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The former lawmaker and current county commissioner could face competition from fellow board members.

COURTESY PHOTO: MOTOYA NAKAMURA, MULTNOMAH COUNTY  - Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson holds forth in the county boardroom in 2018. Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson is the first out of the gate in the race to become the chief executive of Oregon's most populous county.

A two-term commissioner whose district covers Southeast Portland from Cesar Chavez Boulevard to 148th Avenue, Vega Pederson told the Tribune that, if elected county chair, she would work collaboratively to solve problems and bring different groups to the table.

"Housing, houselessness, climate change, racial inequality," she said in an interview Sept. 2, "these issues demand strong and bold leadership, and that's exactly what I've shown as an elected official for a really long time."

With County Chair Deborah Kafoury timed out by term limits and a 2016 charter amendment allowing commissioners to run mid-term, observers are expecting a free-for-all with both commissioners Sharon Meieran and Lori Stegmann seriously weighing a pitch for the top job.

Only Commissioner Susheela Jayapal is said to be a definite no.

As for Vega Pederson, she is perhaps best known for spearheading the campaign to bring free universal pre-school to all county residents, a program that will begin in Sept. 2022 and eventually will serve as many as 15,000 early learners. She also championed a pledge to transition the county to 100% renewable energy by 2050, soon after taking office in 2017.

In Salem, Vega Pederson was noted as Oregon's first Latina state representative when elected to District 47 in 2013.

She passed bills removing coal from the state's energy supply by 2030, mandating paid sick leave for smaller employers as well as a "domestic workers bill of rights" requiring overtime, rest breaks, paid personal time and harassment protections for housekeepers and nannies.

"All of these things are about fighting for those who can't fight for themselves," the 46-year-old said.

Though sometimes overshadowed by the Sturm und Drang at Portland City Hall, the county's nearly $3 billion budget has an enormous impact over public health and safety through the independently elected county sheriff and district attorney.

The full-time public servant said her approach to law and order would be informed by her own experiences. As she sat down to play Minecraft with her two middle school-aged children recently, a man jumped out of a car and opened fire at another person running into the park across the street from her home in the Hazelwood neighborhood.

"That sort of experience is happening more and more," she said. "We have to have a public safety system that recognizes that people have to be safe … (but) we have to reimagine it in a way that reflects the disparities of Black and brown communities who have been negatively impacted by the police."

She offered little critique of Kafoury's "strong leadership," saying only that she would seek to repair the relationship with Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.

With the election for county chair not until May 2022, Secretary of State Shemia Fagan already has endorsed Vega Pederson.

"Jessica's commitment to justice and equity and her experience make her the right person for the job," Fagan said. "I'm proud to support her."

Vega Pederson is married to Aaron Pederson, a local small business owner who runs the website design company Saffire. Her political action committee currently has $14,910 on hand, according to state records.

Zane Sparling
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