These Three Elected Officials Are Leading a Wave of Latinx Power That is Changing Oregon

Shifts in Oregon reflect real changes in this country, emerging in spite of a rising tide of nationalism and overt racism at the highest levels.

(Sam Gehrke)

To witness the new political power base emerging in Oregon, consider the Portland neighborhoods stretching east from Interstate 205.

There lies House District 47, which covers Southeast Portland between I-205 and 162nd Avenue. From 1999 to 2009, now-U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a tall white man with degrees from Stanford and Princeton, represented the district in Salem. Then Jefferson Smith, a tall white man with a Harvard law degree, served the district for two terms.

In 2012, the district underwent a historic change. That's when Smith left to run for Portland mayor and Jessica Vega Pedersen succeeded him—becoming the first Latina elected to the Oregon House of Representatives.

In 2016, Vega Pederson, now 43, ran successfully for the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners. She was replaced in the Legislature by state Rep. Diego Hernandez (D-Portland), 31, both of whose parents came from Mexico.

Vega Pederson and Hernandez are trailblazers. Now other Latinx candidates are following their path, in unprecedented numbers, including Juan Carlos Gonzalez, 26, who in November won an open Metro seat in Washington County. Gonzalez is a first-generation American and the youngest candidate elected to the regional government since it began keeping track two decades ago.

People classified by the census as Hispanic or Latino are the largest and the fastest-growing minority group in Oregon.

Oregon's Latinx population rate (13.1 percent) is smaller than the national average (18.1 percent) but is catching up quickly and, as this year's election showed, beginning to accumulate meaningful political power.

Jessica Vega Pedersen (Sam Gehrke)Jessica Vega Pedersen (Sam Gehrke)

Latinx people now hold more than two dozen elected offices across Oregon—and by one important measure in the November election, voters' attitudes toward Latinx people are shifting rapidly, as well.

In 2014, voters rejected a ballot measure that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to be issued driver's cards, by 66 to 34 percent. This year, in an almost complete reversal, Oregonians defeated Measure 105, which would have ended Oregon's sanctuary state policy, by 63 to 37 percent.

Related: Oregon Voters Resoundingly Reject Challenges To Sanctuary Laws And Abortion

This dramatic shift in Oregon reflects real changes in this country, emerging in spite of a rising tide of nationalism and overt racism at the highest levels, and evidenced nationwide by the upset victory in 2018 of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a Democratic New York congressional primary race.

Rep. Diego Hernandez (Sam Gehrke)

In an attempt to explore this new base of political power, we invited Vega Pedersen, Hernandez and Gonzalez to our newsroom last week to talk about the growing Latinx influence across the country—and what it means for Oregon.

Their comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Stream a short podcast of our conversation with Pedersen, Hernandez and Gonzalez here.

WW: How'd you get started in politics?

Jessica Vega Pederson: I'd always been in politics, like student council and things like that, and my family had been politically active. But when I moved out to East Portland, I realized all the things East Portland didn't have that I just took for granted in other parts of the city. Things like sidewalks—being a mom and pushing my kids down the street and having to never be able to get a complete block without having to go into the street. So I got involved in my neighborhood association and then eventually got involved in the Democratic Party and decided to run for office.

Diego Hernandez: My mom and dad met here, immigrated when they were in their early 20s to Portland from Mexico. They divorced and my mom raised four kids. I went to six different elementary schools, three different middle schools. We were always moving or getting evicted or living with other people—a lot of homelessness and poverty. And one of my internships was at Reynolds Middle and High schools, and that kind of led me to see education in a different way. My studies really prepared me to understand institutional racism. And so I felt like I needed to get involved in running for the [Reynolds] school board at 25.

Juan Carlos Gonzalez: I was born and raised in Washington County. My parents immigrated here and they met here. I hadn't expected to go into politics, especially this early out of college. But I ended up working for a nonprofit in Washington County that serves Latino families. I was working with political leaders, trying to get the outcomes our communities kept advocating for. I felt like our communities in general, both Latino and non-Latino, were ready for different brands of leadership. So I tossed my hat in the ring.

Juan Carlos Gonzalez (Sam Gehrke)

Voters said no to driver's cards for undocumented immigrants in 2014 and yes to the sanctuary law in 2018. These conflicting results reflected very different attitudes toward undocumented immigrants in four short years. What changed?

Vega Pederson: I was actually one of the chief sponsors of the driver's card bill. When it passed the Legislature with bipartisan support, that was such a proud moment. After it failed at the ballot, one of the outcomes for me personally was that if people are saying they have progressive values, it can't just be about the environment. It can't just be about choice. It can't just be about workers' rights. It also has to be about racial equity. This year, it wasn't even a question that Measure 105 would be part of the bigger ballot coalition, and I think that made a huge difference.

So in 2014, driver's cards weren't part of the general progressive effort?

Vega Pederson: I think it was mostly just driver's cards and pot on the ballot. But when you have people say, "Yes, we can have people smoke pot in this state, but we're not going to let people drive legally and be insured in this state," that was a big wake-up call for me.

Gonzalez: It was for a lot of people.

Hernandez: With driver's cards, I thought the approach should have been, "Let's make it about people, let's make it about your neighbor, let's make it about the folks who are all around us who work in the restaurants you go to, to the hospitals you go to." I think younger people, the labor movement, the reproductive rights movement—all of these organizations [by 2018] were supporting each other's issues, plus using a message that it was about hearts and minds, just like gay marriage. I think that led to a really rapid shift. Plus Trump's rhetoric and doing what he did with the unaccompanied minors and children.

(Sam Gehrke)

So maybe Trump's behavior has actually moved things forward?

Hernandez: It's definitely helped concentrate the political conversations about what it means to go so far and how we treat people. I think people were disgusted by that.

Vega Pederson: Yeah. It raised awareness. I think a lot of things that people weren't aware of, the pervasiveness of racist attitudes and how it wasn't that far below the surface.

The number of Latinx people holding office is increasing much faster than the Latinx share of Oregon's population. Why?

Vega Pederson: There's been conscious movement that we need really advocate for our communities. There's a history in Oregon of racism, there's a history in Oregon of a lack of diversity. Now there's also a concentrated effort of growing that bench at the local level, at school boards, at city council races, to be able to have candidates who are ready to run.

Gonzalez: There's also been a demographic shift. There have been waves of Latino immigrants in Oregon. One wave was 25, 26 years ago, and that's my generation. We're first-generation Oregonians. I was born here and I grew up here and I know the system here.

Juan Carlos Gonzalez (Sam Gehrke)

Hernandez: Outcomes tell us a story. Everywhere we look, whether it's criminal justice, whether it's education, whether it's transportation, whether it's health care, there are racial disparities that impact our communities. That means those who are at the decision-making table are missing a lens. Government has realized, "We need folks who have this lens so that when we're creating policy, when we're creating budgetary decisions, we're able to create the best types of programs that are going to close these gaps."

Traditionally, much of the conversation about racial politics in Oregon is about black people and white people. Is that the wrong frame?

Vega Pederson: Yeah, I think it has been oversimplified in the media. When you talk about race, the thought has been just black and white, and it hasn't been larger than that. That's the point of us being in elected office—we've got to push for a broader view.

Gonzalez: Sometimes the media can pigeonhole candidates. I feel like the average reader will expect us to focus on issues like immigration and driver's licenses. And it's true, we do care about those things deeply, because there's a huge, disparate impact. But Latinos care about economic development, Latinos care about transit justice, Latinos care about geopolitics on the international level.

Hernandez: Implicit bias exists everywhere. The journalism community has been very homogenous in terms of white male representation. And that has a consequence in terms of viewpoints, analysis and stories that get chosen. When I was running for school board, for example, I met with a former elected who was a white female, and she asked me, "How do I know that you're not just going to represent Latinos?' We can see that question and what she is implying by asking it. The implication is that because I am Latino, I will only think about and care about the Latino community. Yet I grew up in this country, I grew up in this state, and I grew up in East County. So why wouldn't I care about everybody?

Rep. Hernandez: Mark Johnson, a former fellow lawmaker, lost his job at Oregon Business & Industry after allegedly making racially biased comments about you. How common is that kind of behavior?

Hernandez: Because there hasn't been that many of us, there are still folks who fear us and don't want us at the table. And because of that, I have been at the forefront of these kind of attacks. I lose the ability to push my agenda from East Portland forward, because the focus on me is too hot, too negative. And therefore I lose power because of it. And it sucks. I wish I didn't have to go through it.

Do people say shitty things to you on the campaign trail?

Gonzalez: Oh, hell yeah. A week and a half ago, I was at a League of Oregon Cities training, and someone came up to me and said: 'Hey, you know, I ran on a 100 percent anti-Metro campaign. Stay out of my community." And I was like, "OK, I understand, but here's some of my platform, here's some of the things I care about, and this is the degree I got,' and he's like, "Well, you never know how valuable degrees are when you have last names like Ocasio-Cortez." That was with someone I'll probably have to work with.

Have you faced an issue where Latino constituents were disappointed in the way you voted?

Vega Pederson: At the county, there was an issue that came up with legal navigation for people who are facing higher risk of deportation. This is something both the city and the county have invested in. But the original ask was for a lot of money, and we're in a structural deficit right now. So I had to tell Causa and immigration legal services we're not going to be able to fund the whole thing.

Jessica Vega Pedersen (Sam Gehrke)

There are proposals pending to toll portions of Interstates 5 and 205. Critics say tolling could disproportionately affect communities of color. What's your view?

Gonzalez: I support the concept of congestion pricing, of reducing car usage and using that money to invest in public transportation. Presently, especially in Washington County, communities of color use public transportation at a very high rate. Last year, TriMet was doing this huge push for electric buses. And in principle, that's fantastic. But you also have communities in Washington County that don't even get a bus. We'll take a diesel bus! Just get us service in the first place.

Hernandez: Tolling is regressive. Folks of color, low-income folks tend to live in the outside of the city, taking longer to commute to work. So the folks who are going to be paying tolls are disproportionately going to be low-income communities. And that's why I'm really ideological when it comes to public transportation. We shouldn't have fares, for instance.

Gonzalez: I agree with you 100 percent.

Vega Pederson: You're talking about doing congestion pricing or tolling on the Abernethy Bridge down in Clackamas County. There's no transit that goes there. So what choice are people going to have except to pay for this, right? But from both a climate perspective and the way our population is increasing in this area, we have to do something about it. It's all in the details of how we implement it.

(Sam Gehrke)

Some argue decisions here and in other states still get made mostly by and for the benefit of the middle class. How do you change that?

Gonzalez: Metro just officially approved an urban growth boundary expansion in Washington County. What always makes me laugh is that our local governments say they can't afford the infrastructure to build low-income housing, but we can afford to build these mega-infrastructure projects for McMansions. One official in Washington County told me, "Oh, allowing us to build higher-income homes will attract more high-income people from Portland to live here, and that's a good thing because then we'll have higher-income people going to our school district and that will raise our outcomes.' And I was like, "Time out." When you ask, "Why didn't you do something for low-income residents?" they're like, "Oh well, didn't really pencil out."

So how do you gain more political power for people who don't currently have it?

Hernandez: It's a multi-pronged approach. There are the community grassroots, the agitators, who experience the shittiness of our problems. But then you also have more structured, community-based organizations that are thinking, "How do we actually gain influence?" There's a collective effort right now for these community organizations to start thinking about 501(c)(4)s [which are political] instead of 501(c)(3)s [which are charitable].

Has anybody sorted the voter file and said: "OK, here are 250,000 potential Latinx voters, we need to activate them"?

Hernandez: It's actually very hard to sort the data to be able to say, "These are Latinx voters." I'm hoping in future, when we register to vote, we're able to self-identify with a race or ethnicity so that we can track that data and really be able to tell rather than rely on the census demographics we have from those areas.

(Sam Gehrke)

Vega Pederson: We know, nationally, that having the question about your citizenship status has already been shown to suppress participation in the census. This is such an important thing at the county. We want to know who is here, who we're serving. I think it's on us as elected officials in Oregon to go against that national trend and make sure the census is as accessible as possible so we know who is here and what our state looks like.

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