Diversity increasing in Oregon Legislature
Membership includes most ever people of color, gays, women ever.
Woodburn City Councilor Teresa Alonso Leon immigrated to Oregon from Mexico with her family as a child. The oldest of five children, she grew up picking berries and working in nurseries around Woodburn to help earn money for the household. Her mother had a fourth-grade education; her father never went to school.
Leon went on to be the first in her family to earn a college degree. She now has a master's degree in public administration from Portland State University and works as the head of Oregon's GED program. After three years on the Woodburn City Council, Leon is poised to join the Oregon House of Representatives for District 22, Oregon's only minority-majority district.
"I have lived the American dream with amazing jobs that have led me to this extraordinary opportunity," Leon said.
As the first Latina immigrant elected to the Oregon House, Leon's victory illustrates a larger trend of diversification in state government.
She is one of six new lawmakers of color who won seats in the Oregon Legislature Nov. 8. Their election breaks a record for the number of minorities represented in the Legislature and could help shape policymaking in ways that remain to be seen. The House also will have a record number of women.
"It is very important our people's leadership actually ends up looking like the people of Oregon," said Tawna Sanchez, representative-elect in House District 43, who will be the only Native-American in the Legislature in 2017. "We have to step up and make sure that representation happens. There are lots of different views about how things should be, and it's hard to understand unless someone shines light on that perspective for you."
All 10 new members of the House of Representatives identify either as people of color, female or gay. The Senate also gained another member of color: State Rep. Lew Frederick won in Senate District 22, making him the second of two African-Americans in the Senate. The other is senior Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem. Then, on Dec. 14, Lane County commissioners appointed James Manning to succeed Sen. Chris Edwards, D-Eugene, who is resigning Dec. 31 from Senate District 7. Manning also is African-American, the first to serve as a Lane County legislator.
In 2017, the House will have four Latinos, all new Democratic members, except for Sal Esquivel, a longtime Republican representative from Medford who plans to resign in 2018. Diego Hernandez will represent East Portland's District 47, succeeding another Latino-American, Jessica Vega Pederson. Mark Meek of Gladstone won election to Clackamas County's District 40, now represented by Brent Barton, a Democrat from Oregon City.
McDonald's franchisee Janelle Bynum of Happy Valley, who won District 51, becomes the House's only African-American, after Frederick's election to the Senate. The mother of four gained exposure to lawmaking during an internship at the U.S. Capitol when she was attending a girls boarding school in Washington, D.C..
The Legislature's diversification stems both from population changes and from an effort by community and political action organizations, such as the Latino Network, to promote minority candidates.
While diversity is increasing in the Legislature, numbers still fall short of reflecting the percentage of minorities living in the state.About 12.7 percent of state residents identify as Latino, 4.4 percent as Asian, 2.1 percent as black, and 1.8 percent as American-Indian, according to 2015 census figures. The Legislature has zero Asian lawmakers.
"I tend to be critical of the idea that if we have 10 percent Latinos, we need 10 percent in the Legislature," Hernandez said. "It doesn't really take into consideration the historical reasons for why we haven't held power."
While the notion of minorities having power in the political process is important, it oversimplifies the complexity of minorities as individuals, Hernandez said.
Hernandez, who is now 29, was the first Latino to win election to the Reynolds School Board and the board's youngest member.
"The assumption was I was only going to represent and speak for the Latino community," Hernandez said."That standard isn't applied to everyone else. White board members aren't solely going to represent white people."
"Even though I do have that culture and heritage, I also represent many other things than Latinos," he said. "I see myself as representing everybody, including and especially young people who are very underrepresented in the Legislature."