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State Sen. Rod Monroe Faces Something Rare: Two Credible Challengers in a Democratic Primary

The fate of Oregon housing policies may hang in the balance.

On a recent wet Thursday, Shemia Fagan's red raincoat was so drenched that her campaign sticker kept slipping off.

But the former two-term state representative trudged on in the rain. She carried a water-filled CamelBak pack, three protein shakes and a raw carrot (no stopping for lunch) up Northeast 128th Avenue.

At each door, she delivered a pitch: "I'm running for office because of our housing crisis," she said. "So many people are talking about getting priced out of their homes, and rents are on the rise. My mom was homeless right here in East Portland for much of my childhood, so I approach the crisis not just as numbers on the page but affecting real people and real families."

That plea is resonating. Across this Oregon Senate district at the eastern edge of Portland, green-and-blue Fagan signs pop out—even on the lawn next door to the home of one of her opponents, incumbent Sen. Rod Monroe (D-East Portland).

Monroe, who first won elected office in the 1970s, is facing not one but two significant challengers from the left. A key reason? He vocally opposed last year's attempt to pass stringent tenant protections.

Related: Portland's Dream of Rent Control Faces a Wake-Up Call in Salem

Now Portland is witnessing something nearly as rare as a dodo bird—a competitive primary for a Democratic incumbent.

On each doorstep, Fagan mentions Monroe's long tenure without a significant re-election challenge. "He's been in office for over 40 years," she says. "I think it's time for a fresh look at some of the chronic challenges."

Fagan and Monroe's other challenger, Kayse Jama, executive director of racial-justice and immigrant-rights nonprofit Unite Oregon, argue they will bring that change.

"They wouldn't enter the race unless they felt they had a chance," says Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University. "What it means is that people in that district want to have political solutions that they feel they're not getting."

This election will measure power within the Democratic Party on one of the West Coast's most divisive issues: housing. And it could determine what shade of blue a reliably Democratic state will be when it comes to policy decisions.

The primary is winner take all.

The fact that Monroe has not one but two challengers makes unseating the incumbent difficult.

Some observers see the race as a contest between the established old guard—Monroe—and a highly regarded challenger who represents progressive Democrats: Fagan. Yet the most important person in this race might be the one about whom voters know the least: Jama.

Rod Monroe is proud to be a landlord.

He and his wife, Billie, married after their first year of college. A few years later, they bought a duplex and have been trading up ever since. He now owns an apartment complex in East Portland valued by Multnomah County at $7.4 million. His 3,200-square-foot house in the Lents neighborhood has a three-car garage and distant skyline views of Big Pink and the Fremont Bridge.

"I started reading about investing in real estate in junior high," he says. "We have succeeded."

Related: The State Senator Who Could Block Rent Control Owns an East Portland Apartment Complex.

He says he receives offers from California investors to sell his apartment complex, Red Rose Manor, for more than its appraised value. He refuses.

"They would turn around and raise rent," he says. "I don't want to see that happen. I care about my tenants as much as I care about the business aspect of it."

Monroe, 75, has been in Oregon politics longer than most WW readers have been alive, first entering the Legislature in 1976. A former teacher at Tigard High School, he's been a strong supporter of abortion rights and gun control. He's served three consecutive four-year terms in the Senate, usually with little competition.

He also ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1986.

Monroe and his critics agree he is being challenged because of a bill before the Legislature last year that would have ended "no cause" evictions and allowed cities to institute rent control. Monroe opposed it.

In response, unions and tenant advocates targeted Monroe for a primary challenge.

(The conflict has extended to his own building. Monroe is locked in a legal battle with one of his tenants, who sued over a fall she says was the result of a leaky roof.)

Related: Portland Woman Sues State Sen. Rod Monroe for $3 Million After a Leaky Roof in His East Portland Apartment Building Allegedly Left Her Disabled

Monroe has attracted more than $240,000 in campaign cash since his last run. He's already paid canvassers more than $30,000 since November to go door to door.

Monroe says he's voted the Democratic Party line, and the only reason for the intraparty dispute is his housing vote.

"All of those groups are in favor of rent control, and I'm not," he tells WW. "All of those groups have supported me in the past, and I have supported them. They made it real clear they wanted rent control, and I don't think it will work, so I spent my time getting more money for low-income housing."

Last Thursday, Fagan approached a house on Southeast 126th Avenue to thank a voter for putting up one of her lawn signs. But the conversation took an unexpected turn.

"One of the keys is to make sure that people who are housed stay housed," Fagan told her supporter. "Right now, renters are subject to what's called no-cause evictions."

"I'm a landlord; I don't kick someone out for no reason," responded the voter.

"I was a landlord for 10 years," Fagan said. "I owned a condo in Salem."

Fagan, 36, a civil rights lawyer, served two terms in the Oregon House before declining to run for re-election in 2016, citing her family's desire to have another baby. Her big achievement: securing $10 million in sidewalks and safety improvements in a district where walking across the street can be perilous.

Fagan moved into Senate District 24 shortly before announcing her run. She has raised more than $120,000 and has the  backing of public employee unions, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 75, the Service Employees International Union, and the Oregon Education Association. (Disclosure: This reporter's husband works for AFSCME.)

There are some matters Fagan has left out of her official bio, including her experience as a landlord. (She bought the condo for law school, couldn't sell it during the downturn, and sold it to the tenant last year, she says.)

She talks about her time as a public defender working to help tenants who were being evicted. But she was also a business lawyer for the white-shoe law firm Ater Wynne,  a firm that represents corporate clients and sometimes landlords.

Even as Fagan has positioned herself as an insurgent, she faces a potential spoiler of her own.

On a recent Saturday, Kayse Jama, 43, who has raised just under $38,000 in cash, was knocking on doors in an apartment building along Southeast 130th Avenue, where he met a friendly voter who was not certain whether she was a registered Democrat.

He didn't mind. Jama's strategy is grassroots organizing—getting new voters registered and engaged.

Jama is a Somali immigrant who has been a community organizer for two decades. He fled his home country's civil war and arrived in Portland in 1999.

He's not using his own housing story as often as Fagan on the campaign. But he did recently post on social media that the scar in the middle of his forehead was the result of a rat bite he got in a "dingy" Portland apartment.

"I'm reminded of my experience living in unsafe housing conditions every time I look in the mirror," he tells WW. "As a low-income refugee, I easily could have been evicted with no cause. Thus, I did not complain to my landlord."

He now owns a home in the Hazelwood neighborhood after being priced out of  North Portland.

Jama questions the validity of only using housing as a way to understand the campaign and the issues faced by the district.

"The housing crisis does not exist in isolation," he tells WW. "It is inextricably linked to wage stagnation, the lack of affordable child care, increasing health care costs, gentrification, income inequality, the dearth of mental health and addiction services, and other social and economic factors."

Jama announced he would run shortly after Fagan did. His campaign was reluctant to discuss any pressure he's gotten to get out of the race over fears he'll divide the opposition vote against Monroe.

"I don't worry about that, because the voters of this district are very smart people," Jama says. "They can make their own choice. It's insulting to the voters."

Observers see this race as a referendum on how the Democratic Party—Oregon's dominant political force—will approach the state's most intractable problem.

"The conventional wisdom in a three-person race against a longtime incumbent is there is no chance to defeat Rod Monroe," says Doug Moore, executive director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, which did not endorse a candidate in this race.

"I don't think that's the case. If there's an appetite and all three of the candidates run a good race, the spoiler impact could be much less than people predict. I think conventional wisdom should be thrown out the window."