Power move: Young candidates of color eye statehouse 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 House District 28, parts of Beaverton and Aloha
At 24, WLnsvey Campos, (pronounced wins-vay) who could become the youngest female state legislator in Oregon's history, has spent her brief political career honing a message: Washington County's governing institutions and governing members should look like the people they represent—but they don't. It's a particularly relevant argument in a county that's 13% Latino, the highest countywide proportion in the state, but devoid of minority leadership in significant elected positions other than Metro Councilor Juan Carlos Gonzales.
Campos has been echoing the same refrain in the various political institutions she's participated in on her path to state-level candidacy, first as an executive of the state arm of Oregon College Democrats, then as a leader in the Democratic Party of Washington County and a founder of its Latinx Outreach Committee.
Campos' candidacy is informed by her work as a case manager for the Family Project of Beaverton, an organization dedicated to serving families experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity, where she interacts daily with those harmed by systemic shortfalls. Her progressive rhetoric is imbued with a passion and urgency that she says can only result from direct marginalized experience in a low-income household.
"There are so many people who will never know what it is to have to go to a public library restroom and roll sheets of toilet paper so your family can save $8," Campos said. "There are people who will never know what it is to be a child and navigate insurance companies (for their parents) because we don't have translators available."
According to Campos, untenable costs for low-income communities don't stop at rent. She recently brought up the cost of diapers, an essential child care resource, in an endorsement interview, as an example of an expense that burdens working families. Discerning the quieter costs of poverty is something that takes lived experience to get right, Campos said.
After winning her primary, Campos is the Democratic nominee for a safe blue district, where the retiring Democratic incumbent, Jeff Barker, won by 84% in 2018.
Should she win in November, as expected, she likely would be one of three Latina state legislators, joining fellow Democrats Teresa Alonso León of Woodburn and Andrea Salinas of Lake Oswego.
She faces Republican Daniel Martin, the founder and CEO of Beaver Express, a local logistics company, in the November election. Martin opposes restrictions and taxes on businesses, as well as statewide efforts to regulate firearms and greenhouse gasses.
Campos's road to success wasn't without challenges. She had three primary opponents, including Alisa Blum, a longtime Democratic social worker, 35 years her senior who received an endorsement from The Oregonian. (Campos received an endorsement from Willamette Week.)
What helped her succeed, Campos said, was a strong campaign team and an ability to connect with unions as a young Latina woman from a working class family background. She won a majority of union endorsements, helping propel her to a decisive victory.
Campos' youth allows her to channel the tenor of the causes of younger generations in a way that resonates with young organizers such as the Sunrise Beaverton movement, which has lauded her candidacy. She's one of only a few candidates to raise a voice in favor of police abolition, situating herself to the left of most Democratic lawmakers.
Campos says her embrace of extremely liberal, potentially alienating policies stems from a sense of urgency about key issues that will play out in her lifetime. That's true for climate change, a big focal point for Campos, as well as affordable housing and police reform.
Her age, however, also sparked a bit of imposter syndrome, Campos said.
"I felt I was too young, and it was something that I very quickly had to get past," Campos said. "We don't have enough young voices in the room, but we're directly impacted by so many of these policy decisions."
A decisive primary victory and the success of other young progressive candidates boosted her confidence. And when it comes to successful legislative deal making, her experience in the Washington County Democrats taught her that among Democratic colleagues, agreement can be wrested from divisive policy conflicts.
Campos said that by representing otherwise underrepresented backgrounds, such as Latinx voters and her districts' young constituents, she hopes to encourage disempowered groups to engage with the process and to establish lines of communication with her office. She's also aware of the symbolic significance of electing to state office a daughter of immigrants who is on the cusp of Generation Z.
"Teachers and legislators can be role models," Campos said. "By not having that representation, you're excluding people from the process."
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.
When intern Shauna Muckle turned in her story about young legislative candidates, it got us wondering. Would the Washington County Democrat Winsvey Campos, at 24, be the youngest state lawmaker elected in Salem, as some had claimed? We turned to our in-house political historian, reporter Peter Wong, who dug a copy of "Oregon Legislative and Historical Information," a book listing all Oregon legislators. Compiled by Sandy Allen of the House Democratic Office, the publication is undated but Wong figures it was published in 2002, as the list of lawmakers ends with those serving in 2001-2002.
According to Allen's research Campos would be the youngest woman ever elected to the Oregon statehouse and one of only handful to be sworn in before her 25th birthday.
Mary Wendy Roberts, Donna Zajonc and Peg Jolin all took their Oregon House seats at age 28. Roberts (daughter of former state Sen. Frank Roberts) was the youngest of the trio, turning 28 the month after she was elected in 1972. Jolin was elected in 1980; Zajonic in 1978.
As for the men, Earl Blumenauer took his statehouse seat at age 24 in January 1973. But the now-U.S. Congressman was not the youngest lawmaker ever elected. That honor went to fellow Class of '73 House member Drew Davis, who turned 24 the month after he took office. His bragging rights lasted until 1993, when Rep. Michael Payne was sworn in at 23 and didn't turn 24 until three months later.
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