The changing face of East County politics
On election night, a group of school board hopefuls and their supporters gathered at the Gresham Food Carts on Northwest Burnside Road.
Unfazed by a light rainfall, the atmosphere was festive. The more than 100 people in attendance enjoyed food and drink, laughed and played with children as they awaited the first round of results Tuesday evening, May 21.
With the first wave of results shortly after 8 a.m. came a roar of celebration as the votes overwhelmingly backed East County Rising and its mission to change the face of politics in East Multnomah County.
"It was an exciting night for everyone," said Eddy Morales, Gresham city councilor and East County Rising founder.
In only its second major election, Gresham's newest political action group ran a near-perfect slate of candidates, claiming 10 of 11 seats in regional school boards and ushering in a new era of diversity and youth to local leadership positions.
The idea for East County Rising formed after Morales returned to Gresham, where he grew up, and became frustrated by the city's elected officials.
"When we moved here it was around the time when (President Donald Trump) was elected," Morales said. "There were things I wanted addressed, like affirming to immigrant communities that the city would not support raids against them."
But Morales said when he tried to bring up those issues, as well as other difficulties like the struggle renters face in Gresham, he was ignored.
So Morales, who lived and worked in Washington, D.C., for 13 years, began exploring a bid for local office.
What he discovered, he said, was a lack of paths available for political newcomers to navigate the complicated system. While he understood the intricacies of elections, that same knowledge wasn't shared by others in the community. That led to qualified candidates feeling uncomfortable about throwing their hats into the ring.
"Our city has struggled to entice people to run for office," Morales said. "Most don't know where to start, or doubt their ability."
Thus East County Rising was born nearly a year ago. The mission of the group, which celebrates its first anniversary at the end of July, is "To engage, energize and elevate East Multnomah County by transforming governments to better reflect the diverse community it serves, mobilizing voters, training progressive candidates and attempting to win elections."
The group thrives on its membership, with more than 500 people already joining, who pay $20 each a year in dues.
In her first year on the Gresham-Barlow School Board, Mayra Gomez brought a fresh perspective that paid dividends for parents and students.
Gomez' background as an English as a Second Language teacher gave her an understanding of certain attendance issues. The board had noticed that Hispanic students tended to stop going to school around Thanksgiving, only to return regularly after Christmas break. From her time teaching, Gomez knew those students were going to work at Christmas tree farms to support their families.
"If I hadn't have been in the room, I'm not sure someone else would have thought of it," she said.
Gomez was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board prior to the election, and after running unopposed with East County Rising's support for Position 6, she is excited about the future of the district.
Gomez knew Morales from college, and liked his ideology. So when the organization emailed her asking if she wanted their endorsement and support through the campaign, she agreed.
"The best part was the training they offered," Gomez said. "East County Rising was supportive throughout the process and allowed me to get to know the other candidates running."
The director of college and career readiness at West Linn-Wilsonville School District, Gomez has lived in Gresham for 13 years. She is the first Latina to serve on the Gresham-Barlow board, which oversees a 12,000-student district.
"I shouldn't be the first Latina on the board, or the only person of color (right now)," Gomez said. "There is a long history in Gresham, and change is hard for some people — but for me it's exciting."
Partnering with diverse candidates is important to East County Rising.
"A lot of the candidates are new to politics, but are very engaged in the community," said Rachel Fetters, the organization's political coordinator.
East County Rising leaders say candidates usually come to them asking for assistance. Some are members, while others need advice before embarking on a campaign. The group said the candidates point to the positions they want, and East County Rising helps make it happen.
"We don't seek candidates out, and we don't run our candidates' campaigns," Morales noted.
Joining Gomez is another East County Rising selection, Amanda Orozco-Beach, who ousted Gresham-Barlow School Board incumbent John Hartsock for Position 7 in the only contested race.
Hartsock has a background in construction and had brought a lot of expertise to the district during a building boom. Fueled by a $291.2 million bond passed by voters in 2016, both Gresham and Barlow high schools are getting major overhauls and expansions. East and North Gresham elementary schools are being replaced, and all the other schools are receiving security upgrades.
A server and graduate of Portland State University, Beach has not attended any school board or PTA meetings because she has no children. But Beach ran to match the changing demographics of the student body.
"Running for office has always been a dream of mine," she wrote. "Schools are becoming more diverse with higher enrollments, and children are feeling like they don't matter in schools, when really they matter a great deal."
Showing the way
Like the Gresham-Barlow School Board, the East County Rising candidates who succeeded in the May 21 election come from all walks of life.
In the Reynolds School District, support from East County Rising put the school board as majority Hispanic after the group backed three candidates. Two ran for re-election unopposed — Ricki Ruiz for Position 7 and Yesenia Delgado for Position 5.
Joining them is Ana Gonzalez Munoz, who unseated incumbent Dane Nickerson for Position 6. Nickerson had been on the volunteer board for a decade.
Gonzalez is associate director of family and community engagement at the nonprofit Latino Network.
"I had very strong support from (East County Rising) that showed me the way," she said. "This was my first time running for office."
With a majority Hispanic representation, the board now resembles the district's student body. About 41% of Reynolds district students identify as Hispanic.
On the Centennial board, East County Rising supported newcomer Sumitra Chhetri, who ran unopposed for Position 3. On the David Douglas School Board, the group backed and celebrated with Sahar Yariani Muranovic, who claimed Position 4.
It was at Mt. Hood Community College that East County Rising received its only loss of the election, marring what otherwise would have been a clean sweep.
The group was able to celebrate three successful bids for the College Board of Education. LaVerne Lewis won in a three-way race over two incumbents, Tamie Tlustos-Arnold and Christine (Teena) Klawa-Ainslie.
"I am humbled at the support I received from the community, staff and students and the support of East County Rising and their staff," Lewis said after the election.
Lewis is director of the nonprofit Rockwood Center and an adjunct faculty member at MHCC, a position she will have to give up now that she serves on the board.
Andrew Speer ran unopposed for Zone 3. Kenney Polson, an incumbent, kept his position in Zone 5 with support from East County Rising.
The one failed seat was challenger Courtney Helstein, who was backed by the group. She couldn't topple Diane Noriega in a race that went down to the wire.
A former MHCC board member and interim president of California State University, Monterey Bay, who worked decades in higher education, Noriega proved a formidable candidate.
In the 2018 General Election, in which Morales was successful in joining Gresham City Council, East County Rising only had one candidate it endorsed lose when Chrissy Reitz failed in her bid for Senate District 26.
"(We want) to have a 100% win rate," Morales said. "Our candidates work their butts off to get elected."
One of the first meetings Morales attended after being elected to Gresham City Council was a gathering of the Task Force on Housing.
The well-attended meeting did not have translation services available, so Morales spent those two hours translating what was being said into Spanish. However, there was nothing to be done for Vietnamese speakers in the audience.
Morales worked to get better translation services at City Hall so they could avoid those issues in the future and be more accessible to the diverse community Gresham has become.
"This is the significance of having people who understand these issues," Morales said.
All of the East County Rising candidates share a common set of values and goals. The organization describes itself as a progressive pact, and while its members may not all follow the same policies, there are shared goals. The group wants to take on low wages, poverty, housing, education and more.
"Our success is measured in policies — the candidates are the vehicle to do that," Morales said.
The organization puts on a two-day training to prepare candidates before they embark on campaigns. The main takeaway is to get in front of as many people as possible, making phone calls and knocking on doors in the community. The organization estimates its candidates reached 20,000 voters this election.
"Our candidates bring new perspectives and serve as role models for kids in the schools who look like them," Fetters said. "We build a community for the candidates so they can support each other."
East County Rising will provide funding support on a case-by-case basis, as some of the candidates for this round of school board positions wanted to run with no funds. The main goal is to couple diverse demographics with needed skills.
"We need more diversity on our committees. Most are majority older white men," Morales said. "Our community was ready for an organization to get involved to make a change."
Next year will be a big one for the organization, as it plans to expand its scope. While East County Rising initially focused on elected positions in Gresham, it will begin to support candidates in East Portland, Fairview, Wood Village and Troutdale. Every open seat, from city councils to state positions, will have an East County Rising candidate vying for election.
"We encourage members of our community to step forward and contact us if they want to run for office," Morales said.
East County Rising successfully placed 10 candidates across regionally open school board positions.
Mt. Hood Community College:
LaVerne Lewis — Position 7
Andrew Speer — Zone 3
Kenney Polson — Zone 5
Reynolds School Board:
Yesenia Delgado — Position 5
Ana Gonzalez Munoz — Position 6
Ricki Ruiz — Position 7
Gresham-Barlow School Board:
Mayra Gomez — Position 6
Amanda Orozco-Beach — Position 7
Centennial School Board:
Sumitra Chhetri — Position 3
David Douglas School Board:
Sahar Yarjani Muranovic —Position 4