Former Spanish teacher flips District 26
Wilsonville resident Courtney Neron suspects that a year ago, she was likely teaching her Tigard High School classes how to translate the seasons into Spanish. Meanwhile, in her mind, she was beginning to contemplate how she could improve Oregon's poorly regarded education system from outside the classroom.
Last week, as she watched results of the Oregon House of Representatives District 26 election flood in while attending an election party at Vanguard Brewing in Wilsonville — watching numbers that showed she was on her way to defeating incumbent Richard Vial and earning a seat in the Oregon State Legislature — she had to remind herself to breathe.
After the initial shock, she realized the significance of the moment.
"I was in disbelief for a while and it hit in waves because it was the disbelief and then the excitement and deep gratitude and thinking about 'What does this mean?'" Neron said. "It means that we might actually get to fund education (in Oregon)."
Despite having no previous political experience and replacing nominee Ryan Spiker as the Democratic candidate only a few months before the election, Neron defeated Vial by over three percentage points as of Friday, Nov. 9 — helping the Democrats flip a Republican-held seat and attain a supermajority in the Legislature.
"It was amazing to realize my house district had voted to let me represent them," Neron said. "What an honor."
Neron became a teacher in 2003 and taught French and Spanish at Tigard and Tualatin high schools as well as in the Yamhill-Carlton School District. Throughout her career, she dealt with large class sizes and budget cuts that forced teachers to do more with less.
"We still have large class sizes; we still have our support staff, which are crucial, being cut right and left. We still have administration making very difficult decisions about who to keep and who to let go," Neron said. "What we need to do is set people up for success and not scrape by with the bare minimum."
Wanting her children to receive a quality education, Neron and her family moved from Portland to Wilsonville over three years ago and her son and daughter currently attend Wilsonville public schools, which are regarded as some of the best in the state.
"We had our sights set on West Linn-Wilsonville School District and Wilsonville specifically because we saw that it was succeeding not only with the graduation rate at the high school but it has funded music education from K-12. It has phenomenal art support, STEM focus," Neron said. "There are involved parents that are able to fundraise where the state money is lacking."
Last spring, Neron told Tigard High's principal that she was resigning. As she put it, she wanted to take everything off the table so that she could put new aspirations onto it.
For one, she contemplated switching from teaching Spanish to teaching English to English language learners. Secondly, she became a committee member for the House District 26 Democratic Party precinct.
It didn't take long for her life to change.
At the first precinct meeting Neron ever attended, the committee deliberated about who would replace Spiker, who had to withdraw from the race for health reasons after taking the primary. Neron gave a speech that day explaining why she would make a compelling candidate. Apparently, her speech was persuasive. The committee selected her as Spiker's replacement — and Neron shelved her plans to teach ELL.
"My guess is that the room full of precinct committee people probably felt like I am more of a foil for Rich Vial. I'm not a lawyer (like Vial). I'm a woman," Neron said. "There might have but some identity wrapped into that decision but also I spoke from the heart. I am passionate about setting up our education system for success."
From there, Neron and her team hit the ground running. Every day, she canvassed, gained a better understanding of the issues and talked with political leaders. She eventually garnered support from United States Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and from the Oregon Education Association and the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, among other leaders and groups.
"My first campaign manager, she was talking about how a lot of campaigns take off like a jet," Neron said. "No, we took off like a rocket. We went straight up and straight out. We wasted no time."
Along with education, she heard from residents in the district who were considering moving out of the area due to rent and tax increases and people dealing with physical pain but not wanting to get hooked on opioids but finding that an alternative, cannabidiol, was not covered by their insurance. And she found that, for the most part, residents' imperatives aligned with her own.
"I started out most of my door interactions by saying 'I'm a teacher that cares a lot about education funding and getting our resources into the classroom,'" Neron said. "'I'm a parent very concerned about environmental issues, wanting to leave a healthy climate for future generations. I'm also committed to finding affordable housing solutions as well as bringing affordable healthcare to all.'"
Though she lacked political experience, Neron and her allies felt that the district could be flipped because registered Democrats were increasingly out-gaining registered Republicans.
From September 2016 to September 2018 the number of Democrats in House District 26 rose by 791 and the number of registered Independents went up 3,839, while the number of Republicans dropped 228.
There's been some speculation that a lot of that change comes from the recently completed 1,000-home development of River Terrace in Beaverton, which were marketed to the families of high-tech workers — who are typically Democratic leaning.
Neron clearly set herself up as a more progressive alternative to Vial. Neron's views differed from Vial's on many issues, including supporting Metro's affordable housing bond measure, being more wary of the push to fund the Aurora Airport runway extension, and favoring the Extreme Risk Protection Order, which created a process for taking guns away from individuals who are at risk of harming themselves.
Despite their difference, Neron was grateful that Vial avoided personal attacks during the campaign.
"I'm so greatful to have an opponent like Rich Vial who is also an upstanding human being and also ran a respectful political campaign," Neron said. "He's great at showing what he stands for and I showed what I stand for and in the end it was up to the voters to decide who they wanted to represent them."
Now that her seat is virtually secured, Neron will switch her focus to navigating the Legislature.
Her plan for funding education and decreasing class sizes is simple: She wants to raise Oregon's corporate tax rate, which is among the lowest in the country, and use that extra money to fund education.
"I do think it's a revenue problem," Neron said. "I do think there are solutions that we need to look at. I do think we need to look at the largest income earners to say: 'Hey, how can we ask you to be a fair player in our state's economy from the ground up?'"
A member of Non Toxic Wilsonville, which has advocated for the City of Wilsonville and the West-Linn-Wilsonville School District to stop using pesticides to kill weeds in parks, Neron hopes to change the State's list of acceptable pesticides and practices and to promote healthier alternatives.
"That list has a number of toxins on it that I don't believe we should be spraying near children," Neron said.
Neron plans to join legislative committees related to education, the environment and as many other issues as she can and to rely on the help of state employees to gain more familiarity on how the legislative process and bureaucracy works.
"One of the legislators I talked to yesterday assured me that her law background is useless in Salem because legislators lead from their heart and their values and their principles but beyond that it's a team of people creating that language and that policy work that is so detailed comes from the larger team as well," Neron said.
While she basked in the moment on election night, Neron heard from her parents that her son was jumping up
and down yelling "Go, mommy go."
The campaign season was tough on her husband, who had to pick up more of the household responsibilities, and her children, who didn't see their mom nearly as much.
But before the long nights away from home during the campaign season, Neron told her daughter that if it meant having a chance to improve the experiences of students across Oregon, the sacrifice was worth it.
"My daughter has been one of my number one supporters," Neron said. "When I left to go canvassing in afternoons I would go to her and say 'I'm doing this for you.'"