuals went inside the restaurant to "jump" a worker. They beat the man up and stole his wallet and cell phone.
"We went to the police and showed how he was soaked in blood and had been robbed," Hwang said. "Their answer was, 'we don't want to stress the situation right now.'"
Hwang said defunding the police isn't the answer — in fact they need more stable funding — but that there has been police brutality due to some bad apples in the bunch. He wants better reoccurring training for officers that focus on mental stability. He also wants to eliminate racism in the police force through ethics programs.
One of the main reasons Hwang is running for an Oregon Senate seat is because he believes it is the best way to balance Salem. Republicans only need a few positions to break up the super majority happening in Oregon, which Hwang said is important to ensure things are equitable for all community members.
"We need more communication and a healthy environment to work together," he said. "People should elect me as their public servant — I will vote with my community, not my party."
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