Jessica Gomez has overcome plenty of adversity in her life, so why not try to become Oregon’s first female Republican governor, too?
Gomez, a relative newcomer to state politics, is the latest person to throw her hat into the ring for the gubernatorial race next year. The field so far also includes fellow Republicans Bud Pierce, who ran unsuccessfully against Gov. Kate Brown in 2016, as well as Lane County businessman Darin Harbick and Roseburg refrigeration repair technician Paul Romero.
Brown, who is term-limited and cannot seek re-election next year, has yet to endorse a candidate to replace her. No Democrats are currently in the race.
Gomez toured the Palm Harbor Homes factory in Millersburg on Tuesday as part of her tour of Oregon, getting to know more areas of the state while focusing on businesses that provide options for solving the housing crisis.
But before digging into that, it helps to recap Gomez’s story to this point, to learn why she focuses on the issues that drive her campaign.
Growing up in a poor Hispanic neighborhood on Long Island, New York, Gomez’s education lagged far behind other children and she couldn’t read and write for much of her early childhood. Her first year in school was as a freshman in high school, an experience she called “eye-opening.”
Family turmoil interrupted her schooling and she spent a year of her teens homeless, couch surfing and living in parks.
“My parents were pretty young when they had me and people go through challenges,” Gomez, 43, said. “We moved to Oregon during a time when the economy was really depressed and I think that put a lot of pressure on them and, ultimately, the family just kind of dispersed and I was left to try and figure out how to survive on my own for a while.”
Despite the hardship, Gomez graduated from high school after moving in with her grandmother back east. She then graduated from Suffolk Community College in Selden, New York. She turned her academic success into employment in the tech sector, learning the manufacturing process for microchips and other computing hardware.
She met her husband, Patrick Kayatta, back east and then the two of them moved to Southern California to pursue other job opportunities. The couple worked for a small start-up company for a few years in Monrovia, California — just east of Pasadena. While the company went out of business, the experiences she and her husband gained while working there allowed them to start their own microchip manufacturing business in Southern Oregon, Rogue Valley Microdevices.
Now based in Medford, where she lived as a teen, Gomez says that overcoming her downfall reshaped her perspective.
“Going through all of that really gives a different perspective,” she said. “It makes you really appreciate success and the people who were there to help you along the way.”
She says that her experiences made her realize the value of taking responsibility for where you are in life and working hard to find success. It’s because of her own hardship that Gomez says she understands the value of a safety net, but says that Oregon’s benefits system is more of a hindrance than an assistance.
“I think there’s this misperception that government programs are the end-all-be-all and what I would say is a good paying job … will always be more impactful for a family than any government hand-out we can possibly provide to them,” Gomez said. “So I’m looking at ways that we can help people to build upward mobility. We’ve got a safety net system that is actually holding people back.”
The hypothetical but plausible example she provided was a single mother of two, whose income level is low enough to qualify for state assistance but high enough to be a pay-raise away from losing those benefits.
“You start to build a career and start to make money, those benefits drop off faster than you can build up enough revenue to replace the cost of that,” Gomez said. “So, you end up upside down.”
She says her economic policies would focus on building strong regional economies, like the growing tech sector in Southern Oregon that she is a part of. Her campaign website focuses on investments in infrastructure, both in cities and rural areas, in order to grow economic opportunities.
The other big issues Gomez focuses on are public safety, like the need to bolster police resources all over the state, and education policies like state-mandated instructor-to-student ratios in core classes like math and science.
Gomez toured the Palm Harbor facility this week because she is interested in private sector approaches to solving Oregon’s housing crisis, too.
“My interest in really seeing how these homes are really put together has a lot to do with our home crisis right now,” she said. “We need to develop much more inventory … than we have now. And I’m looking to see what we can do to build up an inventory in our homes quickly. And this looked like a really great, viable solution.”
She also felt a personal connection to Palm Harbor, since the company’s Southern Oregon factory in Phoenix burned down in the wildfires last summer. The loss of valuable homes in Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties also fueled her interest in bolstering the production of more homes in Oregon.
Gomez is a relative newcomer to politics. While she ran unsuccessfully for state senate against Democrat Jeff Golden in 2018, Gomez says she has mostly been involved in Republican politics at the local party level. She’s a member of Business Oregon and a board member of the Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls. She sits on the Jackson County Economic Development Council and is the Executive Committee Chair of the Rogue Workforce Partnership.
Despite her involvement in Southern Oregon, Gomez realizes that she’s a new face for most Oregonians. She considers this an advantage, not a setback.
“I think the people that have been in the leadership in this state, many of them have had a lifetime of experience in state politics … and we’re missing that business background,” she said. “We’re missing someone who has that life experience. I think, when you serve that long, you end up losing touch with what it’s really like to build a business, pay taxes, buy a home, to struggle with childcare.”
She knows she has a tough hill to climb in campaigning around the state and building up that name recognition, but Gomez says she looks forward to it.
“People getting to know you, it takes time and a whole lot of effort,” Gomez said. “It’s actually … a really great learning process for me as well. Because if I’m going to be elected to provide that leadership for our state, I have to really know the processes and I have to really know our state well, and that takes time. It’s all about people.”
Troy Shinn covers healthcare, natural resources and the Linn County government. He can be reached at 541-812-6114 or email@example.com. He can be found on Twitter at @troydshinn.