Dr. Richard Pan Talks Sacramento Mayoral Bid

Former California State Senator says homelessness hurts the city's economic prospects and makes residents feel unsafe.

PUBLISHED AUG 5, 2023 8:30 A.M.
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  Courtesy Richard Pan mayoral campaign

When he was growing up, Dr. Richard Pan’s parents urged him to vote and be civically engaged. But they did not encourage him to participate in politics.

Pan, who recently became the fifth person to enter the Sacramento mayoral race ahead of the March 2024 primary, is the son of people who came to the United States from Taiwan around the early 1960s. When Pan’s parents left Taiwan, the country was in a 40-plus year period of martial law known as the White Terror.

“We were not encouraged to get involved in politics because they remember people [who] disappeared,” Pan said in a phone interview with California Local. “If you were on the wrong side, you could be gone. You could just suddenly disappear and be dead.”

As a two-term former California State Senator, Pan has held the highest office of anyone in the Sacramento mayoral race, following the path of incumbent Darrell Steinberg, who is the former president pro tempore of the State Senate. Pan is yet another person with an unlikely life story to join the race.

Joining a Crowded Race

A field of candidates who’ve come from all walks of life has emerged in Sacramento in recent months, both before and after Steinberg announced in late May that he will not seek a third term.

Dr. Flojaune Cofer, an epidemiologist, would be the city’s first Black mayor. Steve Hansen was the first openly gay member of Sacramento City Council and would be the first such person to serve as mayor. California State Assemblyman Kevin McCarty another former Sacramento councilman, told California Local he was once a high school dropout.

A fifth candidate, Maggy Krell—who took down the sex trafficking website Backpage while with the California Attorney General’s Office— recently told Capital Public Radio that she would leave the Sacramento mayoral race and run for the Assembly seat McCarty will vacate because of his mayoral campaign.

Pan, who is seeking to become the first Asian-American elected mayor of Sacramento, kicked off his campaign on June 11 with an appearance on The Ronin Project Podcast, which is hosted by political strategist Bill Wong and is about "bad Asians getting into good trouble." Another person of Asian descent, Jimmie Yee, was appointed Sacramento’s mayor following Joe Serna’s death from cancer in 1999.

“Sacramento's never elected an Asian American mayor despite the fact that we brought Chinese workers to build the railroad for us back over 150 years ago, and various other groups of Asian immigrants have come over to farm our farms and work on fields and do other types of things,” Pan said.

Pan was born in Yonkers, New York in 1965 and earned his medical degree in 1991. After earning a Master’s in public health from Harvard, he came to the Sacramento area in 1998 to work at University of California, Davis “to teach doctors about community health, to get doctors out to the community,” he says. He’s also worked as a pediatrician for UC Davis Children’s Hospital.

His political involvement can be traced almost from the time he arrived in the Sacramento area, with Pan soon serving on groups such as First 5 Sacramento, Sierra Sacramento Valley Medical Society and the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs. He also wrote a Sacramento Bee op-ed in 2005 against Proposition 73, a law that would have required 48-hour parental notification for minors to get abortions.

“There can be no doubt: The safety of thousands of California’s most vulnerable teenagers is at risk if Proposition 73 passes,” Pan wrote. The proposition fell short with voters.

Five years later, Pan ran successfully for State Assembly. He told California Local that he was the only Democrat at the state or federal level to flip a Republican seat that year, a notorious red wave. Ordinary voters, no matter their political stripe, Pan said, “wanted someone who wants to work on solving the problems. And that’s what I ran on.”

He served two terms in the Assembly before being elected to the State Senate in 2014. In the legislature, he helped bring down the percentage of people who lacked health insurance. The Sacramento Bee also credited Pan when he termed out of office last year with “writing one of the toughest U.S. vaccine mandates.” 

What Pan Would Do as Mayor

Pan’s a Democrat but has sometimes struck moderate positions, endorsing his eventual successor Angelique Ashby, another moderate, as he was leaving the State Senate. He also offered some middle-of-the-road ideas in his interview for this article, saying his three top priorities as mayor would be homelessness, public safety and economic development.

“I’m looking at the city and I’m seeing… that people are losing, if not they have not entirely lost, confidence in the city,” Pan said. “Because they look around at our parks and our sidewalks and—they don’t feel they’re safe.”

For Pan, it’s not just a safety issue.

“Disorder discourages investment in our economic development. Certainly I, as mayor will be working to (build) partnerships with folks to try to bring in new jobs and so forth.”

He sees homelessness in part as an economic issue, saying, “Most people are homeless because of their economic situation.” He hopes to reduce the number of people becoming homeless and to provide mental health subsidies for people who are already experiencing homelessness.

“We have to have other help,” Pan said. “But what we first got to do is try to keep people from becoming homeless, because that makes the situation a lot worse.”

Pan, who lives in Natomas, is quick to note that Sacramento is where he met his wife and where they’ve raised their children. Sacramento’s potential drew him here. He still sees it.

“I'm running for mayor because I want to realize that potential,” Pan said. “We can come together to solve our problems, we can be sure that we treat everyone in our community with compassion and we can build a brighter future for everyone in the city of Sacramento.”

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