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Foreign-Born Candidates Compete for US House Seat in Oregon - 2004-06-23


One of the most competitive contests in the U.S. House of Representatives this year is taking place in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon. Although that Northwestern state's First Congressional District is predominantly white, the contest to represent it in the nation's capitol is one of the most ethnically diverse. Republican Goli Ameri is challenging Democratic incumbent David Wu. Ms. Ameri is Iranian and Representative Wu is the only member of Congress born in China. From Portland, Colin Fogarty looks at the candidates and their changing district.

Like many political candidates, Goli Ameri's campaign billboards are red, white, and blue. At first glance, her name looks like "Go America."

"Goli Ameri-can. Somebody asked me did you choose this name on purpose. Is this a campaign last name? And I said, honestly, this is my husband's last name," she says.

Ms. Ameri and her husband are from Iran. She immigrated in the 1970s to attend Stanford University and remained in California after the 1979 Iranian revolution. Now, the former marketing consultant could be the first Iranian elected to Congress.

"It's huge! I mean, you are a refugee from a country and you come here and you live the American dream and then you ask people to vote for you. It's very emotional. It is," she adds.

Such unbridled patriotism won Goli Ameri strong support among Oregon Republicans and so has her ability to tap into a new source of campaign contributions, her fellow Iranian Americans. Oregon Republican Party chair Kevin Mannix is eager to tout Ms. Ameri as a spokesperson for President Bush's policies, such as the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act.

"She does not come across as harsh," he notes. "And she has shown real zeal in terms of her perspectives on the issues, without being extreme."

And that's important, according to Pacific University political analyst Jim Moore. He says previous Republican candidates have lost in this district because they've been seen as too conservative.

"This is a district that the Republicans have been trying to win for 30 years. On paper, this is a growing suburban district and those districts are Republican districts? moderate Republican, but Republican districts," he says.

But Goli Ameri's close alignment with the Bush administration has alienated her from some Iranians. Jahansha Javiid, who edits the on-line magazine, says her campaign serves as a civics lesson for a group that's not fully engaged in American politics.

"Because Iranians are still at a very infant level in terms of political awareness of how voting counts, because voting never counted or even existed when we were born," he says. "But on the other hand, her policies are more to the right and the average Iranian American would have a difficult time voting for her."

Democrats are also hoping Ms. Ameri's close association with President Bush will cost her votes in November. She faces Democratic incumbent David Wu, who has his own American dream story to tell. The only Chinese American in Congress, Mr. Wu immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1960.

"It is a positive thing that there is a broadening of the face of representation in America, but the temptation is to sometimes focus too much on that," he says. "My opponent and I share an immigrant background, but it's all in the lessons that we learn from that. This is really about values. And this is really about where we want to see the world go."

Mr. Wu is fond of saying his opponent walks in "lock step" with the administration. He's focusing his campaign on so-called bread and butter issues such as roads, schools and jobs.

Today, Representative Wu is visiting Hemcon, which makes super-absorbent bandages for use on the battlefield. The Portland company is quickly expanding because of the continuing hostilities in Iraq. Congressman Wu takes credit for sending Hemcon millions of tax dollars in start up money.

Mr. Wu is a Stanford-educated attorney who specialized in high technology issues. Since he left his law practice for Congress in 1998, he's angered many of his former clients with his vocal opposition to most favored trade status for China, citing his native country's poor record on human rights.

But China is a major trading partner for Oregon and its growing high technology industry. Goli Ameri hopes to tap into that anger with a campaign pledge to increase trade with the Pacific Rim.

She's touring FEI, which makes nano-tech-microscopes.

"I think FEI is really that quintessential company that not only ties Oregon to the world, but it also ties Oregon to its future," says Ms. Ameri.

Companies like this have transformed Oregon's First District from a mostly white farming region into a bustling high tech hub that's becoming more racially diverse. And political analyst Jim Moore says that makes voters here more open to candidates with names like Wu and Ameri.

"Here we have two Stanford grads from California who moved up here to Oregon to the same area because of the high tech industry," he notes.

And in that way, Professor Moore says, where the two candidates were born is not as significant as the qualities they share with the district they're vying to represent in Congress.