Susheela Jayapal: New politico settles in on county board
A college-age Susheela Jayapal arrived in America dressed in corduroy pants, a turtleneck and a wool sweater. It was August — the middle of a sweltering Pennsylvania summer.
"I was very short, very sweaty and very brown," she recalled.
Now, the tennis-playing, Vizsla dog-breed owning, fourth grade-skipping, "fairly orderly" 56-year-old former litigator and avowed progressive is ready for her next challenge: she's sitting on the dais of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners.
But first, she has to teach everyone how to pronounce her name.
In an online video recently released by the county's communications department, an amiable Jayapal plays along as a co-worker's child, Rudy, asks if her name sounds anything like "Cecilia Jalopy." (It doesn't.)
The video was intended as a laughing matter, but it's undeniable that Jayapal is breaking more than ice as the first Indian-American ever elected to a county government in Oregon.
"My name is intimidating to people," she said. "In meetings, I can hear the awkward silence where they don't know what to say."
For the record, the phonetic pronunciation is sue-SHEELA JAI-uh-paul.
No rubber stamp
Rampant homelessness and scarce affordable housing intertwined into one issue for Jayapal on the campaign trail. The platform, which included jobs and public safety as well, buoyed her to an easy victory in the four-way race for the District 2 seat representing North and Northeast Portland.
She's fluent in the language of equity, and after avoiding a run-off election by earning 62 percent of the electorate in the May 15, 2018, primary, it's clear that voters were listening.
But her message largely follows the same tune whistled by the four other women comprising the Multnomah Commission — Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury, Sharon Meieran, Jessica Vega Pederson and Lori Stegmann — prompting speculation that one of the most ethnically diverse boards in the county's history may, ideologically speaking, be of a single mind.
"Susheela is an immigrant, too, but she's more whitewashed than I am," said Maria Garcia, one of three candidates of color who lost the race for District 2. "I really don't think she's a rebel, that's for sure."
Chairwoman Kafoury laughs. She remembers the media's chattering about a "consensus board" after the election in 2010 of the previous District 2 commissioner, Loretta Smith, who went on to zig when the majority zagged on issues such as the fate of Wapato Jail or the Community Involvement Committee.
Kafoury praises Jayapal for her record of community service, keen intelligence and for preparing "the best stump speech I have ever heard from a first-time candidate."
The chairwoman says Jayapal's knack for finding new perspectives will be helpful when solving problems of subtraction — not addition.
"Multnomah County has a structural deficit, and over the next four years we're going to be doing a lot of cutting in our budget," Kafoury said. "We're heading into some really difficult decisions as a board."
For her part, Jayapal said she doesn't disagree with any of the board's recent decisions.
She made the long drive north to visit Wapato during her campaign, and left with the impression that the never-used facility was too remote from other services to be feasible as a homeless shelter. As part of her onboarding, she'll tour every major landmark owned by Multnomah County, from the animal pound in Troutdale to the downtown jail.
The new commissioner flatly rejects any insinuation she'll follow the crowd: "I'm not here to be a rubber stamp."
"I will always do what I think is the right thing. Whether that leads to a unanimous vote or not seems beside the point."
Started in Kerala
Born in the state of Kerala on India's southwestern coast, a 7-year-old Jayapal followed her parents to overseas jobs in Indonesia and later Singapore before enrolling at age 16 at Swarthmore College, where she majored in economics.
She describes her family as "striving middle class," where both parents were college educated. Her father, M.P. Jayapal, worked as a mechanical engineer. Her mother, Maya, was a teacher and writer.
Fresh out of school, Jayapal landed a gig in 1983 as a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs, but left the "beyond brutal" world of New York investment banking after completing a two-year training program.
"I didn't actually care about whether another leveraged lease got done," she said, "and I didn't enjoy the lifestyle."
From there, it was back to academia and years hitting the books at the University of Chicago Law School, then on to a seven-year stint at the San Francisco law firm Jackson Tufts Cole & Black. She married Bradley Stuart Miller, a real estate attorney, in 1988.
Jayapal and her family arrived in Portland in 1994, where she took a job at another law firm, Ater Wynne, before moving on after a year to work at Adidas America at their Beaverton headquarters.
As general counsel, she led the legal department and helped the company establish some of its first guidelines for foreign manufacturers. (Jayapal recalls Rule No. 1: "Factory should obey the law.")
Jayapal left the work force in 2000 because she didn't want to do corporate work anymore. The decision allowed her to spend more time raising their two children, Tara and Josh, at the family home on Northeast Alameda Street.
In later years, her husband's income from several commercial real estate deals and his job as a Portland real estate attorney began to approach seven figures. The couple divorced in 2014.
While she's never held public office before, Jayapal cut her teeth serving on the boards of nonprofits including All Hands Raised, Metropolitan Family Service, The Irvington Club, Regional Arts & Culture Council, Planned Parenthood and as board chair of Literary Arts. She also served as a long-time volunteer grant evaluator for the Oregon Community Foundation and as a court-appointed special advocate for children in foster care.
"You've got 20, 25 other board members — you have to move those people," Jayapal said. "It is in many ways very similar to being on this board of commissioners."
There's already a famous politico in the family: Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal has represented Seattle and parts of King County since 2017. As co-chair of the influential Progressive Caucus, the younger Jayapal can regularly be spotted in the pages of The New York Times ... or hanging out on the Twitter feed of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Big sis said there's no sibling rivalry, and the pair are said to have very similar sounding voices, so much so that even family members mix them up on the phone. Their parents still live in India — and the commissioner seized a chance to spend three weeks with them after the May election.
In her Indian childhood, there was no language surrounding people of color. Jayapal, however, has tried to teach her own children the words and ways of thinking about discrimination.
"Forms of racism and bias have always been a part of my personal and professional life," she said. "I'm insulated in my position of leadership, and I'm very aware of that."
With the first month behind her, the art is on the walls of her sixth-floor office in the county's Hawthorne Building, and she's no longer counting the days since taking office. Term limits set an eight-year deadline on any commissioner's time in office, and Jayapal wants to use her allotment to prevent homelessness for all those pushed out of shelter by economic forces.
It's a big task, but she's ready for it.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated why Jayapal left the work force in 2000 and mis-described how her former husband's income began to rise.