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 Senate District 30, Central and Eastern Oregon
Oregon has one of the largest indigenous populations in the country. It's also never had an indigenous state senator. Carina Miller, 33, is a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and wants to change that, in defiance of her slim odds of winning.
The scarcity of indigenous leadership in Salem lies in part in the fact that Oregon's tribes often reside in districts that otherwise are rural and conservative. The only current indigenous member of the Legislature, Democratic state Rep. Tawna Sanchez, represents North Portland.
Miller's district, for example, comprises a huge chunk of the state, stretching from the eastern edge of Clackamas County to most of Oregon's eastern border. The former incumbent, Cliff Bentz, now a Republican candidate for Oregon's Second Congressional District, won reelection handily with 74% of the vote in 2018.
Miller now faces Republican Lynn Findley, who assumed office in January 2020 after Bentz resigned to run for Congress. Findley previously served as Vale city manager and is a proponent of agriculture deregulation and land use rights.
Miller, who served on the Warm Springs' tribal leadership council, knows well the misconceptions and occasional loathing surrounding her identity and ideology. With the tribal reservation system, it's easy for voters to dismiss her as an "other," she said. In reality, though, Miller says she's a neighbor and a community mainstay alongside those who disagree with her.
Miller, a single mother, strongly advocates for policies at odds with the conservative ethos of her district: abortion rights, gun control, and sustainable climate policies among them. Her positions have provoked strong reactions from others in her district. But Miller also said that she's able to better navigate policy disagreements and humanize herself as a champion for rural issues by having personal conversations with the community.
Miller said she wants to maintain "that sense of community that you get in rural Oregon and those relationships that you build your whole life."
Miller also is unapologetic in how she frames American institutions: mechanisms of white supremacy, designed to suppress indigenous peoples along with other minoritized identities. It's a hardline position informed by a lifetime of experiencing systemic injustice and interpersonal trauma on tribal reservations.
"When you talk about missing and murdered indigenous women, it's not just some buzz topic. It's me, or my sister, or my aunt," Miller said. "When you talk about the prison industrial complex, those men are my cousins and my uncles and my brothers. I've been to the state penitentiary and looked them in the eyes and heard them talk about what it's like waking up every day knowing you're going to die there."
The Oregon Legislature has continuously grappled with indigenous issues as a result of tribal pressure. Most recently, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 13, a bill funding comprehensive indigenous history in K-12 schools. Despite recent efforts, indigenous issues have been an afterthought in Oregon for centuries, Miller said. But she emphasizes that her experience on a reservation, sowed with governmental neglect, also makes her a greater champion for broader, oftentimes forgotten rural issues like land use rights and water access.
"I understand firsthand what it is like to grow up in a system that you fall through the cracks of," Miller said. "That no one advocates for. That no one even sees."
Miller said she knows she's in a tough race and says she'll need to define herself apart from the larger state Democratic Party in order to influence Republican votes, a task that's challenged by waning engagement in local politics due to COVID-19. Regardless of her electoral outcome, Miller expressed optimism at the prospect of future indigenous representation in the West, with firsttime indigenous candidates launching campaigns in Idaho and Washington this year.
It's even more crucial, Miller said, to elect minority and progressive candidates in rural parts of the state, where perennial conservative dominance has created resource voids for mental health services and abortion services, among others.
"It's more about survival than it is about equality," Miller said. "That's the biggest difference between urban and rural areas. For people of color, you're fighting just to have an opinion."
Legislators of Color
Nine of Oregon's 90 state lawmakers identify as people of color.
*Not seeking re-election this year
** Not on 2020 ballot. Term ends in January 2023.
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.
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