First Black mayor in Portland area takes reins in Gresham
As a young woman growing up in the deep south, Dana Taylor didn't have the right to cast a vote.
She lived in Alabama in the 1950s, as the civil rights movement was sweeping across the state with non-violent activism and marches. Later, she and her husband raised four children in Kansas City — 15 minutes away from a town with a law on the books until the 1980s that Black people couldn't purchase a home.
But despite those obstacles in life, she taught her children the importance of contributing to their communities in a positive way.
Almost half a century later, Travis Stovall knew his mother — Taylor — was the first person he wanted to tell about his historic win to lead a city he loves.
"I called her and said, 'Hey, your son just became mayor of Gresham,'" Stovall said. "My parents instilled me with humility that helped me appreciate the gravity of (the results). I knew the news would be a complete honor for my mom."
Stovall was elected as Gresham's 25th mayor after a close race this fall, and brings a new perspective to a city in flux. The 47-year-old was sworn in Tuesday, Jan. 5, alongside his fellow councilors. He takes over for Mayor Karylinn Echols, who was appointed to serve the remainder of a difficult 2020.
"It is an honor, a privilege and incredibly humbling to serve as mayor," Stovall said. "I wasn't looking to jump into politics, but when the opportunity arose to provide guidance to this city, I wanted to step in and build upon our great foundation."
Stovall's victory marked the first time a Black person was elected to lead a major city in the Portland-area.
"I believe many voted for me because I am smart and bring a balanced approach," Stovall said. "I know that folks who look like me will see it as an encouragement and that it will bring some scrutiny — but they will look at me first as someone who can lead this city forward."
A lot must be addressed by Stovall and council in the coming year. The city is facing a $13.3 million budget gap that will necessitate new funding and cuts; small businesses and community members continue to seek recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic; and calls for police reform reverberate alongside desires for improved public safety.
"We can lift up Gresham and everyone in this community," Stovall said.
Every vote counts
Stovall was in the middle of a TriMet Board of Directors meeting last June when his phone lit up with messages.
Shane Bemis, who had served as mayor of Gresham since 2006, had unexpectedly resigned from his role. Bemis' explanation, posted via social media the day before his departure, spoke of concerns over the fate of his restaurant and his belief another would be better suited to lead.
His suggestion — elect Stovall.
"I had no idea he was stepping down or would recommend me," Stovall said. "I have great respect for Mayor Bemis. He guided the city through many challenges."
But Stovall didn't take the decision to vie for mayor lightly. He spent more than a month speaking with stakeholders across the community, friends and family to decide whether leading Gresham was something he was both capable of and wanted.
Stovall moved to East Multnomah County two decades ago, settling in Gresham in 2006. He is the co-founder and CEO of eRep, a tech company that assists businesses in talent acquisition and management services. And though he had never held an elected position, he led the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce as president of the board of directors; served as a board member on several organizations, including nine years with TriMet; and was the former director of the East Metro Economic Alliance.
"I bring a balanced approach to the leadership of our great city," Stovall said. "I have the lived experience and knowledge of how to lead large groups."
So he joined a crowded field in the November general election, which included Councilor Eddy Morales. The result was a month-long wait to learn who had come out on top of the five-man race.
From the onset Stovall led in the vote count. Morales kept things close enough to prevent an official declaration of victory for weeks.
The gap between the two continued to close with every update, and eventually a difference of only 13 votes led to an automatic recount being triggered by the Multnomah County Elections Division. In Gresham, more than 45,351 votes were counted.
Finally, on Dec. 2, that process was concluded. Strangely both candidates lost two votes in the recount, maintaining Stovall's victory of 13 votes.
"People ask if I was nervous, but I wasn't," Stovall said. "It was encouraging because I felt the citizens had a unique opportunity in choosing a mayor. With Councilor Morales still being on council, we can now both bring our vision and care to the city."
Since the election, Stovall and Morales have sat down to talk about their hopes for Gresham.
"I am confident we can move forward and incorporate both our ideas," Stovall said. "It is so great to see the diversity we have on this council and the input and insight we can lean into."
Vision for the future
On Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 5, Stovall took roll call for the new council in his inaugural meeting, congratulating the new faces joining him on the virtual dais.
"This is a brand new council and we have a lot of incredible work to be done to bring our community together," Stovall said. "We are large enough to matter and small enough to truly care and cause stuff of happen."
The new mayor has a list of priorities for his first year. He wants to address racial injustices, get Gresham businesses and employees back to work post-pandemic, build more affordable housing for all income levels, and address community safety.
Many of those things, he said, can be dealt with by improving equitable economic development across the city.
"We can build systems and programs to take on the challenges our community faces and encourage development," he said.
Stovall wants to support education by working alongside school districts and Mt. Hood Community College — but also by bolstering trade programs.
"I look at a master plumber or electrician as being the equivalent of earning a standard degree," he said. "The question is — how do we ensure folks have access to college or college-equivalents?"
He wants to take a look at home ownership, as it brings stability to the city, with a more diverse inventory in the types of housing available. Stovall is also supportive of parks and green spaces.
His first few months as mayor will be working with city staff and council to distill those plans down to a core road map.
"We have to find the best outcome for everyone in our community — that is where the hard work comes in," Stovall said.
Stovall points to the diversity within Gresham as being a major asset. He wants to build upon the work being done during the pandemic to make city business more accessible to all. That includes continuing to share meetings and information digitally long after social distancing mandates fade away.
"The moment we leave folks out of the conversation, we decrease our ability to capitalize on opportunities," he said.
Everything will continue to be complicated by the budget crisis, and all of the conversations about the future must include accounting for a lack of funds available. Stovall said the community will have to talk about what it takes to make the investments needed to keep Gresham being a special place.
He added that taxation isn't the only solution. Courting more state and federal investment into Gresham can help attract new programs and developments. An example is the partnership between the city and the Port of Portland, which purchased the Gresham Vista Park and has brought new industrial businesses.
But despite the challenges that lie ahead, Stovall is excited. He is looking forward to diving into his new role helping shape a community he loves.
"What I love about Gresham is I can walk down Main Avenue and see five people I know within minutes," he said. "I moved here because of the opportunities, but I stayed because of the relationships and small town feel."
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