Rep. Anna Williams, D-Hood River, will resign from the Legislature Aug. 14 to start a new job as executive director of the System of Care Advisory Council. (Anna Williams)
Hood River Democrat Anna Williams has spent the past four years focused on human services policy at the Oregon Legislature. Starting in mid-August, she’ll trade the state House for a new policy job.
Williams, who was elected in 2018, will be the new executive director of Oregon’s System of Care Advisory Council starting Aug. 15. The statewide council created in 2019 develops health care policy and coordinates with a range of state, local and federal programs that provide mental, behavioral and physical health services, educational support and juvenile justice for young people.
Williams told the Capital Chronicle it’s the “perfect fit” after her legislative focus on laws addressing child abuse, homeless youth and pay rates for providers.
“There’s on-the-ground agency policy work to be done,” she said. “There’s system-level statewide policy work to be done. There’s community organizing and capacity development work to be done. Those are the things that I really love doing. And to be frank, I don’t have to run for office every two years to be able to do this.”
The new position, which Williams said pays about $150,000 annually, is also much more sustainable than the $33,000 or so that legislators make. Williams and fellow Democratic Reps. Karin Power of Milwaukie and Rachel Prusak of Tualatin announced this spring that they wouldn’t seek re-election because they couldn’t keep juggling the demands of often-unpredictable legislative schedules, motherhood and day jobs.
‘Drove back and forth every day’
Williams will now be able to do much of her work remotely from her home in Hood River, and she expects to have plenty of warning when her job takes her to Salem or other parts of the state. That’s a difference from the Legislature, where she said lawmakers sometimes would only learn about late nights a few hours ahead of time.
Along with Rep. Jason Kropf, D-Bend, Williams is one of only two legislative Democrats from the east side of the Cascades. Hood River is about 90 miles from the capitol in Salem, and Williams said she tried all kinds of strategies to make legislating work for her family’s budget, but she was unable to figure out a sustainable way to balance finances and the time commitment.
“I sublet a room in someone’s apartment for my first long session,” she said. “I did Airbnb sometimes when I knew we would be there for a week. I did hotel rooms sometimes. For this last short session. I drove back and forth every day.”
Williams and other critics say Oregon needs to raise legislative salaries to make legislative service more accessible to a broader swath of Oregon’s population. Women and people of color have gained representation in recent years, but the Legislature as a whole is still older, whiter and richer than the state’s population.
Beyond salaries, Williams said set schedules or assistance with child care could make legislating easier, especially for parents and lawmakers who don’t live in the Willamette Valley.
“Most of the Democrats can drive home in the evenings, so they’re not as concerned about things like how much it costs to get a hotel when it’s a last-minute thing that really eats into that small salary that you have in the first place,” she said.
Plans to continue as advocate
Williams has a master’s degree in administrative social work from the University of Kansas and has worked as an advocate for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, as a program coordinator for elder patients and at a drop-in center for homeless adults.
Before she ran for the House, Williams served on a regional Area Agency on Aging board under the state Department of Human Services. The boards advocate for seniors and people with disabilities. Her frustration with DHS and Oregon Health Authority officials who didn’t understand why policies that worked in Portland didn’t work in rural Oregon made her decide to run for office.
“There was this deep lack of understanding of the qualitative differences of life in rural Oregon and how our statewide systems actually affect people in rural Oregon.” she said. “We have to adjust our strategies to make things work in rural Oregon, or we’re going to continue to have this sort of us versus them, I-5 corridor versus the rest of Oregon, conflict that is entirely unnecessary and manufactured out of a lack of understanding.”
Williams said she’s working with Rep. Lisa Reynolds, a Portland physician and the new chair of the House Human Services committee, to continue unfinished work. There’s more to be done at the state level to help older adults with disabilities receive appropriate care and help survivors of domestic violence who lack health care or housing and may have committed crimes to survive.
A bill she pushed in 2021 would have required judges to consider domestic abuse as a mitigating factor to reduce sentences. It was one of many similar efforts nationwide after the well-publicized case of Cyntoia Brown, a Tennessee woman who was released from prison in 2019, 15 years into a life sentence for killing a man who solicited her for sex when she was a teenage trafficking victim.
Legislative policy changes would also help unaccompanied homeless youth who don’t have access to the same services as children who are adopted or in traditional foster care, Williams said.
In her new role, she’ll work with a governor-appointed council that can set policies. And she’ll be more involved in implementing laws set by the Legislature and distributing grants to service providers.
“It was a great opportunity to stay in the work that I felt like I was actually being effective at in the Legislature, and to take this thing that is sort of in the process of being developed and turn it into something that’s effective and efficient,” Williams said.
The Democratic Party of Oregon is seeking candidates to finish the last few months of Rep. Anna Williams’ term. Interested people who live in the district must fill out a form and submit it by email to [email protected] before 12 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 12.
Locally elected Democrats will pick three to five nominees during a nominating convention on Aug. 13 and forward those names to the Multnomah, Clackamas and Hood River county commissions. Commissioners will choose the new representative from among that group.
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