OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Palmero hopes to inspire others to take a more active role in government.A mere four years after Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis voted against appointing Mario Palmero, an unexperienced young social worker from Rockwood, to be on the City Council, he’s asked him to be its president.

On Jan. 5, the first city council meeting of the new year, Palmero was unanimously selected to lead the six-member governing body with accolades from his colleagues for his passion for the job.

Palmero comes to the Gresham City Council as an outlier. He’s one of two people of color on the council, and the first Latino member. As a social worker living in Rockwood, the 39-year-old also said he’s in a different socio-economic bracket than the other officials.

“A lot of people have been calling me up, saying ‘Congrats and I’m very happy to see someone of Hispanic descent being a representative here in Gresham’,” Palmero said.

The California native faced a rocky road to get where he is. He was defeated by fellow Councilor Jerry Hinton for a seat on the council in 2012, but was appointed by a 4-1 vote later that year when another councilor unexpectedly resigned. Bemis was the lone dissenter, saying at the time that Palmero did not have enough experience in government.

Then, when Palmero ran for a full four-year term in 2014, he again faced uncertainty as his challenger, Jennie Cochran, refused to immediately concede because Palmero won by only 112 votes.

Since then, however, Bemis said Palmero has more than proved himself.

“He’s put in the time with the community,” Bemis said. “You can tell his heart and passion for the community. I think he’s a got a good gauge on where things are, and I see him as somebody who can take future leadership positions.”

Palmero, who is of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent, is an Oregonian through and through. On his days off, which are few and far between, he enjoys camping, fishing and backpacking, including once hiking the 93-mile Wonderland Trail that circles Mount Rainier.

He and his wife, Rebecca, have two children, 4-year-old Mario Jr. and 16-year-old Natalie.

Being active on the city council has been a sacrifice, he said. He works long hours at his job as a case manager in the Gresham Self-Sufficiency Office, a division of the Oregon Department of Human Services. Through his job he helps domestic violence survivors find new places to live.

“It’s hard because I’m hardly ever home,” Palmero said of balancing work, government and family. “My day starts at 7:30 a.m. and sometimes it ends at 9:30 p.m. The kids are

already asleep.”

Hinton, who served as council president last year, took notice of Palmero’s commitment to Gresham when he realized Palmero was working Saturdays to be able to attend council meetings on Tuesdays.

“That just shows an incredible dedication on his part,” Hinton said.

Neighborhood knowledge

Palmero said he gets his passion for civic duty from his mother, who was an avid volunteer for women’s rights and other issues.

“She instilled that, if you want to make the world a better place, you have to do something about it,” Palmero said.

So he did.

Before joining the Gresham City Council, Palmero was involved in the community as a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, Rockwood Weed and Seed, teaching English to non-English speakers and as a tax preparer for the AARP/Vita Tax Aid.

Councilor Lori Stegmann, who pushed for Palmero to join the city council back in 2012, said Palmero brings a welcomed different perspective to the council.

“I think because in his professional life he works with low-income folks that are faced with the challenges of poverty on a day-to-day basis, Mario brings a very first-hand view of what the challenges are when you live in poverty,” Stegmann said. “He brings a compassionate, yet real view of what it’s like to not always know where your next meal is coming from or if you’re going to have shelter.”

Palmero is front and center to many of those issues as he lives in the Centennial neighborhood, off 182nd Avenue. That knowledge is especially important to Gresham now as the city embarks on a multi-million dollar plan to lift West Gresham from its reputation of poverty and crime.

“I am very grounded in the Rockwood community and try to get out as much as I can, but that’s different than when every day you are trying to solve people’s problems and at the same time you’re a policymaker that could be voting on things that effect those very people,” Stegmann said.

When the Gresham City Council embarked on its plan to get compensation for their volunteer civic jobs — which finally succeeded in May after numerous failed attempts — it was people like Palmero they hoped to attract.

“That’s what it was all about,” Stegmann said. “Allowing people who haven’t historically been able to serve because of either financial reasons or the constraints of having a nine-to-five job, but even in spite of those obstacles, Mario has stepped up because clearly we weren’t getting paid until recently.

“It speaks volumes about how much he cares about this community and the sacrifices he made,” Stegmann said.

Diverse representation

Palmero’s motivation to join the council came from seeing the gap between local government and minority groups. He hopes by being on the council, he’s helping to bridge that gap.

“It doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are, you can do whatever you want if you try hard ,” Palmero said.

Diego Hernandez, a Reynolds school board member and candidate for state representative, said its important to have more diverse voices in leadership roles.

“Historically, we’ve been underrepresented,” Hernandez said. “It’s also great to have representation from a person of color who wants to embrace diversity, wants to embrace immigrant communities and is not trying to go back to what Gresham used to look like.”

To ease the transition between council presidents, Hinton will show Palmero the ropes over the next few weeks. Covering for the mayor can be a “joy,” Hinton said, but is stressful as well.

After Palmero was named council president, he called his mother to tell her the good news. He said she was happy, but lovingly skeptical.

“She was like, ‘Well what does this mean?’” Palmero said. “(I said), If the mayor’s not there, I get to run the show. She still thinks I’m a troublemaker. She asked me, ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’ and I said, ‘I never know what I’m doing’.”

“I hope two things,” Palmero concluded. “One, that I can be eff ective, and two, that I don’t let anyone down.”

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