County Commissioners, employees and community members honored the service of District 2 Commissioner Loretta Smith on Thursday, Dec. 20, during the Board’s regularly scheduled meeting.
The tribute included a video of her work and public comments, and was followed by a reception.
Term limits prevent Commissioner Smith from continuing to represent North and Northeast Portland, which she’s done since January 2011. She is only the second African American elected to the Commission, after Gladys McCoy, since the County was created in 1854.
Commissioner Smith’s two terms were punctuated by efforts to better serve young people through employment programs, education enrichment and young entrepreneur campaigns. But she also worked to highlight the contributions of suffragists, former County Chair McCoy and other black leaders, while also striving to ensure public support for micro-lending campaigns.
“My heart is never going to leave Multnomah County,’’ Commissioner Smith said. “You guys do some great work. It’s just amazing, it’s the people.”
Oregon Supreme Court Justice Adrienne Nelson described her as “an effective leader who walks quietly but has tremendous impact.”
“She has a wonderful heart. Often people don’t understand how much she cares and how often she’s carried things with her for years, because she’s always trying to look at the end game. The long game,” Judge Nelson said. “She’s always looking at what’s in front of her, but she’s also so strategic. We would have not gotten that Promise Neighborhood money — had it not been for Commissioner Smith's vision and tenacity.”
Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Commissioner Smith grew up visiting her father and grandparents in Portland. Her family had moved here to work in the Kaiser shipyards during World War II. She enrolled in Oregon State University, where her first roommate refused to live with her because she was black.
Nevertheless, Smith stayed, earning a degree in broadcast communications and then immediately going to work for then-U.S. Rep. Ron Wyden. She spent more than two decades with Wyden, staying with him as he moved from the House to the U.S. Senate, rising from office staff, to community liaison to office manager.
“First of all, (when she was working for Wyden) she was one of the few women of color that we saw. So as a person of color myself, and you’re thinking about politics and many of the things that happen on a high level, you’re looking for a way in,” said Tony Hopson, Sr., CEO and President of Self-Enhancement, Inc. “Loretta was the way in. She could give us the opportunity
to talk to the senator when he was looking for ways — she made things possible for us to connect.”
The mother of one son, Jordan, Smith waited until Jordan was headed to college to explore her own political future. She was elected in 2010 and re-elected in the May 2014 primary with more than 75 percent of the vote.
Her own life experience helped fuel her advocacy for SummerWorks, the publicly funded summer internship program for people ages 16 to 24 who come from diverse backgrounds, said Andrew McGough, executive director of Worksystems. The program now has served more than 7,000 young people.
“She’s been an advocate since, like, the first day,’’ he said. “Young people not only learn and earn, but they understand what it takes to be successful at work. They also begin to understand the value of returning to school and staying in school and going on to post-secondary education. So the residual benefits of that program are incredible for young people and the community.”
Justice Nelson said Smith’s influence has been far broader than known.
“She has helped immigrants, she has helped low-income, she’s helped seniors. She's really focused on people of color,’’ Justice Nelson said. “I hope she will be remembered for how she fought for everyone. I think her SummerWorks program. This Promise money that’s coming in. The Gladys McCoy standard. How she has mentored and developed so many people. How diverse her staff was. That’s an importance that cannot be forgotten.’’
We sat down with Commissioner Smith to ask about her passion for public service and some of her highlights.
Where did your interest in public service begin?
My public service basically goes back to my childhood. The first memory I have of public service goes back to my mother serving kids in Head Start, and my mother and grandmother having me give out vegetables to community members from the church on Saturdays. I have a special place in my heart for helping people who are vulnerable, and that probably goes back to when I saw my mother serving and cooking for Head Start kids.
What was your first job in public service?
After college, my first job was working for Senator Wyden. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. I almost actually didn’t take that job because I thought my mom wouldn’t be happy with me, since I probably could’ve gotten this job without having a degree. Never pooh-pooh an opportunity to have an opportunity, especially your first opportunity.
What did you learn from working with Senator Wyden?
I sat at the front desk. I had an opportunity to meet so many people and hear so many issues from a grassroots level. Although I started at the front desk, I didn’t end at the front desk. I went around to a lot of different positions, and it gave me an opportunity to meet people who worked in community-based organizations. It gave me a broader view of what was going on in the community.
How do you feel about your service to Multnomah County?
We do so many good things here at Multnomah County. I absolutely love, love, love the County. Had it not been for being termed out, I probably would still be here. Because this is really where the rubber meets the road, and we help people who need that safety net.
Can you tell us about one of your most significant accomplishments?
Before I came here, there was no summer jobs program. I started that with 25 (kids) and was a champion for that over the last eight years to 650 kids that we now serve. It was really a huge achievement to get that summer jobs program into the budget. (SummerWorks has grown exponentially, serving more than 7,000 young people altogether.)
Do you have a memory from Multnomah County that stands out to you?
I think about renaming the Health Department for Gladys McCoy, who was the first African American to be on the Multnomah County board. And she was also the first African American to be chair. And to come behind her as the second African American in the history of 165 years is huge.
As you prepare to leave office, how do you feel about your career?
I can confidently leave this office in Multnomah County knowing, in District Two, that we evolved and changed the lives of so many young people, residents who live here and people who are older adults. We made a difference in their lives, and we were very deliberate about it.
Who do you thank for your success?
What can you say? I do want to thank my family and my friends, because you really don’t take this ride alone. This is very honorable work. And being a public figure — it’s a 24-hour job, seven days a week. So I would be disingenuous to you if I could just pick one person, to say they were invaluable, because there were so many people.
Any idea what’s next for you?
For sure, whatever it is, you can bet it’s going to be around service, around supporting kids, advocating for kids, or something around that arena. That is where I am really comfortable. When you get to this age, you’ve got to do something that makes you feel good, that makes your spirit feel good. Being able to help people who are underserved made me feel good every day. My heart is never going to leave Multnomah County.