A Pride flag, Oregon flag and U.S. flag rest on a desk in the Oregon Capitol. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
The Oregon Legislature will again have a record number of people of color next year after voters elected five Vietnamese-Americans and a second Indigenous woman.
In January 2021, there were 13 people of color in the Legislature. That number will rise to 19 this year, and lawmakers celebrated the step toward greater diversity while acknowledging that there was more work to be done to make Oregon’s legislative body look like the state it represents.
The Legislature will remain overwhelmingly white and male – 47 of the 60 incoming House members and 24 of the 30 total incoming and returning senators are non-Hispanic white people. There will be only eight women in the Senate, though the House is near gender parity with 31 men and 29 women.
And all but one Republican in the Legislature will be a non-Hispanic white person after Rep. Raquel Moore-Green, R-Salem, lost her bid for a Senate seat. Moore-Green is of Puerto Rican descent. Republican Rep.-elect Virgle Osborne of Roseburg describes himself as mixed-race, with a Black father and white mother.
Osborne told the Capital Chronicle he doesn’t plan to join the Legislature’s Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) Caucus, and that he doesn’t think much about race. Democratic Rep.-elect Farrah Chaichi, the first Iranian-American woman elected to the Legislature, plans to be part of the BIPOC caucus. People from the Middle East and North Africa are considered white by the U.S. Census Bureau, but that has long been a point of contention.
The Legislature will add a second Indigenous woman, with Democratic Rep.-elect Annessa Hartman, who is Haudenosaunee, joining Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland, who is Shoshone-Bannock, Ute and Carrizo. A fourth Black man, retired Xerox executive Aaron Woods of Wilsonville, will join the Senate. And the number of Latino legislators will dip slightly from the current Legislature.
A U.S. record
The election of five Vietnamese-American legislators, all Democrats from the Portland area, means that Oregon will have the nation’s largest group of Vietnamese-American legislators in the country. Lake Oswego restaurateur Daniel Nguyen, Portland Public Schools attendance officer Hoa Nguyen, Hillsboro dentist Hai Pham and Portland optometrist Thuy Tran will join Rep. Khanh Pham, D-Portland, who had been the only Asian-American in the Legislature since her 2020 election.
All five incoming Vietnamese-American legislators are children of refugees who fled the Vietnam War in the 1970s. They’ll all serve in the House.
Hoa Nguyen first got involved in politics at the school board level, winning a seat on the David Douglas School Board in 2021. She attributed her work in Portland Public Schools and her desire to serve on a school board to her struggles growing up as one of the few Asian students at a Louisiana public school in the 1970s and 1980s.
Nguyen said she feels like she gets more emails and questions from parents and students than her non-Asian colleagues on the school board because the David Douglas School District serves a large population of Vietnamese families who feel more comfortable reaching out to her, and she expects that legislative constituents might do the same.
“That’s the reason why I ran, because I started seeing more people like me stepping up to leadership,” Nguyen said. “When Representative Khanh Pham ran, I was really excited to see someone like her representing a district where I feel like there’s a high representation of (Asian American and Pacific Islander) communities, and so I believe that that representation does build a pipeline for other folks to be able to see that this is possible.”
She hopes to serve on the House Education Committee and plans to introduce a bill that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in school board elections. Teens are already automatically pre-registered to vote when they interact with the Oregon Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division, but they can’t vote until they turn 18. A handful of cities in Maryland allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections.
A young person’s perspective
Across the Capitol rotunda in the Senate, 26-year-old Wlnsvey Campos will make history as the youngest senator in Oregon’s history.
Campos, who will be 27 by the time she takes office, previously set the record in the House when she was elected in 2020. And along with incoming Sen. Mark Meek, D-Gladstone, she’ll be one of two Latino members of the Oregon Senate.
Campos said it’s an honor to be the youngest senator – but she doesn’t want to hold that title for long.
“Part of what it means to be the youngest in the building is that I need to do what I can to help continue bringing more folks into the building to represent these voices,” she said.
Her youth means that she can bring a lens to policy discussions that her older colleagues don’t have. For instance, compared with baby boomers or those in Generation X, many millennials and Gen Zers feel that home ownership is out of reach. That disparity was on display in a legislative hearing on the state’s economic forecast last week, during which 74-year-old Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, said a 7% mortgage interest rate should be considered low because his first mortgage came with a subsidized 9.5% interest rate.
And while an attempt to increase the roughly $33,000 annual legislative salary didn’t succeed this year, Campos said she was able to explain to some of her colleagues how that low wage keeps younger people out of public service. People with young children or who are trying to grow their families or who have student loans to pay off can’t often take legislative jobs, she said.
“I’m able to come in and say, hey, let’s actually look at some of the realities that folks today are facing,” Campos said. “I’ve really felt that those conversations have been valued.”
Rep. Ricki Ruiz, a 28-year-old Latino, will be the youngest person in the House next year after Campos moves to the Senate. The Gresham Democrat, who graduated from college in 2016 and is now getting his master’s degree, said his older colleagues have listened to his perspective as a young person and current student.
“I really appreciate my colleagues because they always give me the space to share what’s going on in the Wild West of what has happened and what changes need to be happening,” he said. “I believe we’re bringing a unique voice and a youthful voice for sure.”
Decrease in Latino representation
While the overall number of legislators of color will go up next year, the number of Hispanic legislators will decrease. Latinos make up about 14% of the state’s total population, and 12 or 13 legislators would need to be of Hispanic heritage for the Legislature to reflect the state’s demographics.
Instead, there will be only five Latinos: Campos and Meek in the Senate and Ruiz and Democratic Reps. Andrea Valderrama and Nathan Sosa in the House. That’s down from eight this year, after Moore-Green and Rep. Teresa Alonso-Leon, D-Woodburn, lost their respective elections in the state Senate and a congressional primary, and Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, won her race in the 6th Congressional District.
Campos said she’s excited that Salinas won her election and will be Oregon’s first Latina congresswoman – a title she’ll share with Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer in the 5th Congressional District. But she said the dip in Latino representation in the Legislature shows a need to make public service more accessible.
“I know that when a number of us were having conversations in our communities about openings in our seats that there were folks that we were reaching out to that represent that population. And those folks said ‘Hey, I can’t leave, I can’t leave the position that I’m in where I’m making money to sustain my family, to go take this job in the legislature, as much as I would like to run and represent my community,’” Campos said. “There’s a lot of work to be done there.”
Ruiz said that the remaining Latinx legislators need to stay connected with their communities and encourage people to run in the future.
“Even if we have fewer Latinx legislators in the Legislature, that doesn’t change the fact that we are still serving them and we’re still serving everyone,” he said.
This article was updated to include Sen.-elect Aaron Woods, who is Black, Rep.-elect Virgle Osborne, who identifies as mixed-race, and that Rep.-elect Farrah Chaichi will be part of the BIPOC caucus.
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