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Ricki Ruiz, 26, hopes to make history in Oregon politics as youngest state rep for his district in Gresham

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.

Ricki Ruiz

Running for: House District 50, Gresham

Reynolds School Board member Ricki Ruiz, 26,?could join fellow Latinx candidate Winsvey Campos of Washington County could as one of the youngest legislators elected to the Oregon legislature.?

And Ruiz, like Campos, is no stranger to financial and social marginalization. He grew up in a low-income household with undocumented parents and more than once experienced food insecurity. He remembers being on the verge of houselessness. And as a young adult during the 2016 fall election, he recalls the looming fear in his immigrant community as they witnessed the inauguration of a president preaching the merits of zero-tolerance policies at the border and mass deportations of undocumented immigrants.

President Trump's election encouraged Ruiz to escalate his political engagement. He sought ways to get elected locally and soon found an opening: a seat on the Reynolds School District board, where he was elected in 2017 at 22 years old.

House District 50 is relatively blue, with Democrats easily defeating Republicans in the last five election cycles. But Ruiz is cagey about his prospects of winning, demurring on detailed policy conjectures in favor of simply encouraging voter turnout, especially among his district's Latinx community.

A self-identified progressive, Ruiz, like Campos, is in touch with youth demands, especially on climate change and education. Employed as the city of Gresham's Community Services Coordinator Ruiz? got his political start advocating for youth recreation in Rockwood as a college student in 2015.

Ruiz himself felt disenfranchised for much of his childhood. In his East Gresham immigrant community, he "grew up not trusting the government and not caring for elections," he said. Both public education and traditional civic forums — lobbying days, community listening sessions — often failed to address the language barriers faced by many immigrants, Ruiz said.

Ruiz is an adamant spokesperson for inclusive civic education. A pivotal aspect of that, both for his own electoral decisions and for igniting community support, is his involvement with East County Rising, a civic organization that focuses on uplifting minority communities and Black, Indigenous and other people of color entering politics.

While Ruiz might be running in a Democratic-leaning district, he said that as a Latino candidate, he can't anticipate the same comfortable outcome as white Democratic candidates.

"As a BIPOC candidate, we have to work two to three times as hard as your traditional candidate," Ruiz said. "I work a full time job, I work on a school board, I don't have wealth."

Ruiz faces Amelia Salvador, a real estate broker and community activist who sits on the Gresham Redevelopment Commission and the Charter Review Committee. A lifelong resident of Gresham and a single mother to five grown children, Salvador, 47, has made combatting Democratic dominance in Salem a rallying point for her campaign.

Ruiz is concerned about lacking major finances as a grassroots candidate, especially without chances to door-knock this fall and define himself to reluctant voters. Having to rely on small donations, as opposed to a personal financial trove or a sprawling donor base, is a hurdle preventing many in his community from seeking office, Ruiz said.?

Ruiz's campaign keeps a tally of outreach measures: calls made, emails written, money raised and other markers. There's another, more personal tally that Ruiz also maintains: how many racist comments he's received since launching his campaign. As of early August, the number sat at 35.

It's why, even in an electoral climate and district seemingly favorable towards BIPOC candidates, he's careful not to take successes for granted, cognizant of the institutional barriers his campaign has experienced and that Latino voters often experience. But rising Latino voter turnout in East Multnomah County this past primary election cycle, which Ruiz predicts is partially credited to East County Rising, is a source of hope for Ruiz.

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.

Amplifying voices

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.

Legislators of Color

Nine of Oregon's 90 state lawmakers identify as people of color.

House:

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

Senate:

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.


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