Representing: Region's legislative delegation just got younger, more diverse
A trio of new lawmakers — state Reps. Khanh Pham, Wlnsvey Campos and Ricki Ruiz — were sworn in Monday, Jan. 11, and begin the long slog of the 2021 session next week. Pham and Ruiz represent portions of Multnomah County; Campos a portion of Washington County. All are young. Pham is Vietnamese American, while Campos self-identifies as Latina and Ruiz as Latinx.
They are a more diverse representation for a metro area that, itself, is growing more diverse.
And they have plans to make an impact on the state of Oregon.
It was a day of ceremony, and surprisingly for some, no protesters at the Capitol. After being sworn in on the House floor, Ruiz said, "I couldn't sleep last night. So excited, just overwhelmed."
Pham shared that sentiment. "I actually teared up a little, taking the pledge. I think about what it means for my family."
Her family is from Vietnam.
"This is so exciting," Campos added, as veteran lawmaker Rep. Andrea Salinas of Lake Oswego snapped photos of the rookies and teased Campos for rocking the Keds with her suit, a la Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
But for all the excitement and energy of the swearing-in ceremony, Ruiz wins the award for what might be the greatest political tweet of all time, posting that evening, "Yooooooo I'm a freaking Oregon state representative. Whaaaaaaat! Representative Ruiz. Put some respect on my name!"
Rep. Khanh Pham
When Khanh Pham entered the House chamber Monday, it was not her first time in the Capitol — but it was her first as the elected representative from House District 46 in Southeast Portland.
She is only the fifth Asian American, and the first in more than a decade, to sit in the Oregon Legislature. She succeeds Alissa Keny-Guyer, who did not seek re-election after nine years.
But as a community organizer working for the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, or APANO, it was Pham's job to teach leadership skills and help people whose voices have often gone unheard — racial and ethnic minorities, and low-income households — advocate for themselves on issues such as housing and environmental justice.
"It was the first time many of them had ever been invited to the Capitol and engaged in our political process," she said. "It is a new concept for many immigrants.
"I am committed as a legislator to continue to open those doors and those opportunities for new communities, which have not been a part of our process before."
Pham, 42, is the daughter of immigrants who were refugees from the Vietnam War and came to the United States in 1975. She graduated from Lewis & Clark College in 2001, and after several years away, she returned for advanced study at Portland State University and to work for APANO.
She and her husband, Hector, live in Portland's Jade District, which centers on 82nd Avenue and is home to many businesses owned by Asian Americans. They have a daughter, Maya.
What impelled Pham to go further was her involvement in the 2018 campaign that created a Portland clean energy fund. Between $40 million and $60 million annually is generated from a 1% tax on retail sales by businesses with at least $1 billion in annual revenue and $500,000 in Portland revenue. The city awards grants for energy-efficiency projects, renewable energy and development of related jobs.
"It opened my eyes to politics and political campaigns," Pham said. "We built such a powerful coalition … that after we won, we wanted to continue to build at the state level."
Pham has a seat on the House Energy and Environment Committee. She has endorsed a trio of proposals that would set lower utility rates and provide greater access to weatherization and other energy-saving measures for low-income households, and would set Oregon's requirement for utilities to obtain their power from renewable sources at 100%. The current standard, set in 2016, is 50% by 2040.
"I am excited to see a statewide coalition come together to ensure that it is not just something that comes from the metro region and is a truly statewide alliance," she said.
But Pham said her priority this session stems from another assignment. She is one of two vice chairs of the House Revenue Committee, which writes tax legislation.
"Because Oregon connects automatically to the federal tax code, we are giving away hundreds of millions of dollars to benefit disproportionately the wealthiest Oregonians and corporations," Pham said. "I am prioritizing revenue reform because of all the issues I care about, they all come down to money and making sure we have enough dollars from the general fund for our social safety-net programs."
Oregon tax code usually follows federal law. The committee had drafted a bill to limit federal tax breaks included in the CARES Act last spring, such as bigger tax write-offs for business losses, but the bill did not advance. More tax breaks were added in the most recent federal coronavirus aid plan, among them full deductibility of business meals known as the "three-martini lunch." Current federal law limits the amount to 50%.
Pham says her immediate priority is to disallow or reduce those breaks in the state code.
"But we need a longer-term conversation about revenue reform," she said.
Rep. Wlnsvey Campos
Many new legislators were sworn in this week, but, Rep Wlnsvey Campos, D-Aloha, joins them as the youngest female state legislator in Oregon's history.
Campos, 25, beat Republican Daniel Martin in the Nov. 3 general election to serve as the next state representative from Oregon House District 28, which includes parts of Beaverton and Aloha.
"It's an honor and a privilege," Campos said. "I'm ready to get to work. There's a lot to do."
Campos and the others were sworn in on Monday, Jan. 11, during an in-person ceremony. Precautions were in place to maintain social distancing as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
Despite the in-person ceremony, Campos' family was not be in attendance. As a daughter of immigrants, Campos is aware of the symbolic significance of her election into state office but said it's for the best that they are staying safe at home.
"In another timeline, it would have been great to have my father there," she said. "He was a big influence in making me into who I am today."
Although Washington County is the state's most diverse by race and ethnicity, its legislative delegation is not. Prior to Campos' victory last November, the county had not elected a Latino legislator since Hillsboro Rep. Joe Gallegos in 2014.
Despite her win, Campos says there's a long way to go when it comes to representation.
"We need representation across the board. We need folks in that building who understand different lived community experiences," she said. "For example, those who grew up in a low-income family."
Campos' age also has been a big topic surrounding her run for office.
When asked if her "imposter syndrome" had disappeared after getting elected, Campos said it hasn't gone away completely.
"Some things that I've noticed over the years is that the statistics say I'm not supposed to be here — that I'm not supposed to be sworn in in less than a week," she said earlier this month. "I come from a low-income family, and I'm a daughter of immigrants. Even graduating college statistics weren't in my favor."
Campos was born in Los Angeles. Her family later moved to Bandon, and Campos attended Pacific University in Forest Grove. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in political science and philosophy.
"I want to make sure that I'm not the youngest for long," Campos said about bringing along young female state legislators in the future. "We're seeing a lot of that activism and eagerness to work in politics."
The biggest issues she hopes to tackle in 2021 include the impacts of COVID-19, housing and access to health care.
"If we don't have urgency to act on these issues, then it's going to become the usual," Campos said.
Rep. Ricki Ruiz
Ricki Ruiz grew up in Rockwood facing poverty.
He recalls the difficulties in not having school supplies and having to wear the same outfit three days in a row; the uncertainty of whether his family would be able to find money for rent and avoid an eviction; and only having a single meal per day.
But despite those hardships, it was with the support of loved ones, teachers and programs that Ruiz was able to thrive.
"My parents were my biggest motivators, both migrated from Mexico and started a life in a completely different world," Ruiz said. "They never complained about anything — whether it was beans or an egg for dinner, we were always thankful."
So when Ruiz was elected as the second youngest lawmaker headed to Salem this week, it is with the knowledge that the right programs and support can uplift those living in the diverse community where he was raised and now leads.
"If it wasn't for those who believed in me, I wouldn't be where I am right now," Ruiz said.
The 26-year-old Democrat ran a successful election to claim House District 50, which largely covers the city of Gresham. It is a region with more than 70 languages spoken and a mix of urban and rural neighborhoods.
It is also a place Ruiz has called home his entire life. He works for the city of Gresham as a community services coordinator — leading youth recreation programming, supporting public safety with the Neighborhood Ready Program, overseeing the Youth Advisory Council, and serving as a city Spanish interpreter.
"I bring that Latinx voice to Salem," Ruiz said. "The relief you hear from constituents when they know (my team) speaks their language is priceless. For the first time ever they have a representative who can communicate in both languages."
He also serves on the Reynolds School Board, guiding a school system that he went through not too long ago — he graduated from high school in 2012. In that role, he learned the value of truly listening, and has advocated for smaller class sizes and more mental health support.
"Hearing folks' testimonies and ideas is very important," Ruiz said.
Ruiz said he is excited to get started in Salem. He is a member of the Oregon Legislature's Black, Indigenous and People of Color Caucus — as did Campos and Pham — and is interested about rumors of the potential formation of a progressive caucus or one for elected officials under the age of 40.
He talks about the opportunity to make a difference for his hometown, and the unique perspective he brings to Salem is not lost on him.
"Seeing younger folks and people of color getting voted in, it is a beautiful time making history in Oregon politics," Ruiz said. "I tell folks I wasn't the first and I won't be the last — I want to motivate younger voices to keep voting and consider running for office."
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