By Zachariah Bryan
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Nobody expected Savio Pham to run for state Senate. Not even himself.
But here he is. On Aug. 11, running as an independent Republican in a three-way race for the 38th Legislative District, which represents the Everett area, he was able to edge out Democrat Bruce Overstreet 30 percent to 29 percent.
This November, he’ll go head to head with Democrat John McCoy, who received 40 percent of the vote.
Up until recently, he never even touched politics. He spent most of his career in the tech industry, most recently as senior vice president for Business Data Services, along with gigs in leadership development and teaching. He earned two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s degree in business administration, and a doctoral degree in management and organizational leadership.
“I never thought I would do anything for politics,” he said.
Then, last year, Pham became a field representative for Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA), where he talked to constituents and relayed their concerns back to Smith’s office. During that time, he saw the struggles of many different people — veterans, immigrants, business owners — and came to the conclusion that not enough was being done.
“It inspired me,” he said. “If I become an elected official, maybe I can help.”
But before all of that, Pham was an immigrant from Vietnam. After the Communist Party took full control of the country after the Vietnam War, he said his father, a police officer in southern Vietnam, was imprisoned for 12 years. During that time, Pham said his family lived through hardship and discrimination. That lasted until 1987, when his father was released and his family went to the US government liaison office, Orderly Departure Program for political refugees from Vietnam and started the process to immigrate to the United States.
He showed up to the United States at 18 years old. He hardly had any money to his name (maybe $40 bucks, he said) and he didn’t speak English. But he was determined to make his way, nonetheless.
“When I came to the U.S., I had only one goal and that was to be successful. Anything that didn’t facilitate that goal, I just ignored. Things like discrimination, people laughing at me for not knowing English, I just shrugged it off. I said OK, that’s only temporary,” he recalled.
Looking back at his life, he believes he’s achieved a version of the American Dream. In part, it’s what makes him think he can make a good senator.
“I just felt like my story can help inspire other people. I think we all face our own challenges in different ways, whether you were born here or whether you migrated,” he said.
As a newly minted politician, Pham said he aligns mostly with the values of the Republican Party. He doesn’t believe in what he calls “over taxation,” including a proposed state income tax and carbon tax. He’s pro-life, meaning he will vote down any bill supporting abortion. And while he wants to give more support to health care providers who are battling the opioid epidemic, he doesn’t believe in safe injection sites for heroin users.
As for the “independent” in Independent Republican, Pham said it doesn’t come from a desire to separate himself from the party or from President Donald Trump. Rather, he said he just doesn’t like how beholden politicians are to their parties. He believes if a bill comes before him, he will be able to exercise independent thought and choose what he feels is right, rather than vote along party lines.
On Trump, Pham said he’s different from other politicians, and that can make people uncomfortable.
“If you have a beer with him, on a personal level, he’ll probably talk the same way as if he were president,” Pham said.
Usually, politicians will talk differently in different situations. That’s not something he holds against Trump.
Having made it through a competitive primary, Pham believes he has a shot at winning the general election in November. Although McCoy won the primary with a solid 10-point lead, Pham thinks it’s a weak showing for an incumbent.
“I’m a nobody, and I’m a Republican. People hate Republicans! And I got 30 percent,” Pham said.
The odds are stacked against him, though. The 38th District is reliably blue — the last time citizens elected a Republican state senator was in 1994. And ever since McCoy won a seat in the state house in 2002, he has comfortably beat out Republicans in seven elections, including most recently in 2014, when he moved over to the state Senate.
McCoy is also much further ahead in fundraising. He has gathered over $83,000 in contributions, backed by unions, businesses, political action committees, and tribal agencies across the state.
That’s compared to $24,000 for Pham and $4,000 for Overstreet.
But Pham pointed out that McCoy far outspent his opponents in the primary, throwing $40,000 at the election. Pham spent $14,000 and Overstreet spent $10,000 (which includes money from a $10,000 loan).
While McCoy had a clear money advantage, including professional consultants, Pham said he had to build his campaign from scratch, with no prior experience.
“I pretty much ran my campaign by myself, with a few volunteers, and we got 30 percent,” he said.
Playing the part of the optimist, he said it’s a sign that the 38th District is ready for a new state senator.
Zachariah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.