Susheela Jayapal was sworn in as a Multnomah County commissioner Thursday evening, joined by family, friends and fellow community leaders at a ceremony at the North Portland Library. As the commissioner for District 2, Jayapal succeeds Loretta Smith to represent North and Northeast Portland.
Jayapal is the first Indian-American elected to the County Board, and the second member of her family to serve in public office. Her sister, Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, was elected to Congress in 2016, and serves on the House Judiciary and Budget committees.
Commissioner Jayapal served as a general counsel for Adidas America and has been a board member for local nonprofits including Planned Parenthood of the Columbia-Willamette, the Portland Schools Foundation, All Hands Raised, Literary Arts, Metropolitan Family Service, and the Regional Arts & Culture Council.
“I ran for office, and you don't do this unless you believe in government,” and county government in particular, she said. “It’s the work of social justice. The ultimate objective of all our programs is creating a community that is just, where everyone has what they need thrive. We need to do that work here.”
Jayapal thanked her family, her campaign staff and the community leaders who supported her run. Her parents, both in India, sacrificed when they sent her and her sister to the United States. Jayapal was 16 years old when she left India to attend college.
“They believed in the American dream,” Jayapal said. “I think we know that dream is out of reach for too many people. But their sacrifice is what made this possible.”
Jayapal’s voice cracked as she mentioned her children, her son Josh, and her daughter Tara.
“My children teach me every day the better world that is still possible,” she said.
Jayapal’s daughter Tara Sonali Miller smiled in the back of the room. She recalled many frank conversations with her mother over the years about social and political beliefs, as she grew into a strong proponent of women’s rights, gay rights and basic human rights, just like her mother.
Jayapal took care to support her daughter, an Indian-American child in a mostly white community. One time as a child, Miller recalled, she was coloring with her mother and asked her to pass the peach crayon, which she referred to as ‘skin color.’ Miller recalls Jayapal began a conversation about why the light color was used generically to describe skin, when skin actually comes in so many different colors.
“It takes a certain level of awareness to pick up on that,” Miller said. “I’m more and more aware of the ways my mom celebrated my and our brownness. And the ways she encouraged me to talk and think about race in all its nuance and complexity.”
Jayapal will bring that lens to the County, where health and social programs serve a demographic distinctly more diverse than the region at large. Miller said her mom will also bring an ability to listen deeply, think critically and make sound decisions.
“She fights for what she believes is right, and she’s incredibly willing to listen,” Miller said. “She’s really good at taking in a lot of information, facts and opinions, absorbing it, and taking action.”
Friends spoke of that same intention and acumen.
Amy Polo, a friend of 15 years, said Jayapal would bring a fresh balance to politics. “She’s committed and focused, and she has a very generous heart.”
Allison Bader has known Jayapal for just as long. They raised kids together and still play tennis. Jayapal is a fierce opponent on the court who plays to win, Bader said. Off the court, life hasn’t always been easy. And it is in those hard times that Bader sees Jayapal’s potential as a leader.
“We have all gone through personal struggles,” Bader said. “But she can see a challenge realistically, clear-eyed. She just takes it step by step.”
Alysa Rose and her husband, David Finkelman, also met Jayapal through tennis. They know her as deliberate and focused. But Jayapal’s run for office is testament to her courage — the courage to be vulnerable.
“It’s easy to talk about what’s not right, but to do something about it?” Rose said. “I can’t wait to see what she does.”
“What I was really impressed with, was she could talk about her own experience from real life in a way that made sense to me,” said Sanchez who represents many of Jayapal’s constituents in Salem. “I agreed almost immediately to support her.”
“She came to my office to talk about running,” Kafoury told the crowd. “I said, ‘OK, give me your two-minute spiel.’ She gave this speech.… It was hands down the most amazing — better than any multiple-time candidate, much less a first-time candidate — two minutes on ‘why I want to run for office.’ I was speechless. It was the first time I had met her.”
Kafoury immediately backed Jayapal, as did County Commissioners Sharon Meieran, Jessica Vega Pederson and Lori Stegmann.
“We wanted this woman to work with us,” Kafoury said. “She talked about how she understands the challenges we face, knows the challenges of institutional racism. And instead of running away, instead of criticizing or Tweeting, she signed up. 2019 is going to be a great year. We have a lot of work to do, but we’re going to have Susheela on our team.”
Justice Adrienne Nelson, who began her first full term on the Oregon Supreme Court this week, swore in the new commissioner. As Jayapal spoke, her college roommate Lauren Isaac wiped tears from her eyes.
They met in an international government class during their freshman year at Swarthmore College, in 1979. The following year they became roommates. Jayapal was from India and Lauren from the Midwest. But they were raised similarly, leading them to joke that they shared the same father.
Jayapal became the Oak Leaf Award winner of their senior class, honoring the woman graduate showing “outstanding in leadership, scholarship, and contributions to the college community”, which came as no surprise to Isaac.
“Susheela is just amazingly brilliant,” Isaac said. “She has the ability to see clearly a complicated thing. She can see what’s critical.”
They remained fast friends after college and years later both landed in the same Northeast Portland neighborhood.
“You know that person you can always count on? The one who has always been there for you?” Isaac asked. “She is that person for me. A person I could always call on.”
Isaac believes that same devotion will extend to Jayapal’s constituents.
“She’s always been about making things better,” Isaac said. “She sees that the success of people she loves is her success.”