We'll admit that we were initially nervous that, if elected, Khanh Pham could become just another solid Democratic vote from the "People's Republic of Portland." She talks in the language of a community activist, complaining that the Student Success Act of 2019 didn't go far enough, that corporations are not paying their fair share and that the state's pension hole is a revenue problem, not a spending problem.
The reality is far more nuanced than those campaign soundbites suggest. So, it might be tempting to turn to a seasoned public servant to fill the post being vacated by Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer. Someone like Jeff Cogen, who has bona fide progressive credentials and a track record of getting things done.
Cogen was elected to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners in 2008 and served as chair from 2011-13. He also has run a business and, most recently, headed Impact NW, a non-profit helping to prevent homelessness by providing a variety of support services.
So, with a steady hand raised to fill a vacant seat, why are we backing someone without any elective experience? There are several reasons.
First, Pham's well-crafted-but-shallow talking points on policy and politics are counterbalanced by a compelling personal story that suggests a more complex world view.
The daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Pham grew up in Southern California and came north with a full ride to Lewis & Clark College. Her time there included two semesters abroad, in Vietnam and Zimbabwe, and an internship at Willamette Week.
Graduating in 1991, she knew she wanted to be a community organizer and headed to South Los Angeles to fight for better transit access and environmental justice. After a stop in Oakland, she returned to Portland to pursue graduate studies at Portland State University in urban planning with a focus on climate change.
As a new mom (her daughter is now in kindergarten), she said the impact of climate change became even more important to her. While working with the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, where Pham emerged as a leader in Portland's Jade District, she started a climate justice program and now is the organizing director for OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon.
In that role she has toured the state to hear about the environmental concerns of rural Oregonians.
The idea was to show that environmental justice is not simply a priority for urban liberals and finding allies in unlikely places is a smart organizing move. But we also trust that in the process, Pham has become more sensitive to the views or rural Oregonians who disagree with her. That will be key if she wants to truly find common ground on the issues that are important to her in Salem.
Pham also bolstered her case for the statehouse when she said she would likely be a "no" vote on the cap-and-trade legislation, a priority of Democratic leaders that's stalled in the Legislature. She's not happy that utilities largely got a pass and that the system allows polluters to buy their way into compliance, rather than cleaning up their emissions.
Her dismissal of the Democratic plan as a largely symbolic gesture full of special-interest loopholes will not sit well many of the people who've endorsed her. But it does signal a toughness and streak of independence that we like, even if we don't completely share her analysis.
In short, Pham represents one of the new faces of Oregon at a time when fresh perspectives are needed. And, who better to bring them than a first-generation mom raising a bi-cultural daughter at a time when a pandemic and climate change are re-shaping the state and the world?
Cogen is a safe bet in this race. But we think the potential payoff with Pham is worth a small gamble and we urge voters in District 46 to send her to Salem.
Editor's note: An unedited first draft of this editorial was posted on April 13 and the edited version has been substituted.
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