Ben Bowman ready to hit ground running
When Ben Bowman was elected to the school board for the Tigard-Tualatin School District in 2019, not only was he the youngest to ever achieve that position at age 27, but he was also the first openly gay member of the board.
Fast forward ahead three years and Bowman, who was elected handily to represent Oregon House District 25 on Tuesday, said he now believes he has the rare distinction of being the youngest LGBTQ legislator in Oregon history. He will be 30 by the time he's sworn in.
"I'm incredibly happy and grateful for the community electing me and — I said this on the campaign trail, and I will say it now — this is when the work begins, and this is when we need to reconcile with each other," said Bowman, a Tigard Democrat. "It was a pretty divisive election."
Bowman had an easy path to the House. He was unopposed in the Democratic primary, and in a new House district centered on Tigard — a strongly Democratic suburb of Portland — he was favored from the outset over perennial candidate Bob Niemeyer, the Republican nominee.
But Bowman said he saw the divisive nature of the election reflected in other races throughout the state: personal attack ads, negative mail pieces and more. Local airwaves were saturated with campaign commercials in the lead-up to the election, many of them filled with dark warnings about how Oregonians would suffer if one candidate or another were elected.
Bowman said he's ready to move on from the mudslinging.
"We have a huge responsibility to make some progress on the big issues we're facing, and now's the time to get to work on it and to leave the politics behind, and (I) really hope that that's what happens," Bowman said during an interview Wednesday, Nov. 9.
Bowman's new district encompasses almost all of the city of Tigard, portions of Bull Mountain and Metzger, the Progress Ridge area, and South Beaverton around Southridge High School.
The district is brand-new, much of it carved out of Rep. Dacia Grayber's district.
Grayber, a freshman Democrat who lives in Southwest Portland, ran — successfully — for reelection in neighboring House District 28 instead.
A 2010 Tualatin High School graduate, Bowman said his three years in elected office has taught him a lot.
"I think I will be a far more effective legislator because of the last three and a half years of experience I've had on the school board," Bowman said.
The representative-elect said during his time on the school board, he learned how to be an effective leader. He credits that development in large part to the help of longtime Tigard-Tualatin school board member Maureen Wolf.
No longer on the school board, Wolf is continuing her political career as well, having been elected to the Tigard City Council on Tuesday. Wolf will serve out the remaining two years of Mayor-elect Heidi Lueb's term, after Lueb had to step down from her position as a city councilor to run for mayor this year.
During his time on the school board, Bowman worked to eliminate Tigard-Tualatin's "pay-to-play" fees, making sports and extracurricular activities more accessible. He also pushed for the passage of racial justice and educational equity policies.
"In a lot of ways, it's similar to the work that the Legislature does, just on a much smaller scale," Bowman said of the school board.
Along the way, he's also learned that it's not whether you might have the best plan to accomplish a goal, he said — rather, it's the relationships you have with others to help you achieve that goal.
Balancing work and more work
While he previously worked for the Oregon Department of Education, Bowman is now employed in the Gladstone School District, where he is the director of student and family support. His plan is to cut back and work part-time during the six-month legislative sessions to help focus on his elected position, and later return to his job closer to full-time. Legislators in Oregon only garner an annual salary of $33,852, significantly lower than legislator pay in Washington and California.
Having worked previously for Oregon Rep. Margaret Doherty, the former House District 35 representative whose district included Tigard and Southwest Portland, Bowman said he knows how long legislative days can be.
Still, Bowman has been eyeing a career in the Legislature for at least a few years now. He ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 2020.
While Bowman was soundly defeated two years ago, when he challenged then-incumbent state Sen. Ginny Burdick in the Democratic primary for Senate District 18, he said he learned from the experience.
The election that year was different, Bowman said, because the COVID-19 pandemic made door-to-door campaigning impractical.
"Nobody wanted to really talk about politics at the beginning of the pandemic, because nobody knew what was going to happen," Bowman recalled. "But what I did learn is that people remember what you do and what you say, and there's a lot of folks who reached out to me, particularly at the beginning, saying they were glad I ran again and they remember the interaction I had with them."
The unsuccessful Senate campaign was also during a period that Bowman also helped start Packed with Pride, a weekly food box program in the Tigard-Tualatin School District. He said he also reached out to the community via his campaign with what he described as "wellness calls." That included one to a woman who recalled Bowman dropped off surgical face masks at her home during a time when the masks were hard to find. She wrote about the gesture on Bowman's Facebook page.
"There were little interactions like that, and I think people appreciated the way that I ran," said Bowman. "When you put your name out there, even in challenging races like my race was in 2020, if you do it in the right way and make a good impression, then sometimes you get another opportunity."
He added, "I certainly didn't think I'd have another opportunity two years later."
Bowman said he's looking forward to the next two years, saying it's one of the most transformational elections in Oregon history because of all the new faces.
"We have a new governor, a new Senate president, a new speaker, new majority leaders (potentially in both chambers), a new labor commissioner, new congresspeople — all this turnover among the rank-and-file in the Legislature," he said. "I'm just gonna go in with a very open mind and just try to be successful and get bills passed and hopefully make progress."
As in his campaign to get elected to the school board, Bowman had the support of young people, including high school students, who organized what he called an "awesome" kickoff event for his most recent campaign.
The event at the Broadway Rose New Stage in Tigard brought out 100 people or so, Bowman said, who showed up to hear speakers such as Corvallis Democrat Dan Rayfield, who is speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives, as well as Rep. Tawna D. Sanchez, a Democrat representing North and Northeast Portland.
While Democrats appear to have been pretty successful in the latest election, Bowman said, "I hope that we all remain focused on the fact that voters are really unhappy and there's a lot of problems that have not been adequately addressed."
Bowman personally sees housing, homelessness and behavioral health as the top three issues the Legislature will need to address.
He adds that he will focus on public education as well.
"Kids struggled during the pandemic, and — I think we should not mince words — the pandemic had a devastating impact on a lot of students," Bowman said. "I think the state needs to step up and make sure that schools and teachers have the support and the resources they need to get these kids caught up."
A more local issue he wants to focus on is Highway 141 — better known as Southwest Hall Boulevard. Officially a state route maintained by the Oregon Department of Transportation through Tigard, Hall Boulevard has no highway signage and has been a sore spot for the city government for years.
Like city officials, including outgoing Tigard Mayor Jason Snider, Bowman said he hopes ODOT will make the needed investments to improve safety on Hall Boulevard, before handing the road — and future maintenance responsibilities — over to Tigard.
"The city of Tigard wants to take it over, but right now, it is it is a disaster waiting to happen, and we've already had people who have lost their lives on Hall Boulevard," Bowman said.
He said it is long past due that safety improvements be made to the roadway, including improvements to sidewalks, crosswalks, lighting and more.
Plans for the future
Bowman will be among a growing cadre of millennial lawmakers in Salem when he takes office in January. He's also ensconced in what should be a reliably Democratic House seat.
While Bowman doesn't dismiss future political ambitions, such as running for a seat on the U.S. House of Representatives or throwing his hat in a future Oregon gubernatorial race, his focus at the moment is on his state House seat.
"We'll see," he said. "If I'm able to be successful down there and actually pass some bills and solve some problems and make progress on the things that I want to make progress on, then I would definitely be open to considering that."
Doherty, Bowman's former boss, said she was pleased he ran for office. She describes him as an "old soul," not someone who thinks like a typical 29- or 30-year-old.
Doherty said he has a great background in educational policy as well — Bowman holds a master's degree in educational policy from Stanford University — something that will be an asset. He also already knows his way around the Oregon State Capitol, she said.
"I can see him doing something big in the future, and whether you can get more done as a legislator or as a policymaker is always (the question), but he will do something great for the state of Oregon. I've got no doubt about that," Doherty said.
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