Shemia Fagan insists she is not the new mayor of East Portland.
That unofficial title, Fagan says, still belongs to East Portland ex-legislator Jefferson Smith.
But Fagan, 31, is arguably on her way to eclipsing Smith in standing up for Portland's often-forgotten neighborhoods east of Interstate 205.
Fagan, a Democrat, is a freshman state representative from House District 51 who lives near Powell Butte. She has forged a caucus of East Portland lawmakers in response to the area's transportation problems.
She protested Mayor Charlie Hales' cancellation of the Southeast 136th Avenue sidewalk construction project, even before 5-year-old Morgan Maynard-Cook was fatally struck by a car on 136th on Feb. 28. Fagan's leadership after Morgan's death helped prompt Hales to reconsider his decision.
WW talked to Fagan—a lawyer who spent part of her childhood growing up in East Portland—about her new political prominence, why she can relate to rural Oregon's dislike of Portland, and what book she would make other legislators read if she had the chance.
WW: You grew up in central Oregon but also East Portland.
Shemia Fagan: I lived with my dad growing up in Dufur and The Dalles. My mom, who we visited once a month, lived in East Portland around the Gateway area, [Northeast] 100th and Halsey or Glisan. We were the kids wandering the streets of East Portland back in the late '80s, early '90s. So when I say I've walked the walk of kids in East Portland, I mean that literally.
What are the greatest obstacles for East Portland?
The perception there's not a lot of political power there. People in East Portland are not large donors. When a politician looks at where they're going to get their power, they're not going to get their money from East Portland, so they tend to ignore it.
A lot of families in East Portland are refugee families, not actually American citizens. They deserve equal representation in the same way a big donor in the West Hills does.
For East Portland, you've said transportation issues—safe biking and safe walking routes—need to be addressed first.
I would say safe walking. Folks in East Portland are not huge on the bicycle lane. They're more often used because we don't have sidewalks—someone in a motorized wheelchair needs to be on a smooth surface. So they'll often drive in the bike lanes.
You had protested City Hall's plan to cut the sidewalk project along Southeast 136th. How well do you know this spot?
I drove 136th 20 minutes before the accident happened. I'm intimately familiar with that road. You have to walk up a hill, literally in the road—it's a 35 mph road—without being able to see oncoming traffic and, more importantly, without them being able to see you.
This street serves two elementary schools and one middle school—2,000 kids in the David Douglas School District five days a week. They have to cross 136th in order to get home.
It is basic. It is 2013. A kid should be able to cross the street in front of her house without risking her life.
Has any part of the tragedy of Morgan Maynard-Cook's death been overlooked?
One thing really struck me when I went to the candlelight vigil for the little girl the day after she was killed. Her classmates were invited, [so] you walk up to the haunting chorus of children mourning. But her family was remarkable in that just 24 hours after she passed away, they were fired up and they were demanding action. And so that is important to recognize—that in this instance, a family that had every right to grieve and mourn in private has instead chosen to pick up the battle cry.
How does your upbringing inform your work as a legislator?
My dad was a very staunch Republican. He was an ordained minister in the Foursquare church. Growing up in a Republican family—you know, Oregon was this Democratic state. We didn't feel our voices were heard. That's incredibly similar to how people in East Portland feel toward the city of Portland.
I want to be very clear here, I'm new at this. I'm a new legislator, and I'm not cynical yet. The new mayor, Charlie Hales, and the council deserve the benefit of the doubt. The City Council has been incredibly responsive.
You've written that you and your father, when you were younger, exchanged books with competing ideologies. What book would you have city officials or your Oregon House colleagues read?
[Long pause.] Maybe To Kill a Mockingbird.
Just the reality of how other folks live. In a city that's praised nationwide for its greenness, its transportation, cutting-edge activities, the fact that we have a little girl who can't just cross the street in front of her house without risking her life means that we are not the city yet that the rest of the nation thinks we are—and some of Portland wants to believe we are.