THE MULTNOMAH COUNTY BOARD of Commissioners picked State Representative Chip Shields to replace Margaret Carter as North/Northeast Portland's next state senator at a surprisingly close selection hearing last Thursday, September 24.
Shields fought off challenges from two other shortlist candidates: former State Representative and Oregon Action Executive Director Jo Ann Bowman and Karol Collymore, an aide to County Commissioner Jeff Cogen.
Initially, voting was split between the five commissioners: two votes each for Shields and Collymore, with Multnomah County Chair Ted Wheeler casting his vote for Bowman. But Wheeler then changed his vote to Shields after "recognizing that today is not [Bowman's] day."
Shields is white, and both women are African American, prompting a media focus on race in the run-up to the selection event. The previous state senator for the district, Margaret Carter, was African American, and her departure halved the number of black legislators in Salem. Wheeler even asked the candidates if race mattered, during the question period.
"We need to integrate more people of color into positions of leadership," said Collymore, after admitting to being more afraid of the black drug dealers than the white protagonist drug dealer on one of her favorite TV shows Weeds, adding, "There's something wrong about that."
Shields said race, gender, and a host of other diversity issues are "a legitimate issue, when all things are equal," but said "real results" are important in a legislative setting.
Bowman, meanwhile, said: "All things are not equal. I wish we lived in an equal society, but we don't." She said it's important that people of color are represented "when you walk in the building."
Collymore told the board of county commissioners that the biggest issue facing the district is gentrification, causing historically African American schools like Jefferson and Roosevelt High to fail as rich white kids are bussed out to other schools. "The graduation rates are an embarrassment at those schools," she said.
Bowman focused on "economic insecurity, lack of employment, and unemployment" as the biggest issues facing the district, saying she wanted to focus on providing job training to low-income people. Shields, meanwhile, said the state's property tax structure was the biggest issue facing the district, added to the fact that more inmates are returning there than to any zip code in the state.
The candidates were also asked about mental health services. Bowman said, "The best mental health care available in our county is in our jail system, and that's a sad statement to make."
Collymore agreed, adding, "When we have people paid $8-10 per hour to take care of mentally ill people, it's not treatment. It's a stopgap."
Shields disagreed, saying, "I think the best mental health care is happening at places like the Garlington Center in our district." He said his hard work has led to improvements in the system.
Asked about how they would support small businesses, Bowman said there are many small businesses willing to craft some form of tax-reform package in the legislature. Shields said he wanted to ensure that health insurers didn't hammer small business by continuing to raise premiums, while Collymore admitted to having "no good answer," but added there is a "huge opportunity for green jobs" in the state.
Shields' selection was overshadowed by the Oregonian's unusual endorsement in the race on Thursday morning. The paper's editorial board endorsed Shields for the Senate, but also took the unusual step of endorsing Collymore for Shields' soon-to-be-vacant seat in the Oregon House of Representatives.
Bowman said she was "shocked" not to even have received a phone call from the paper prior to its endorsement of her opponent for the Senate. And another likely candidate for Shields' vacant house seat, Lew Frederick, said he was "surprised" not to have received a phone call prior to the endorsement of Collymore either.
Frederick, who is African American, says he feels the Oregonian "developed this meme, which was that they needed an African American woman to run for something—but the fact is, we've not had a black male in the state legislature since 1998, or a black person in the city or county offices since 1992."
Oregonian Editorial Page Editor Bob Caldwell told the Mercury Thursday afternoon that both Bowman and Frederick are "known quantities."
"It says what it says," Caldwell said. "It's an opinion."
"What's going on there, I really don't know," Frederick responds.
"I was the only person in the entire shebang to get interviewed," says Collymore—saying Shields wasn't interviewed, either. "I wanted to get endorsed for the Senate seat, and not the house seat, but whatever they chose to do from there on is their decision. I would go for another interview if they want to open that process up again."
Shields told the Mercury he was "surprised" by the Oregonian's endorsement of Collymore for his seat, but declined further comment by press time.