The Evolution of a True Public Servant: Patty Kim

An underdog helping underdogs

Photo By Rick Snizik
Story By Randy Gross –

Some people argue that politics is nothing more than a popularity contest. If that’s true, then that could explain why PA State Representative Patty Kim has won her last four elections by margins of 57% (2014 Democratic primary; unopposed in general election), 79% (2016 Democratic primary; unopposed in general election), 68% (2018 general election), and 70% (2020 Democratic primary; unopposed in general election).  She is highly popular in the 103rd legislative district, which includes Harrisburg city and, (at press time) pending some possible court challenges, might also soon include the West Shore’s East Pennsboro Township, Lemoyne, Wormleysburg, and Camp Hill. But her fame isn’t owed to wealth or celebrity. Rather, all one must do is look at Kim’s accomplishments to get a sense of why people like her so much.

And you don’t have go back very far. Just since October of 2021, Kim has been part of or party to the following:

• An Emergency/Rental Assistance Workshop in Steelton
• Procurement of a $150K grant for Reservoir Park updates
• Approval of $500K in funding to curb gun violence in Harrisburg
• A ribbon-cutting ceremony for Breaking the Chainz, Inc., a community resource center in Uptown Harrisburg
• A “2nd Chance Workshop” to help people learn about pardon & re-entrant processes
• And, most recently, the announcement of $225 million in federal funding for frontline workers

Additionally, in 2021 Kim co-sponsored legislative proposals for raising Pennsylvania’s minimum wage (One Fair Wage) and banning chokeholds and positional asphyxia by law enforcement, both initiatives popular among capital city residents.

Clearly, Kim cares about her constituents. And they, in turn, care about her enough to keep returning her to a seat that was once held by such notable names as Ron Buxton and former Harrisburg mayor Stephen Reed. It is because of the symbiotic relationship between Kim and her district’s residents, and the many ways that her “solution-based” approach to government has helped so many of them in their daily lives, that we have selected her as our “Influencer” of the month.

Empathy rooted in adversity

You’ll never find a better sparring partner than adversity. – Golda Meir

Some people receive a knock-out punch from adversity. Others not only rise above it but pass on the lessons they’ve learned from it to their children.

Kim’s parents clearly are examples of the latter. Her father, though Korean, “was actually born in Manchuria,” she says, “and things were getting rough. They [his family] had to leave China because it was dangerous for Koreans.” Her dad had to endure an arduous three-week journey on foot when the family truck broke down.

Her mother, born in North Korea, also needed to take flight, first moving with her parents to South Korea before taking refuge from the war in the United States. Eventually, Kim’s mother and father would meet in the small town of Escondido, California. Daughter Patty was born in 1973.

“I share that story,” explains Kim, “because it’s such an immigrant-survivor mentality. Like, ‘how did we get so lucky?’ But my family would say, ‘how did we get so blessed?’”

Of course, not all her parents’ adversity was experienced during the Korean War days. There were also the weeks – and years – of discrimination once they were in America. “When my mom was working in retail,” says Kim, “just the making fun of her broken English, treating her like she’s dumb, because she doesn’t speak perfect English … I saw that and, as a child, to see other people being treated differently, especially your mom and dad … it had an impact. So, having that underdog feel, like ‘we don’t see everybody up on stage, but we’re always on the side,’ like almost kind of embarrassed, because we look different, we sound different. And so, it took a while for me to really appreciate my culture.”

Kim’s early years, spent in San Diego until the 6th grade, were certainly spent wrestling – or perhaps sparring – with how to rise above the racism, to even empathize with those who saw her as different. So, by the time her family moved to McLean, Virginia, she was already discovering that she enjoyed interacting with – and understanding – people.

The drive to connect

Kim majored in communications at Boston College in preparation for what she hoped would be a successful career interacting and understanding people as a TV journalist. But it would be a slow start.

“I went back home for a little bit to do cable TV [Montgomery County Cable News],” she says with a grin. “They hire anybody coming out of college.” From there, it was on to Hagerstown, Maryland for “a real on-air position” with the local NBC affiliate. She did that for about two years, she recalls, “and then Harrisburg, Pennsylvania – a mid-sized market! – a bigger city than Hagerstown, just two hours from home – ta-dah! Perfect! It was a great opportunity, and it brought me here.”

Kim remembers those early days at WHP-TV 21 as a true learning – and growing – process. “I’m very grateful for Harrisburg viewers … (she laughs) they saw a lot of mistakes! I grew up, almost before people’s eyes, whether it be the news, or to Harrisburg City Council meetings, to now … and it’s just been quite a journey.”

Through it all, Kim valued the ability to team up with her videographer in “communicating somebody’s life,” and says she truly enjoyed the “people interaction” and creativity. “That was fun,” she says. “That’s what I remember most.”

After years of interacting with local people as a reporter, it seemed like a natural transition to start helping local people.

The power to help the least powerful

Kim’s connection with the Harrisburg community not only became stronger during her years as a journalist, but it would serve as a bridge to the higher calling of public service that has included two terms on the Harrisburg City Council, and now her fifth term as a PA State Representative.

“So, when I was a news reporter, we were low on reporters,” she explains. “And I was told to be the lead reporter. And the lead reporter always had the hard news. But I was always drawn to the ‘fluffy’ news, as my news director would call it. About the community doing good things. Making a difference. They were the fluff pieces. But I loved those stories, because I could talk to real people who were doing awesome things, and I wanted to showcase them. And, you know, part of public service, I still get to meet those types of people. Support them. Whatever they’re doing, I just come behind and support them. Yeah, it was kind of a neat transition.”

But Kim’s move into public service wasn’t just about supporting her constituents. Rather, she has felt almost an obligation or moral duty to help everyone in her district, even those who may not agree with her politically.

“I have to prioritize,” she says. “There are people who are really struggling, whether it be in poverty, or lack of jobs … I just feel like I have life savers, and I’m just throwing them out for people who are struggling, whether it be mental health or, again, financial issues.”

“I see people who disagree with me,” she continues, “and I try to interact with them. But most of our time is just putting out fires. Somebody about to get evicted, versus somebody who wants to fight me on the 2nd amendment issue? I have to attend to the urgent matters. But absolutely I believe I need to represent everybody.”

Ten years (and counting)

Now with nearly a decade of experience as a state legislator behind her, Kim has time to reflect – before diving headfirst into her upcoming reelection campaign.

As the mother of two teenaged daughters, she continues to build on a legacy of diversity and service for future generations. (“We have a big world out there,” she says, “and there are people who help, and there are people who need help. Pick which side and go to it.”) As the daughter of parents who faced – and then rose above – discrimination, she prides herself on letting people know they have value. (“It took me a long time to realize that I’m in a cool position, and that my words can really impact somebody, especially children. Maybe a friend or their mom says, ‘you’re great,’ but sometimes when somebody else who has a title says, ‘you’re great,’ sometimes they carry that a little bit longer. And they walk away with their head up higher.”) She smiles when she is asked about her single biggest accomplishment (“Our constituency services,” she responds, “that is the bread-and-butter of my office. My team is tired from serving so many people, but yet I’m honored that they feel comfortable to come to talk about literally any issues.”). Yet, she is simultaneously saddened by the latest report of violence against minority communities (“People of color know it’s there,” she says. “It’s the non-people of color who are like ‘I have allies, I support you guys’ but don’t understand the extent. They don’t have to live with it until they see somebody die on camera.”)

For each moment of exaltation in politics there can be moments of frustration and weariness, especially in such divisive times. Kim herself compares it to “standing on each side of the wall … playing dodge ball.” 

Frustrating, yes, but Kim seems undaunted, even as she awaits final word on the redrawn state congressional districts – and whether she will face a challenger in the primary.

Though her many fans may not like to hear it, someday Kim will inevitably retire from politics. When that happens, what line of work might she pursue? “I know there are a lot of organizations that like to do community work, and give out resources, and grants and things like that,” she says, “and because I feel like I know which groups are doing a really good job and are impeccable, I would love to be a part of that. Giving away money! I keep asking people for money for campaigning. (she laughs) I want to give it away!”

Of course, at some point Kim may need a break from always thinking of others. Which means treating herself to the top items on her bucket list: “I’ve never been to Korea,” she exclaims. “To my father’s embarrassment. He just thought ‘I’m done with Korea, we’re Americans.’ So, visiting Korea, and then … living on a farm.”

“As I get older and more stressed out, I like to garden and be in nature. It would just be so amazing.”