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Executive director of Unite Oregon appointed to fill spot vacated by Secretary of State Shemia Fagan

FILE PHOTO - Kayse Jama will join the Oregon legislative assembly as the senator for district 24 representing portions of east Portland and northern Clackamas County. Commissioners representing Multnomah and Clackamas counties unanimously cast votes to approve Kayse Jama as the next state senator to represent District 24, covering portions of east Portland and northern Clackamas County.

"The magnitude of this moment is not lost on me," Jama said. "My journey from a nomadic community in Somalia to the Oregon Senate is a testament to where I come from, the people of our district, and our shared values."

Jama — executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Unite Oregon — will join Oregon's legislative assembly ahead of a session that is expected to take aim at advancing issues of racial justice and fixing systemic inequities further exposed and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"My commitment today today is that: one, ensuring that we deal with issues that are important in our community. Number two, committing to you all that I'm going to be working with you. Number three, ensuring that people who are on the downside of power, are at the table as we make decisions," Jama told county commissioners. "I'm very humbled by today's experience, and I'm really grateful to you all for your support and encouragement."

The special joint meeting between the two county boards took place Wednesday, Jan. 6, in order to fill the vacancy left by Shemia Fagan who resigned her seat Jan. 1 to assume her role as secretary of state. Jama was selected over two other candidates: Adrienne Enghouse, a registered nurse and former union president; and Candy Emmons, operations director with the Democratic Party of Oregon.

At the forefront of the conversation surrounding Jama's appointment was the support he's received both from the local community and regional leaders at large.

Not only had Jama ran for the position in the past — in the May 2018 primary election he earned the third most votes behind Fagan and former state Sen. Rod Monroe — but he also received the most votes from District 24 precinct committee persons.

On top of that, several notable figures came forward to throw their support behind him during the beginning of the meeting when the public was invited to give testimony including former Portland mayor Tom Potter; state Rep. Jeff Reardon (D-Happy Valley), Tera Hurst, executive director of Renew Oregon and former Portland city council candidate; Nancy Haque, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon; and Marcus Mundy, executive director of the Coalition of Communities of Color.

Reardon, who up until a month ago was seeking nomination to the senate seat, told the commissioners that he's heard from community members representing educators, legal experts, labor leaders and government officials that the Oregon Legislature needs to start reflecting the makeup of the state's population better. Reardon said he supports that notion, and hopes to see the senate include a full range of voices and life experiences found among Oregonians.

"Many in Senate District 24 live in poverty, are of color and are from more than 100 nations.They deserve to have at least one of the 30 senators who knows the extreme challenges of coming to this country and facing the racial and religious intolerance that exists," Reardon said. "No one can tell their story better than Kayse Jama."

Each of the three candidates had a few minutes give opening remarks to introduce themselves and explain why they were seeking the appointment.

Jama explained that he's spent the past two decades working with communities around the state focusing on advocating for people of color, immigrant communities and low-income Oregonians. As someone who has worked with District 24's diverse communities, Jama said he understands better than most the struggles facing its residents.

"This district is home to many diverse communities who are now dealing with not only systemic disinvestment for many years, but also now being on the forefront of the brunt of COVID-19 issues," Jama siad.

Commissioners took a significant portion of the meeting posing six questions and allowing each of the candidates to give their answers on topics ranging from COVID-19 pandemic recovery and tolling on regional freeways — a significant portion of I-205 runs through the district — to how county and state government can mutually benefit from partnerships and what policies each candidate might support to solve issues around housing and homelessness.

Commissioners said they were impressed by each of the candidates' answers to these questions, but Jama's responses seemingly went above and beyond what each was looking for in their assessment of how each candidate approached these issues.

"I don't think it's a coincidence that Kasey's organization that he is currently running is called Unite Oregon, and I do believe that now more than ever we need leaders who have the ability to bring people together," said Deborah Kafoury, Multnomah County chair.

Clackamas County Chair Tootie Smith related to the three candidates, having been in their shoes before seeking an appointment to the legislature, which she eventually lost to now Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod (R-Lyons). She encouraged all the candidates to continue seeking to serve their communities through public office or advocacy roles in order to let their voices be heard.

"My vote goes to Kasey. He gets my vote based on his advocacy, his participation in the past, and his experience," Smith said. "I think your voice needs to be heard. You need to speak your truth and represent the people in your district who may not have had a voice."

Commissioner Mark Shull of Clackamas County initially voiced his support for Enghouse due to her experience as a frontline health care worker and her understanding of the challenges facing health systems exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but voted for Jama when the roll was called.

Jama will join the legislature as it prepares for its 2021 session beginning Tuesday, Jan. 19. He will serve on a number of committees including as chair of the senate's Housing Committee — an area Jama has expressed great interest in.

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