Growing pains felt on Washington County Board of Commissioners
As Washington County has trended toward Democrats, the politics of the county board have finally caught up.
In 2018, Kathryn Harrington handily won an open-seat race for county chair. Harrington, a liberal Democrat, replaced conservative Andy Duyck, solidifying a 3-2 Democratic majority on the county commission for the first time in decades.
Officially, county commissioner is a nonpartisan office in Washington County, and opinions vary — even among current and former commissioners — as to how much political preferences matter. All the same, everyone seems to agree: Things have changed.
"We split on issues that weren't strictly on a partisan basis," recalled Dick Schouten, who represented most of the Beaverton area on the board from 2000 through 2020. "In earlier years, the chair would find a way to hammer out a compromise. I think there was a stronger interest in trying to come to unanimous 5-0 votes in the early years, and I'm seeing less of that in recent years."
The county commission has been largely comprised of Republican-leaning commissioners for most of its recent history. It was one of the last holdouts as Washington County transformed from a Republican-leaning battleground to a Democratic stronghold.
Some say that political transformation is indicative of lasting change, while others says it's simply a product of how populations tend to ebb and flow. Some say the politicization has led to more split votes, while others say that party affiliation makes little difference when it comes to compromises.
Commissioner Roy Rogers, for instance, points out that he's served with both Republicans and Democrats on the board and says these factors haven't mattered much in his experience.
He says the board dealt with largely nonpartisan issues and commissioners were often able to find compromise on issues where there was an ideological split.
"I would say it's pretty even over the years I've been there," said Rogers, who is the longest-serving county commissioner in the state. "I've seen folks who are what you would call today very progressive Democrats, and some were very conservative Republicans."
"And all of us sort of melt in the middle on most issues, where we try to find some common ground," he added. "If you're going to be effective at all, you learn the art of compromise."
He also said he's heard the outcry over the number of men on the board in recent years — which didn't have any female members for eight years after 2011, when Desari Strader left her District 2 seat. In 2018 and 2020, there was a push to get more women and people of color on the board.
But Rogers recalls when he served in 1993 on a board with four women: Bonnie Hays, who chaired the commission, District 1 Commissioner Kim Katsion, District 2 Commissioner Kathy Christy, and District 4 Commissioner Linda Peters
"I hear people were saying, 'Oh, it's just a bunch of white guys, that's terrible.' And I can say, 'Well, I remember when it was four women, was that terrible?'" Rogers said. "And did I care? Not one bit. They were great people to serve with. I didn't really think of men or women, it didn't matter. And whether you were Republican or Democrat, I didn't care. We all came to do the work of the public, that's all we were there for."
However, there is no denying that Washington County is growing — and becoming more diverse.
When Rogers took office, there were fewer than 300,000 people in Washington County. That's ballooned to more than 600,000. Of the three Portland metro area counties, Washington County has grown by the largest amount since the 2010 Census.
Much of that growth has been in the Latino and Asian communities. Commissioners pointed to the results of the 2020 U.S. Census, which shows Washington County has the most racially diverse population in the state.
"We're becoming more diverse and our population is growing," said Commissioner Nafisa Fai, who was elected in 2020. "So, I think Washington County is definitely changing, and it's a good change, and I'm really excited to be here for that."
Compared to the previous census, the Latino population grew by about 20% and is the largest minority population in Washington County. The Asian population grew slightly less than that. Now, about 40% of Washington County residents identify as Hispanic or Latino and/or a race other than white, compared to just over 30% in 2010 data.
Despite these demographics, Washington County has never elected a Latino or Asian American commissioner. Fai, who was born in Somalia, is the first Black person elected to the board, as well as the first Muslim.
Fai says a desire for representation is why so many people rallied around her campaign in 2020 — she represents the voices that have never had a seat at the dais before now.
"My election had so many people getting behind it because people were really hungry for that change of Washington County," Fai said.
She added that "the perception has been that Washington County has been very conservative male-driven."
Fai has committed to engaging minority voices more during her first term on the board, particularly around issues of public health and transportation, which are areas of governance where Fai has the most experience.
"One thing I do and try to strive for is … (identifying) the voices that are missing and to also push the system to say when you're having conversations about solving problems with people who are historically been marginalized, it's not one size fits all," she said. "If you want true representation, you really have to have robust conversations."
However, Fai acknowledged that, as much as people of color backed her campaign, she cannot speak for the experiences of all of them, making it all the more important that government has mechanisms for engagement with underrepresented populations.
Washington County has tried to address this, passing its first-ever equity charter last month that will prioritize community outreach to minority groups. It mandates, among other things, the formation of an advisory council, which will be comprised of board members and members of the public who come from underrepresented communities, to provide input to county leaders on issues of race and equity.
The committee will make policy recommendations to the board and review current county operations through the lens of diversity.
However, despite gains made to address a historic lack of representation on the board, some say that the commissioners' ability to collaborate has been hampered compared to previous board makeups.
Rogers said that in his previous experiences working on a board with liberal colleagues, collaboration and compromise were much greater than these principles are now.
"We've become a lot more partisan, which is disappointing," Rogers said.
Schouten, a Democrat, agrees with Rogers' assessment.
"It's a nonpartisan position, but people bring their politics and their philosophy," said Schouten, who preceded Fai as District 1 commissioner. "And I think in recent years … the Democratic Party of Washington County has been more involved in local government elections."
Schouten added, "It's become more partisan than it was in maybe the earliest years on the board."
Schouten also said, however, that he thinks party affiliation is only part of the problem with this current board of commissioners. While he and Chair Kathryn Harrington were nominally allies within the county commission's liberal bloc, he's become a sharp critic of the chair since leaving the board at the end of 2020. He and others say that what they perceive as Harrington's unwillingness to work collaboratively with those who disagree with her is a key contributor to the board's increasing polarization.
"The board I think the last couple of years was more divided maybe on personalities … there were also policy differences, but that wasn't the biggest issue," Schouten said. "I don't think our board's functioned all that well, and I've been interviewed on that with respect to Kathryn Harrington. … As a board, it's hard to get things done when you have those squabbles."
Commissioner Jerry Willey agrees that the commission's political leanings have changed significantly since Schouten and former Chair Andy Duyck were on the board. While he and Rogers more often find themselves on the losing side of a 3-2 vote now, he said he doesn't necessarily see the shift as a problem.
"The political landscape has significantly changed just in the last few years," Willey said. "I think the 'blue wave' a few years ago certainly was an accurate reflection of (how) the political climate has changed. And in some regards, I believe that Washington County needed to make some of these changes that we've done."
He mentioned how the county government has grown operationally, becoming more of a provider of social services, than it has been, as well as how the commissioners are now considered full time — a move he called "bringing the county into the 21st century."
Willey said he thinks it's only a problem when the majority isn't interested in working with the commissioners on the other side of the issues.
"(Kathryn) only needs three votes to get what she wants," Willey said. "When that is the perspective, then you don't have collaboration and you don't have partnership or working relationships with your commission. And she and I have had that conversation several times."
Harrington did not return requests for an interview on this topic.
It's not hard to see how some votes are sharply split along ideological lines as a result.
There is a referendum on the May ballot that shows how the 3-2 votes tend to come around contentious issues that are divided along party lines.
A county ordinance banning the sale of flavored tobacco and vaping products passed late last year on a 3-2 vote, with the board's two more conservative-leaning members, Rogers and Willey, opposed to the policy. They both cited the harm to businesses as a key reason for their opposition.
Rogers even referenced the lack of business representation on the board as a key way that the changing makeup of the county commission, despite becoming a bit more racially diverse, may leave some blind to the needs of that community.
"We're a large agricultural county and yet we have nobody on the board who's from an agricultural background," Rogers said. "We don't have the number of businesspeople that we used to — and I'm not saying of any particular size of business, but we just don't have that anymore."
Rogers was the lone commissioner to oppose the salary increases that were approved via a charter review in 2020. He argues that making commissioners "full-time, paid politicians" has led to some of the lack of budging along partisan lines.
"I mean, I might be wrong and this is just my view, but I've seen it become much more partisan because people are not wanting to lose these positions that they fought to gain and that are paying them money," Rogers said.
Fai, and others on the board, say that the switch to full-time, better-paid commissioners is part and parcel of pushing for more diversity on the county's governing board.
Lower-income people — including many people of color — are often precluded from running for office because of the lack of pay and due to the time commitment.
"I wanted to make sure that we had a commission where somebody could run for office and be able to have a family wage job so that they could support their family," said Commissioner Pam Treece, who pushed hard for the salary review.
Fai herself falls under that umbrella, saying she could not take on all the duties of a commissioner if she didn't have the $115,000 salary to support her and her three young boys.
"It's so much easier to have one job rather than two jobs, because that would have been the reality for me," she said. "It made it easier for me to focus on delivering immediate results and really just being a commissioner that delivering for our constituents."
Rogers stressed, however, that he doesn't see the question of whether commissioners should be paid for full-time work as a racial or gender-based issue.
"I don't know that that means a lot. … I mean people are people, no matter what your background is, whatever your creed or nationality is," he said. "Some are more liberal and some are more conservative. You know, that doesn't follow a particular race."
Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part story examining how the Washington County Board of Commissioners has changed over the past four years. Read the second part here.
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