Patty Kim of Dauphin County represents Pennsylvania’s current 103rd legislative district, which includes the city of Harrisburg and surrounding communities. When elected in 2012, she made Pennsylvania history as the first Asian American to serve in the state House of Representatives. Rep. Kim is an advocate for a livable minimum wage, and her interests include government transparency, criminal justice reform, and public education improvements. She currently serves on the House Appropriations, Education, Local Government, and Insurance committees. During her second term, she was treasurer for the Legislative Black Caucus. *
Your parents immigrated to the United States from Korea in the 1960s. As children they experienced the violence and terror of the Korean War. How did that experience affect them and your family?
My parents actually never talked about the war — those were stories I heard from my relatives. Nothing remained for them in Korea when they moved in their mid-20s to the United States. You could always sense the burden of loss they carried. Korea represented painful memories — the loss of their hopes and dreams.
What are your memories of growing up as an Asian American?
Neither of my parents spoke English very well, so growing up as a first-generation Asian American, I had a quiet sense of seeing life from the sidelines. We moved from California to Virginia when I was in sixth grade. My mom took me to my first class and said, “Mrs. Garret, this is my daughter, Patty. We’re new to the area.” I was so painfully shy that the teacher looked at me and then asked my mom, “Does she speak English?”
Looking back, that’s pretty funny now — but the prospect of starting over in a new community was overwhelming to me as a young Asian American. Thankfully, I found my voice. When I was elected to the House, I realized what an amazing privilege the office offers me to represent marginalized people who are on the sidelines today. I’m drawn toward them, and I feel it’s my duty to speak for those people who haven’t found their voice or whose voice isn’t loud enough.
As a student at Boston College, you changed your major from nursing to broadcast journalism. Can you talk about that decision?
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At Boston College, I started as a nursing major because I thought that was a way I could help people. But by junior year, I realized that wasn’t the right choice for me. I pivoted into broadcast journalism and ultimately became a television reporter. I loved the pace, the interaction with different people, and the writing and editing. In all, I spent 10 years on-air in several markets, lastly at the CBS affiliate in Harrisburg.
A friend then encouraged me to run for Harrisburg City Council and that changed everything. At the time, I never thought about entering politics as a way to help people. But that’s exactly what it’s allowing me to do every day.
How did serving on city council prepare you for state office?
I’m incredibly grateful for that experience and the lessons I learned there, starting at my very first city council meeting. A woman stood up and said, “I called Councilwoman Kim and she hasn’t returned my calls.” I can tell you there’s no faster way to learn than getting public feedback like that. I learned how to listen to people, how to be responsive, even how to lead an effective meeting. I also learned that it takes time to prove to people that you merit their trust. They’ve been disappointed too many times by elected officials.
By the end of my seven years on City Council, I knew my constituents well and could speak for them with confidence. That confidence came by doing the hard constituent work and really understanding my base.
Was it difficult running as the House’s first Asian American?
My election was tough. I won by just 43 votes. To be honest, I wasn’t focused on anything but the race. It wasn’t until the swearing-in ceremony that I learned I was the first Asian American to hold a seat in the House. But the symbol of being first is powerful. Total strangers have told me how inspired they are that somebody who looks like them is in office. It’s a responsibility I take very seriously, and I’ve been given a lot of support by my colleagues to succeed in office.
Could you talk about the impact of COVID-19 on your work as a member of the House?
COVID was traumatizing to my district and to me personally on multiple levels. But when you’re in a once-in-a-100-year pandemic, you have to ask how you can make a real difference. I was committed to making sure people had access to the medical and economic information they needed. Every day, we worked hard to link people and businesses to every possible resource. We provided a safe place to ask questions.
There was a tremendous amount of misinformation being distributed to people who needed facts the most — both politically and about COVID. On social media, my office’s efforts to communicate the latest on COVID vaccinations and funding support were constantly targeted by trolls. In a district where the public’s mistrust of government and the medical community already ran high, it was very difficult to get honest answers into people’s hands.
During COVID, many working parents couldn’t afford to stay home with their kids. We worked with area school districts to help create what we called “Community Classrooms.” They were staffed by volunteers at various locations and gave students a safe place to attend virtual classes.
I learned that hearsay and word-of-mouth are still very strong in smaller communities. During a crisis like the pandemic, it’s so important to reach out in multiple ways, to communicate directly to key leaders in the community, and to be a credible voice people trust.
How did COVID affect the people in your district?
I represent one of Pennsylvania’s most racially diverse districts. Most of my constituents are not wealthy. In fact, the median income for my district is $32,000 and we have the second highest number of Medicare recipients per capita in the state. At the height of the pandemic, one in five Pennsylvanians lost their jobs and that number was even higher among people of color. Our minority small businesses were hit especially hard.
During the last recession, I came to understand that the first wave of any economic downturn often doesn’t hit poorer communities like ours first, because there’s usually a safety net of basic social supports already in place. It took nearly six months before the recession really touched the most vulnerable in my district. Then things start to crumble and fall apart fast.
COVID affected our neighboring counties first because people there had the money and resources to travel. In my district, most folks can’t even afford to go on vacation let alone take international flights — so it took a little longer for us to see COVID take hold. But when it did, the toll was much higher because many of my constituents have the kind of health issues that are part of being poor — from diabetes and obesity to high blood pressure and heart disease. We lost vibrant community members under age 50 to COVID. It was devastating.
Winston Churchill once said, “Don’t ever let a good crisis go to waste.” Those words really frame the challenge before us today as we start to pull out of the pandemic and rebuild. We need to apply the lessons of COVID as we create our future.
After nearly 17 years in public service, what you are most proud of?
It’s not so much something specific that I personally accomplished. What I’m most proud of is the network of friends and colleagues I’ve come to rely on to make things happen. When I want to do something that is beneficial for a group of people, I know who I can turn to for help — other House members, businesses, faith-based and community leaders, members of the nonprofit community, and individual volunteers who simply want to make a difference. When you have a core group like that — people who want to do good things — you can pool talents and resources to make good things happen. It’s building that network of people I can call on, who will pick up the phone on the second ring, that I’m most proud of. That’s how I know what I’m doing has value.
*This material is presented for informational purposes only, and does not constitute the endorsement by UPMC of any public official, program, or political party, nor the endorsement of UPMC by any public official or political party.
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