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Blacks back on political path

After long dry spell, fresh faces start to surface in city's mostly white campaigns
by: JIM CLARK, On the campaign trail, John Branam (middle) meets supporters at the home of Charles Wiggins and wife Donna Silverberg.

As Barack Obama shatters the race barrier to become a viable presidential contender, black successes in Portland races are a different story.

No blacks have served on the Portland City Council since 1992, and none has served on the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners since 1993.

When state Sen. Avel Gordly, I-Portland, leaves office next January, there may be only one Portland-area black in the Oregon Legislature, the fewest since 1983.

Only one of every 15 Portlanders is black, yet that doesn't explain their comparative lack of political clout.

'If you're looking at influence and the ability to influence public policy and the course of events, we probably have fewer blacks able to do that today than we have had since the beginning of the civil rights period,' said Darrell Millner, a professor of black studies at Portland State University.

The causes are complex, Millner and others said. But a new cohort of black political leaders is emerging, aiming to replace elders who cut their political teeth during the civil rights era.

'This year is the first year that gives me some hope that there is a new generation of African-Americans that are stepping up and running for office,' said Jo Ann Bowman, executive director of Oregon Action and a state representative from 1997 to 2001.

Several prospects were cited by Bowman and Gordly:

Cyreena Boston, 27, former constituency director for the Democratic Party of Oregon, is making a spirited run for Bowman's old House seat representing Northeast Portland in the Democratic primary.

John Branam, 33, development director for Portland Public Schools, is close to securing public financing to run for Commissioner Sam Adams' City Council seat.

Harold Williams Two, 31, a management consultant, recently filed for the council seat being vacated by Commissioner Erik Sten.

Charlene McGee, 26, a county health educator, became the nation's youngest president of a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter when she took the helm of the Portland branch in September.

Mayor Tom Potter and Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler have elevated several blacks to staff positions, a traditional avenue to move into local elective office.

One of those Potter aides, 24-year-old Jared Spencer, is teaming with other minorities to form JustPortland, a group that hopes to encourage more blacks, Hispanics and other people of color to run for office.

Many firsts came in the '70s

As Millner sees it, black leaders steeped in or inspired by the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s naturally turned to political office after securing voters' rights and other advances.

That led to a cluster of firsts: Gladys McCoy became the first black Portland school board member in 1970 and then the first black Multnomah County commissioner in 1979.

Her husband, Bill McCoy, was the first black elected to the Oregon Legislature in 1972. Charles Jordan became the first black Portland city commissioner in 1974. State Sen. Margaret Carter, D-Portland, became the first black woman in the Legislature in 1985.

Blacks won other victories in local races for the school board, Metro Council and judgeships. But there's been a long drought when it comes to new faces winning top local political posts.

Bowman is the lone Portland black to emerge and win a race for the Legislature, City Council or county board of commissioners since Gordly's first win 17 years ago.

Many Portlanders have long forgotten the deliberate creation of a 'black seat' in the state House of Representatives, carved out of Northeast Portland when district lines were redrawn after the 1980 U.S. Census.

The 1970s and 1980s were a 'much more active period in terms of blacks seeking those kinds of offices,' Millner said.

The ensuing political dry patch has many causes.

Politician blames the parties

Carter, Gordly and the McCoys held onto their posts, and other blacks didn't want to lose their collective power by unseating them, Millner said.

Values changed for many blacks coming of age in the 1980s and 1990s, long after the civil rights victories.

Many talented blacks with leadership potential sought MBAs and success in the business world, Millner said. Others rose to be Portland police chief, presidents of PSU and Portland Community College, and other top positions.

House candidate Boston blames the conservative tilt of the 1980s for causing diminished 'civic engagement' on many fronts. She also chides her role models for not doing more to nurture young black leaders.

Rampant nepotism in the Legislature, where lawmakers often hire their spouses and children for staff positions, reduces opportunities for blacks to advance in that arena, Gordly said.

Bowman faults the political parties - especially the Democrats, who claim to represent blacks - for failing to cultivate talented minority candidates. 'When they go out recruiting people, it's like an afterthought,' Bowman said.

Partly because their numbers are relatively low, Portland blacks with education and demonstrated leadership skills are highly sought by business and government employers, and for boards of directors and similar panels.

'Those of us who are really involved, we get tired,' said Roslyn Farrington, interim administrator of the state office overseeing commissions for blacks, Hispanics, Asians and women, and a PSU women's studies professor.

'I had one month when three people asked me to serve on a board, and I already serve on several,' Farrington said.

Blacks in other cities have made more electoral gains because they elect city councilors by district, while Portland council candidates must run citywide, Millner said. And the concentration of blacks in North and Northeast Portland is dwindling due to gentrification, forcing lower-income blacks into outlying Portland neighborhoods or suburbs.

The financial state of the black community also weakens the candidate pool. Blacks tend to lack the personal networks needed to raise cash for campaigns, Millner said.

Public financing for City Council races helps, but candidates often need financial sustenance to support themselves while campaigning full time. Bowman often is asked to run for other offices, but personal finances are an impediment. 'First, I need $20,000 to live on while I'm running for office,' she said.

Black candidates also have a tougher burden in Portland, City Council candidate Branam said. You have to have the 'street cred' to demonstrate your service to the black community, while having the 'chops' to appeal to the broader community and convince them you can win, he said. 'You're constantly straddling that.'

Next generation steps it up

After a relative void during the past 15 to 20 years, there's a generational shift afoot.

That's evidenced by Williams' council bid, Gordly said. He is the son of Harold Williams Sr., who has served on the Portland Community College Board of Directors since 1991, and once ran against Carter in the 'black district.'

Like Obama, the newer generation of blacks isn't wedded to the old civil rights mode of thinking. Some were educated at private colleges, and enjoyed opportunities in business and other sectors that their parents never had.

Williams and his cohorts emerged more self-confident, more entrepreneurial and more impatient for change.

After doing motivational speaking and working with youths, Williams said it was time to walk his talk when Sten announced this month he was resigning his seat in April.

'No longer can I put it off on somebody else to do it,' Williams said.

Branam, like Obama, is a biracial black man with a law degree. He also spent two years in South Africa with the Peace Corps, ran an educational nonprofit in Washington, D.C., and launched a real estate investment firm in Portland.

Boston said she looked at the work of the civil rights generation and realized it left unfinished business, and a void of new black leaders. 'I'm going to have to get to work here, because (they're) not doing it,' she said. 'The work that they started, obviously, we're going to have to finish it.'

It's too soon to say that a wave of young political activists is seeking office based on Obama's breakthrough.

But there's no doubt that Obama's candidacy gives many activists a sense that change is under way.

'It's helpful for people like me,' Branam said, 'to believe there is a genuine opportunity to be a racial minority and achieve significant levels of leadership in politics.'


Portland blacks elected to top city, county and state offices

Oregon Legislature:

• Bill McCoy (House of Representatives and Senate, 1973-1996)

• Margaret Carter (House of Representatives, 1985-1998; Senate, 2000-present)

• Avel Gordly (House of Representatives and Senate, 1991-present)

• Jo Ann Bowman (House of Representatives, 1997-2001)

Portland City Council:

• Charles Jordan (1974-84)

• Dick Bogle (1984-92)

Multnomah County Board of Commissioners:

• Gladys McCoy (1979-84; 1987-93)

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