In the Hot Seat: Lisa Naito
- Portland Tribune - News
Critical questions of people in the news
She received death threats for supporting gay marriage. She was tagged one of the 'mean girls,' a moniker that could follow her for years.
Now, after 10 years as a Multnomah County commissioner, plus three terms in the Oregon Legislature and one on the Metro Council, Lisa Naito is leaving public office.
An attorney with a passion for improving county mental health and children's services, Naito spoke with the Portland Tribune Nov. 21, a little more than a month before taking what she calls a sabbatical.
Portland Tribune: As you look back on 10 years as a county commissioner, what do you see as your biggest accomplishments?
Lisa Naito: We've done a lot of work on preventing child abuse and neglect. We provided some home-visiting nurse programs for new families at risk, then improving services for homeless youth. When I was first elected, we had a very critical report from the Citizen's Crime Commission about homeless youth downtown, and some kids as young as 12 selling themselves for food and shelter, so we instituted reforms. Now we have I would say the model services in the country for downtown street youth. Children's mental health is another area.
Long before the state, Multnomah County passed an ordinance preventing discrimination in the workplace, and in employment and housing, based on sexual orientation. So we've been real leaders for civil rights and liberties in our community. The indoor clean air act, providing smokefree work places, and services for people with mental illness in the criminal justice system.
Tribune: What are your biggest disappointments and regrets in 10 years?
Naito: I would say gay marriage, when we were overturned by the Supreme Court, it was a little disappointing because I firmly believe in equality in civil marriage.
Tribune: You and three women colleagues on the commission voted to legalize gay marriage with very little public notice or process, and in hindsight it appeared that process helped fuel a backlash that enabled Christian conservatives to gather signatures in record fashion to put that gay marriage ban on the ballot.
Naito: I disagree with your characterization in a couple ways. The first is we didn't vote. Our attorneys interpreted it to be just an administrative matter for the chair to make, which she did. We supported her in that. And that was based on the Oregon Constitution, which our attorneys, and our outside attorney, Charlie Hinkle, the premier constitutional lawyer in the state, said it was our direct duty under the Constitution to provide for equality under the privileges and immunities act.
The second piece is that that backlash was already there. There were ballot measures that they were already gathering signatures for, to prevent gay marriage in our community, and there were 11 other ballot measures around the country at the same time that had the same (goal). In fact, it was defeated in Multnomah County, so you could argue that we took the ball down the field and moved it forward.
Tribune: In hindsight, would you do it differently?
Naito: In hindsight, I certainly would have done the process differently. In fact, we had plans to do it differently, to inform people beforehand. But because of what was happening at the time, and the chair, Diane Linn, released the information when she was in D.C. prior to the plan being unfolded. We had a plan to ask for input, to inform people prior to it, and we just weren't able to carry out that plan.
Tribune: Do you ever fear that your good intentions backfired and made it easier to pass a constitutional amendment that made the very thing you were seeking impossible to do?
Naito: Considering that 11 other states at the time also did that, and we actually defeated that measure here in Multnomah County, and considering what was happening in California and what just recently happened (California's passage of an anti-gay marriage amendment), I will never apologize for standing up for what I think is right and what I thought my duty was under the Constitution. So I don't regret that. Are we to sit silently and not fight for equality? No, I won't do that. I wasn't elected to do that.
Tribune: I notice when county commissioners meet once or twice a week it's common to see empty chairs, that a lot of you don't come to every meeting. Why do you miss so many meetings and how do you justify that to your constituents who pay you pretty good money to represent them there?
Naito: I don't miss very many meetings. I'm often at conferences doing county work. I've been voting by phone, so my seat might be empty, but I think you'll find that I have not missed very many meetings. I was participating via phone and voting by phone.
Tribune: Do you think that gives constituents the wrong impression when they go to a meeting and they see three of the chairs filled and two of them empty?
Naito: They can hear us on the phone and we can hear their testimony, so I haven't heard any calls or concerns about that.
Tribune: Some people have accused you of helping your friend Judy Shiprack get a job in public safety, with the county, which helped launched her election to be your replacement. How do you respond to the concerns people have raised about that?
Naito: Judy Shiprack is an attorney, a former prosecutor and also a legislator, so she's pretty experienced in her own right. When there was an opening on the local Public Safety Coordinating Council for the executive director position, she was the best-suited for the job.
I did seek her out to take that position. At the time, there was no contemplation that she would run for public office, so that's an entirely separate matter.
Tribune: You've been passionate about mental health programs, but now the county mental health system seems to be tattered. What should the county do now to repair the system that seems to be failing on many fronts?
Naito: Well, the system's been struggling for a long time for a lack of resources. But again I don't agree with your statement that the system is tattered. We had a real shocker this year with Cascadia, and the financial challenges that were faced by that nonprofit independent of the county. And I think we've come through the changeover in trying to get those services to other nonprofit providers without a great impact on the client.
When I came into office we didn't have very many programs for people in the criminal justice system. And now we have mandated crisis-intervention training for the law enforcement officers, we have a separate dorm in the jail, that provides additional services, and a different model of supervision for people with mental illness. We have crisis response teams that have been enhanced, to help divert and protect people in a crisis situation when the police arrive. We have walk-in clinics that we didn't have before. We've made a lot of improvements and those aren't written about in the press.
Tribune: That may be be true, but the county auditor has said there were a lot of warning signs for the Cascadia situation in the past, how the county was overseeing some of these mental health or human service contracts. Should you as the senior member of the commission have been leading the charging saying, hey, let's do something about this?
Naito: We certainly should have been paying more attention. I think the director of human services that directs the contracting has a role to play there. But I wouldn't characterize that the services helping mentally ill people have been challenged. It's more the administrative side. Yeah, I do take some of the oversight responsibility, that I should have been asking those questions. At the time, Cascadia seemed from my perception to be well run and they were implementing a lot of the changes that I was seeking. I wasn't asking about their financial underpinnings, and they were a separate nonprofit.
Tribune: You took a lot of flak for moving out of your district, and leaving Laurelhurst for the west side. At a time when candidates are being criticized for carpetbagging to run in various districts, should that be OK for someone to move out of a district they were elected to serve based on residency?
Naito: It was a personal choice. I was engaged to be married, and that didn't happen, so I found another place. My house had already been up for sale. So there were some personal things that happened in my life. I knew I was term-limited and I tried to still be responsive to all the needs of my constituents and believe I have been. I maintain that policy each year to try to meet with all the neighborhood associations and hear their concerns.
Tribune: You'll probably be forever tagged as one of the three 'mean girls' on the commission, as the relationship of the three women commissioners soured with your former ally, County Chair Diane Linn. What went wrong there, and do you think that was a setback of sorts for women in local politics?
Naito: I've been in the press quite a bit for that, and I think as we watched what happened to Hillary Clinton in her bid for the presidency, she was subjected to a lot of, quite frankly, misogyny in the press. As I've told one editor in the press, I'm not mean, and I'm not a girl. I'm a 50-plus-year-old woman who's a former prosecutor, attorney, legislator, and so the naming of that and the use of that by the press has been hurtful, quite frankly. It has, I think, taken away from the work I've done, and reporting on the serious work and the serious issues that we deal with here at the county.
Tribune: What role, if any, do you see playing in public life now that you're leaving?
Naito: I'm very happy to become a private citizen again. There are a number of issues I want to continue working on, with the county and with attorneys and judges in our community to try to replace the courthouse downtown. I care deeply still about homeless youth and early childhood and the mentally ill in the criminal justice system, so those are some of the areas, just as a private citizen, I will stay active in, and continue working for improvements. I'm going to take a sabbatical for a year or two.