As she puts it, she’s an immigrant’s kid, a first-generation American from a Lebanese father. She’s an under-40 suburban mom with kids in public schools who can’t remember a time growing up when her family didn’t rely on government programs to get by.
“Demographically,” Parrish says, “I should not be a Republican.”
But she is—and an outspoken one at that.
Parrish, a state representative from West Linn, is at 38 an emerging leader in the Oregon GOP. In her first race, in 2010, she beat the Republican favorite in the primary. In the 2012 elections, Democrats took back control of the House by targeting her and four other first-term Portland-area Republicans. Only Parrish won re-election.
Parrish is proudly brash and at times controversial —criticized in 2012, for example, when she blasted out thousands of robocalls at inactive voters. She has strong ideas about what her party—which has not seen a statewide victory in 10 years—must do to become more relevant.
Parrish also talked to WW about why Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, has been good for the Republican agenda, and how people panicked by losing their guns don’t all come from the GOP.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Oregon, but we bounced around. My parents’ marriage was very volatile. It wasn’t always pleasant—lots of domestic violence-type issues. My parents divorced, and my mom moved us around. I went to five elementary schools, three middle schools and two high schools. There was no real stability growing up.
You have been outspoken about reforming public assistance programs, which your family relied on.
That was back when welfare benefits were fairly generous and food stamps looked like Canadian dollars—not the Oregon Trail card you swipe at the grocery store nowadays. Section 8 housing. Health care. The gamut of government services. My mother was getting food stamps until the last kid turned 18. She had six kids.
But we all ended up Republican. My sister is ridiculously conservative compared to me. My brother migrated to Texas. What we learned from that experience is that the system doesn’t work.
What isn’t working?
How do you get off the system? There’s no good way to get people to think out of those programs effectively.
But don’t a lot of programs try to provide a bridge?
That’s the intent. I don’t think that’s the outcome.
Republicans have not won the governorship since 1982. What’s your party not doing that it should be?
We can do a better job getting out our vote. We saw that in 2010 where 100,000 Republicans stayed home and Chris Dudley lost the governorship by 20,000 votes.
The tragedy of the division of rural Oregon and urban Portland is that there really is a feeling of disenfranchisement out in rural Oregon, that their voice is just not heard, that their vote doesn’t count. It has artificially depressed voter turnout.
You were targeted this year for defeat, as were four other House Republicans in the Portland area. Only you survived. You also won in the suburbs, the electoral tipping point in Oregon. What were you hearing from voters that Republicans might learn from?
When I go out and knock on doors—we’re talking about suburbia here—there are certain things voters in Oregon want, the things I think government should be doing. I want a road to soccer practice, and that road needs to be safe, there needs to be a police officer on it, and I don’t want potholes in it.
And what do you hear about schools?
In other states, they’re actually doing universal school choice. They’re letting parents pick the school that works for them, as long as it meets a course standard.
Oregon used to make, grow and build things. We don’t do that anymore. Those pathways are not there for kids in urban Portland, just as they’re not there for kids in rural Oregon. That’s an opportunity to link those two worlds together around some common ideas around education.
Do Republicans win by campaigning on universal school choice?
What’s the outcome of [school choice]? The outcome is, your child gets to have a productive life. They’re not one of the 80,000 18-to-23-year-olds in this state on food stamps. I don’t know any parent who wants that for their kids.
School leaders say the existing educational structure might collapse.
Schools are collapsing without us making decisions around choice.
What else should Republicans be talking about?
How we care for our people. Kitzhaber came in with 700,000 Oregonians on food stamps. At his midterm, 800,000 Oregonians are on food stamps. What’s 2014 look like? Another 100,000 people? That’s not sustainable.
If you’ve got hungry kids—and I’ve been a hungry kid, and that sucks—a hungry kid can’t learn. How do we ensure we’re not sending kids to school hungry? If you have a hungry kid who’s not getting good nutrition, you’re going to have bad health-care outcomes. That drives the cost of health care. That’s at the root of fundamental conservative-thinking values. You’re looking at the system in kind of a long-term trajectory.
Democrats say they look at it in the same long-term trajectory. How are Republicans different here?
I’d like to see a pathway for individuals to move forward.
Kitzhaber has taken up parts of the Republican agenda—school reform and public pension reform, for starters.
He’s building a very centrist agenda. The governor—while I don’t agree with everything he’s trying to get accomplished—recognizes the problems for what they are. He knows there’s work on [the Public Employee Retirement System], public safety and economic development. Historically, these are things Republicans care about.
So how could Republicans hope to give Kitzhaber a serious run in 2014?
It depends on how this [legislative] session goes. His biggest problem may be his own party. If it was me running for governor, I’d point out our unemployment hasn’t gotten better, there’s an increase of the number of people on the Oregon Health Plan. There’s not enough job creation.
And there’s a bridge to be built between urban and rural communities: Schools in both places are failing. The person who comes in with a unification message can give Kitzhaber a run.
But can Kitzhaber be beat in 2014?
I’m not sure. It depends on if the Republicans have a strong enough challenger.
Is there one out there?
I don’t know who that person is right now.
As you noted, Multnomah County, with its heavy Democratic vote, has been an almost impossible barrier for Republicans to break through.
This state is not as blue as people think. You should see the emails I get on guns. They’re not just from crazy right-wingers, they’re coming from Democrats. That just doesn’t play out at ground level. I have Republicans calling for gun control. I have Democrats saying, “Don’t take away my guns.”
A lot of people in your own party probably don’t like your candor about how many issues defy party labels.
The Republican Party didn’t choose me. I crashed the wedding. The great thing is, I get to listen to my neighbors, hear their concerns and know they need a voice in Salem. I get to be that voice.
And if my neighbors hadn’t re-elected me, well, I would just have gone and opened a pie shop.