When state Sen. Margaret Carter's resignation takes effect Aug. 31, the number of African-American lawmakers in the Oregon Legislature will be halved.
Carter's departure to take a Department of Human Services job means there won't be a single African-American in the 90-member Legislature among Democrats, traditionally the party most strongly supported by blacks. The one remaining African-American in the Legislature will be state Sen. Jackie Winters (R-Salem).
That raises two questions for Multnomah County Democrats who will be recommending a slate of Dems from which the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners will pick one candidate to complete Carter's term:
1. Should race matter in Senate District 22, which was about 20 percent African-American, according to the 2000 Census?
2. And will it matter?
The answer to the "should" question is absolutely, according to former state Rep. Jo Ann Bowman, who wants Carter's seat.
Bowman, who is black, points to her three terms in the state House as well as her longtime activist bona fides.
But she adds, "The bigger picture is, we need broader representation from communities of color."
Bowman says diversity matters because it ensures diversity of opinion. She points to her own legislative efforts to kill a bill that would have criminalized giving a false name to police and her work to pass a welfare reform exemption for grandparents caring for their grandchildren. She says both issues were of deep importance to African-Americans.
Bowman is one of three Democrats expressing a definite interest in replacing Carter, the first African-American woman in the state Legislature.
The others are state Rep. Chip Shields, who is white, and Fred Stewart, who is black. Stewart is the head of Stewart Group Realty and former longtime head of the King Neighborhood Association. A fourth person, Karol Collymore—an aide to Multnomah County Commissioner Jeff Cogen—is considering a run. Collymore is African-American.
Shields says diversity is a legitimate issue if all candidates are equal. But Shields says his work on behalf of civil liberties and other experiences make him the best candidate.
It's hardly surprising that Shields thinks there are issues broader than race, but it's a bit more unexpected to hear Stewart agree. "I don't think race should be a factor," Stewart says. "We need people who are committed to doing the work for this community, period."
As to the question of whether race will matter, the current list of candidates means the county's Democrats probably won't have to negotiate that tricky shoal. But the all-white county board of commissioners will.
And board chairman Ted Wheeler says race will be a consideration given that Carter's resignation comes after last year's retirement of another African-American senator, Avel Gordly.
"With the loss of Senators Gordly and Carter, we have no representation in the county's delegation from communities of color," Wheeler says. Carter says race is key to ensure all views get represented, though she is staying out of making a recommendation on her replacement.
But if Shields wins the Senate seat, that creates a new vacancy for his House seat—starting the same debate all over again. At that point, Carter says, she would recommend the new House member be African-American.
"I look at where the largest group of African-Americans is," Carter says, "and that's North and Northeast Portland."
About 1.7 percent of Oregon's population is African-American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.