A Gresham restaurateur and former legislative candidate is the new chair of the Oregon Republican Party, marking the party’s third leader in less than 18 months.
The Oregon GOP announced Wednesday that Justin Hwang, elected as the party’s vice chair in May, will serve as the party’s new chairman. Hwang fills the vacancy left by former state Sen. Herman Baertschiger Jr. (R-Central Point), who announced his resignation last week in a letter to ORP members, writing that “it is time to pass the torch.”
Justin Hwang made unsuccessful bids for the Oregon House in 2018 and the state Senate in 2020, running on platforms of supporting small businesses and prioritizing economic recovery in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The first Asian American and Korean American to serve as the party’s chairman, Hwang became a U.S. citizen at 18 years old after emigrating from South Korea.
Hwang’s ascension on the Republican side is accompanied by the likely election of five Vietnamese American Democrats to the Oregon House this November. His story mirrors an observation offered by some of the Vietnamese American candidates WW interviewed: that after decades of growing roots in American society, the time is ripe for immigrants and the children of immigrants to build political power.
Hwang opened his first restaurant, Joy Teriyaki, in Gresham in 2006. He has since expanded his teriyaki and poké chains to over 30 restaurants across the Portland metro area.
“I’m excited to bring a fresh voice to the party along with my years of experience as a small business owner,” Hwang wrote in a statement released Wednesday. “My colleagues and I are ready to get to work and we only have one vision in mind for 2022—to elect more Republicans to office.”
Hwang’s statement signals optimism on the part of the Oregon GOP that it can make electoral gains in a year when national trends favor Republicans. However, the resignation of Baertschiger last week marks the latest sign of instability within party leadership that dates back to February of last year, when Republicans ousted three of their top party leaders and elected state Sen. Dallas Heard as their new chairman. Heard resigned this March, criticizing “endless slander, gossip, conspiracies, sabotage, lies, hatred, pointless criticism, blocking of ideas, and mutiny” he faced from party colleagues, urging them to “purge this darkness from the ORP.”
Baertschiger took over after Heard’s resignation, but only intended to serve as a transitional leader between chairs, a duty he felt he fulfilled, he wrote in a letter to party members last week.
The Oregon Republicans’ leadership shake-up last year included the election of a new vice chair and party treasurer in addition to the ousting of its three-term chair, Bill Currier. The turnover occurred after the Oregon GOP passed a resolution claiming that the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was a “‘false flag’ operation” carried out by leftist forces “to discredit President Trump,” a statement that received national attention and was soon denounced by all 23 Republicans in the state House of Representatives.
Hwang’s statement emphasizes issues that Republicans hope will tilt the balance of power in their favor come November. “With record inflation and insane gas prices, rampant homelessness, and lack of leadership from Kate Brown and Joe Biden, we know that Oregonians are fed up and ready for change,” the statement reads.
Contacted by WW on Thursday, a spokesperson for the Oregon Republican Party did not return a request for comment.