We Asked Rep. Janelle Bynum How the Oregon House Would Be Different Under Her Leadership

“When they say representation matters, it does—it really, really does—to see what’s possible and to know that your voice can be included in a conversation.”

Rep. Janelle Bynum (D-Clackamas) is waging an extraordinary battle in the Oregon Capitol.

The three-term representative is challenging House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) for her job running the lower chamber of the Oregon Legislature. It's a powerful post, from which the speaker doles out committee assignments to members of the House and sets the policy agenda.

An open floor fight for House Speaker is expected in January. That's rare: It hasn't happened since Kotek took the job in 2013, becoming the longest-serving House speaker in Oregon history.

But Bynum is interested in making history: She would become the first Black lawmaker to serve as speaker.

Her bid also contains complicated political dynamics. A businesswoman who owns four McDonald's restaurants with her husband, Bynum has championed police reform and racial justice in the Legislature while remaining moderate on fiscal issues.

Because of that, the prospect of Bynum seizing power may hold some appeal for Republicans who feel silenced by Kotek—who has passed historic, progressive policies, including family medical leave, an increase in the minimum wage and an expansion of school funding via a tax on the revenues of large companies. The power struggle is also playing out amid rancor among the Legislature's BIPOC Caucus for the way Kotek handled allegations of sexual harassment against one of its own: Rep. Diego Hernandez (D-East Portland).

We asked Bynum why she's challenging Kotek and what she would do with the job. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. A video of the full interview can be found below.

WW: What will it mean if Oregon has its first Black speaker of the House?

Janelle Bynum: I think it would be meaningful for everyone. I am Black, but that's not all that I am.

I think it would be meaningful for people, especially those that went downtown [to protest] in Portland, who were not African American and said that they wanted to live in a place where they felt like everyone could be free and everyone deserved a fair shot. When they say representation matters, it does—it really, really does—to see what's possible and to know that your voice can be included in a conversation and to know that someone may understand your position. That's huge.

Where do you fit on the political spectrum compared with Speaker Kotek?

I think it depends on the issue. So, like: Equal pay, I'm there all day. Criminal justice reform, [I'm] super, super progressive on that.

Do I believe we can tax our way to prosperity? Nope. I believe that targeted investments in education are the key to our success. I believe [in] creating a sense of stability in how we do our lawmaking with respect to tax policy. I know that's different.

How would your policy priorities be different?

As a business owner, [I felt] we needed to focus on a COVID recovery that not only centered different racial groups in different communities, but also centered our economy and what we're going to do to get back on our feet.

I was just in an email conversation with a couple of my colleagues about the liability questions, how we look at [occupational safety and health] requirements. One of my colleagues was trying to put [those] things in different buckets. And I had to push a little and tell them, from a business owner standpoint, it is all one big bucket.

You would support liability protections for hospitals, schools and nursing homes?

To provide some certainty.

And that's based on our values, and it's not based on throwing workers away. I believe we have to center workers' needs first and foremost, but I also think that we have to provide some certainty. And every day that we don't provide certainty, we trouble our economy, and that has ripple effects for the next 10 years to me.

Speaker Kotek called on Rep. Hernandez to resign after he was accused of sexual harassment. What part did that play in your decision to run?

I disagree with putting your thumb on the scale. But in terms of having a significant impact on my decision, no: I'm not really driven necessarily by what other people do.

I'm driven by the systems that create those opportunities. What system makes it OK for us to take a long time to resolve a complaint? What system makes it OK for us to not have a victim-centered approach? And what system makes it OK for a person to have a more difficult time to defend themselves if they say that they are innocent of whatever they've been accused of?

Why did you donate to his reelection campaign?

To me, he maintained his innocence, and the caucus pledges to defend its members and, absent a finding of anything in our country, you are given the benefit of the doubt. There's a burden of proof, right?

Rep. Hernandez's experience, I would say, mirrors a lot of experiences that have been reported by men of color in the justice system. Now this is not a real justice system type of process, but it looks horribly familiar to me.

What's the criminal justice bill that you would prioritize for the next session?

The bill that I'm promoting is a [police] misconduct database that would be maintained at the state level. In order to build a system that everyone can trust in and believe in, especially when law enforcement has the authority to kill you, we need to grant that authority very carefully, and we need to hold people to account when it is abused.

What was your reaction to the WW story of the police officer who allegedly hit an East Portland resident in the back of the head while he was conversing with another police officer?

So my reaction to that was actually to ask the city of Portland if any one of those officers in that incident had utilized the "duty to intervene" statute that we just passed [requiring police officers to report misconduct by their colleagues]. I have not gotten an answer on that.

What's your reaction to that lack of response?

It's not OK. It's disturbing. I think it also just points to the fact that they have had turnover in leadership. Training has not kept up and that we haven't had the hard conversations or made the changes that we should have had in terms of accountability for a long time.