Jessica Vega Pederson, a two-term state representative from East Portland who has advocated for higher minimum wages and safer roads, was sworn in Wednesday as commissioner for Multnomah County’s Third District.
“I think those of you who have spent any time here in East Portland know we can and must expect better,” she said at a ceremony in the newly-renovated library on the Portland Community College southeast campus. With its community-gathering spaces, rows of books, computer bays and LEED Gold certification, the center is a symbol, she said, of where the district can go.
She called on residents to agitate for innovation, starting with transportation and affordable housing.
Vega Pederson lives with her husband Aaron and their two children, in a modest 1950s home in the Hazelwood neighborhood. She lives on one of the throughways piping commuters to downtown Portland. Most are poorly lit and with few crossways. Hers has the occasional speed bump, but few sidewalks.
“For me, with young kids, Where the Sidewalk Ends wasn’t a book of poems. It was my reality,” she said. One block has sidewalks, but not the next. So she and her kids, and often people in wheelchairs, take to the street.
In the legislature, Vega Pederson advocated for more -- and more visible -- crosswalks on the busiest street, including those four-lane roads kids walk to reach David Douglas High School, Ventura Park Elementary and the local public community center.
Her tenacity made her an effective lawmaker, said Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, who spoke during Vega Pederson’s ceremony Wednesday.
“When you’re like Jessica, smart, tough, determined, maybe a little impatient, you learn how to make sure everyone in that capitol building knows you won’t rest until your bill gets a hearing, gets a vote and gets on the governor’s desk,” Kafoury said.
Most importantly, she said, Vega Pederson knew how to bring partners to the table. And that’s something Kafoury will need as she pushes for policy to address a rising rate of homelessness and a shrinking stock of affordable housing. Vega Pederson’s district is on the cusp of that change, where new construction is going up and homes are selling fast, often on cash offers to the highest bidder. That pushes out low-income families, who are disproportionately immigrants, refugees and people of color.
It pushes out the very people, she said, who make her district rich.
“We lose people like this too often and it should be our collective work,” she said, “to ensure the housing market does not exclude the very people we’re trying to attract.”
People who, like her grandfather, came to this country for a better life. He emigrated from Mexico to northwest Indiana, where later he became the first Mexican-American foreman at the steel mill where he worked. He supported nine children on union wages.
“This is the legacy I come from, the legacy that motivates me today,” Vega Pederson said. And it’s a role she can relate to, as the first Latina elected, in 2012, to the Oregon legislature. It was an honor, she said, that sadly took too long.
Vega Pederson is the county’s third elected Latina commissioner in its more than 160-year history. Carmen Rubio, director of the social service nonprofit Latino Network recalled the 1999 election of the county’s first Latina Commissioner, Serena Cruz.
“I remember how I felt: energized and hopeful,” Rubio said. “I was recognizing my own potential in her. Suddenly I had more life options.”
Vega Pederson was sworn in before an audience that included her colleagues on the Board of Commissioners, presiding Circuit Court Judge Nan Waller, Sheriff Mike Reese, the presidents of Portland State University and the Oregon AFL-CIO.
In the front row her mother, Laura Vega, smiled. She watched her daughter and saw something of her mother there. She saw those same slender hands, that same love of books, and the same expectation -- that she could do anything.
“She was a remarkably strong woman,” Laura Vega said of her mother Beatrice, who passed away about two decades ago. She taught her seven daughters to have expectations of themselves, and of society.
“I grew up never questioning whether I had the ability to do something,” she said. “It was never a question.”
And as Laura Vega watched her daughter she thought about how much her mother had adored the little girl. "She would be so proud.”