Power move: young candidates of color eye state political seats
Even before this summer's dramatic events, the Oregon Legislature was poised for change. With a slate of longtime legislators retiring, Black, Indigenous and other people of color saw opportunities and filed to run before COVID-19 became a global pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests spread across the state and nation.
Enough of them won their primaries to set the stage for a record number of minority lawmakers being sworn in next year.
The Oregon Legislature currently has nine Black, Latino and Indigenous legislators, one of whom, state Rep. Akasha Lawrence Spence of Portland, is not seeking re-election (see sidebar). Another eight BIPOC candidates made it to the general election and many are expected to win, running in districts where they have a strong party registration advantage. Their campaigns have been buoyed by the outcry over the last several months against systemic racism, which has amplified their calls for diversity in state and local representation.
It's a consequential time for candidates of color nearing proximity to levers of power long denied their communities. Oregon and Portland recently have witnessed the penalties of lacking direct minority representation: accusations of white people co-opting and speaking over Black causes, city and state officials insulated from the ramifications of broken policies, and issues, like police brutality, coming to light that were sparingly given platforms before.
As a general term, "BIPOC" — Black, Indigenous and people of color — consolidates racially diverse communities and elected officials into a handy statistic. But the legislative candidates running this fall are far from monolithic. A younger generation of minority candidates, in their 20s and 30s, are rejecting conventional political wisdom when it comes to when they should run and what they should run for.
Here's a look at one of four BIPOC state legislative candidates younger than 40: what drives them to run, how growing up a racial "other" influenced them, and what they plan to champion should they win.
Running for: State Senate District 25, parts of Gresham, Troutdale and Fairview
Unlike the other 15 BIPOC candidates running for the state Legislature, Justin Hwang, a Korean immigrant, is running as a Republican. He's aligning himself with a legislative caucus that's shrunk in the last few election cycles, is notably devoid of BIPOC members, and is increasingly dominated by rural interests.
Hwang, 36, who immigrated to the United States at age 6, is the owner of a popular chain of restaurants across the metro area, Joy Teriyaki. He works seven days per week and emphasizes his duty to balance the needs of his workers with the needs of his business. Hwang began engaging with the civic process as a member of the board of Mt. Hood Community College before running for a seat in House District 49 in 2018, where he lost to incumbent Democrat Chris Gorsek by a six-point margin.
Hwang charts a moderate course — "financially conservative, socially more left-leaning" — with a penchant for bipartisan reconciliation. He says that love for his community, not party loyalty, propels his run for office.
But his affiliation with the GOP makes his candidacy harder, he admits. Registered Democrats in the district outnumber Republicans by 14 percentage points.
Hwang is facing Gorsek again, this time in an open race. Both are vying for the seat vacated by retiring Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson. Gorsek, a white man in his sixties, is running to represent a district that's more diverse than the state: 18% Hispanic; 5% Black and 4% Asian.
In different circumstances, a young, BIPOC, outsider candidate might pose a threat. But the Democrats' registration edge and the presumed policy implications of Hwang's Republican identity lessen the potential for a competitive race.
Hwang says that the state Democratic Party, including its elected state legislators, has become a political machine that's homogenous and inefficient. He points to the fact that his district didn't receive direct control of any CARES Act federal relief funding during the pandemic and had to solicit aid from the city of Portland.
By challenging the status quo, Hwang is positioning himself as a different kind of legislator and a different kind of Republican, one that represents urban and suburban interests and maintains an intense focus on preserving his community's needs above other priorities.
Much like progressive minority candidates, Hwang's platform is informed by his experiences as an impoverished Korean immigrant moving to Oregon. He grew up with a personal window into the lack of resources for Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities, particularly for immigrants without English proficiency.
Hwang champions state and locally funded community colleges and K-12 schools, as well as resource centers for immigrants and English-language learners. And his support for housing security, prioritizing workers and bolstering addiction services closely mirror the platforms of many Democratic candidates.
But his family's hardships, and his eventual financial success, also solidified his beliefs in individualism and meritocracy.
Like other Republican candidates of color, Hwang faces a common accusation from people on the other side of the aisle: that being Asian doesn't shield him from supporting racist policies. Hwang is candid about his support for Asian communities, and he doesn't perpetuate misinformation about other minoritized communities.
Still, many progressive voters see Hwang as a racial justice liability because he's Republican. Meanwhile, older white voters in the district have wielded virulently racist and xenophobic comments against him.
Faced with levels of hostility among both parties, Hwang said his path to victory lies in humanizing and personalizing himself as a candidate, though that's harder this year with less in-person contact opportunities.
"I would go door to door and give my personal story of how I came here, how I got help from you, this is what I'm going to do," Hwang said. "The path to victory is to listen to what [voters] say."
Legislators of Color
Nine of Oregon's 90 state lawmakers identify as people of color.
Teresa Alonso León (D-Woodburn), House District 22: Latina
Akasha Lawrence Spence* (D-Portland), House District 36: Black
Andrea Salinas (D-Lake Oswego), House District 38: Latina
Mark W. Meek (D-Oregon City), House District 40: Latino
Tawna D. Sanchez (D-Portland), House District 43: Indigenous
Diego Hernandez (D-Portland), House District 47: Latino
Janelle Bynum (D-Clackamas), House District 51: Black
James I. Manning Jr.** (D-Eugene), Senate District 7: Black
Lew Frederick (D-Portland), Senate District 22: Black
*Not seeking re-election this year
** Not on 2020 ballot. Term ends in January 2023.
Shauna Muckle, a recent graduate of Jesuit High School, is one of two summer interns working for Amplify, a Metro-supported project aimed at elevating the voices of students from communities historically underrepresented in local newsrooms.
This story is possible because of Amplify, a community storytelling initiative of Pamplin Media Group and Metro, the Portland regional government. Amplify supports two summer internships for high school journalists in the Portland metro region to cover important community issues. The program aims to elevate the voices of student journalists from historically underrepresented groups, such as communities of color, low-income residents and others. Pamplin Media Group editors oversee the interns, and Metro plays no role in the editorial process. Read more at oregonmetro.gov/news.
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