A new day: Multnomah County welcomes first majority minority board

January 3, 2017

From left: Chair Deborah Kafoury and Commissioners Sharon Meieran, Jessica Vega Pederson, Lori Stegmann and Loretta Smith

Multnomah County Tuesday welcomed three new commissioners to its board, making it the first board with a majority people of color, and the seventh board in the county’s more than 160 years comprised entirely of women.

Sharon Meieran, who represents west Portland as commissioner for District 1, was sworn in along with Jessica Vega Pederson, who represents east Portland as commissioner for District 2, and Lori Stegmann, who represents east Multnomah County, including Gresham, as commissioner for District 4.

They join Commissioner Loretta Smith, who represents north Portland for District 2 and Chair Deborah Kafoury, who leads the board.

“This is a milestone,” said Stegmann. “As an immigrant, as a minority woman, as someone who grew up in Rockwood, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Oregon.”

Another First

Commissioner Lori Stegmann, representing District 4 gets sworn-in by the honorable Judge Adrienne Nelson at Tuesday's ceremony.

Stegmann is the first Asian American elected to the board. She was adopted as a baby from South Korea and raised in a low-income family in Rockwood. Her father worked as a logger and her mother cared for the family. She still remembers the stigma of receiving food stamps, sticking actual stamps to a card -- like a shameful version of Bingo --  in exchange for blocks of cheese, powdered milk, Hamburger Helper.

“Why is there so much shame in being poor?” she wonders. “Often times you don’t have anything to do with it.”

Growing up in the 1970s she wanted so much to be like Marsha Brady, blond and fair skinned. “When I was growing up, I didn’t have any role model of color,” she said.

That has changed. Stegmann grew her own business as a State Farmers insurance agent, bought a house in a middle class neighborhood, and raised a daughter. Now 18, her daughter knows the Gresham chief of police, who is a woman. She knows her state representative, who is a woman. She knows her state senator, who is a woman. Now her own mother has joined their leadership ranks. Stegmann wept as she reflected on what her election might mean for residents who feel unheard or unseen.

“My election isn’t about me. It’s about my community, East County,” she said. “Their voices. Their concerns.”

Stegmann plans to work on finding solutions to homelessness, rising costs of housing and disparities in criminal justice. She supports programs such as the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion pilot launching this year in downtown Portland, which will divert drug users from arrest to recovery.

Women in Power

The Multnomah County Board was entirely white and male until 1974, when Alice Corbett -- a former teacher, hardware-store owner and state senator -- was elected. Gladys McCoy, a social worker from Georgia, was elected in 1978, the first African American member of the board. And in 1987 voters ushered in the first all-women board. The commissioners included Gretchen Kafoury, mother of current Chair Kafoury.

Deborah Kafoury remembers as a girl her mother talking about how she was treated as a first-term legislator in the state House of Representatives. “People would call her sweetie, and honey and pinch her butt,” Kafoury said.

Gretchen Kafoury dedicated her adult life to getting women elected to office, as co-founder of the Oregon chapter of the National Organization for Women and later the Oregon Women's Political Caucus.

“She was all about women and women's rights. Gender politics was her thing,” Deborah Kafoury said. “It wasn’t that she was a politician who happened to be a woman. She was a woman.”

Commissioner Sharon Meieran represents District 1.

Like the Kafoury women, Sharon Meieran has learned to navigate male-dominated arenas, first as a lawyer, then as an emergency-room doctor, then sitting on boards and committees mostly led by men.

She champions access to mental health services for people in crisis and culturally-appropriate services for immigrants and refugees. She’s also advocated for reproductive health, especially for low-income women and women of color, who experience the highest rates of unintended pregnancies; a driver the perpetuates poverty. Meieran supports the philosophy of One Key Question, which asks simply, “Would you like to become pregnant in the next year?”

“If the answer is ‘yes,’ then let’s make sure you’re as healthy as you can be,” she said. Maybe that means folic acid supplements or controlling diabetes. “It honors women who want to become pregnant. It honors a woman’s choice.”

Latino leaders

Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson gets sworn in at Tuesday's ceremony.

Multnomah County is home to more than 50,000 Latino residents, but the county has had few elected Latino leaders. Serena Cruz was the first Hispanic American elected, in 1998, followed by Maria Rojo De Steffey three years later.

Jessica Vega Pederson is the county’s third.

She was the first Latina elected to the Oregon House. In Salem, Vega Pederson fought for access to government-issued driving cards for undocumented Oregonians, equal pay for women, paid sick leave and higher minimum wages.

She lobbied for money to install flashing crosswalks on some of the busiest and darkest four-lane roads that carry east Portland commuters to downtown jobs. Health and sustainable communities top her agenda going into this four-year term.

“In east Portland we’re tired of being the exception to services, being told, ‘oh we’ll get to it next year,’” she said. Pedestrian fatalities in her neighborhood are the highest in the county. Rising housing costs are pushing people of color, immigrants and refugees and low-income families further east. 

Born in Indiana, Vega Pederson is a second-generation Chicana. Her grandfather was an steelworker who raised nine kids, including seven daughters.

“I was surrounded by strong Latina woman,” she said. “They were my role models of what it mean to be a woman.”

And that’s the kind of role models this county needs.

“We need our government to reflect our community in the boardroom, behind the dias, to bring different ideas, different discussions,” she said. “Our problems aren’t new. So our solutions need to be.”

The burden and blessing of serving two communities

Commissioner Loretta Smith was elected to represent north Portland on the Multnomah County board. As an African American, the role of representing black residents, of being an “ambassador" lands on her shoulders.

“You have to serve two communities,” she said. “When people see someone who looks like them, they want to engage. They think you’re more apt to listen. There’s an expectation that we’ll be more receptive to their needs, that it will define how we administer public policy, how we spend our resources.”

And for Smith it has. She heard concerns about access to social services for families in east Portland, and she pushed to implement the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative, providing culturally specific, community-based services for kids of color.

Shortly after being elected in 2010, she held a townhall meeting for African American men. The more than 300 attendees expressed their frustration over the lack of summer jobs for teens.

So Smith created the Summerworks internship program. What started with 25 kids has grown to provide jobs to more than 500 young people a year.

For the first time, last summer, she saw the seeds of that advocacy. An intern told her, “I want to be you.”