House representative takes lessons from her father; is a fierce advocate for East County

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - A freshman Democrat legislator, Fagan serves on three committees: the Education Committee, and the Business and Labor Committee. She also is vice chairwoman of Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee.

When she was in fourth grade, Shemia Fagan’s big brothers hoisted her on their shoulders, raised the trophy she had won and proudly proclaimed, “My sister is the chess champion!”

It was 1992 in Dufur, a rural farming community in Wasco County, and a pivotal moment for Fagan. That year, she had grappled with her mom's drug addiction and felt on the verge of acting out.

After playing chess for three years and joining her teacher’s after-school program at Dufur Elementary School, she had become one of Oregon’s Scholastic Chess Champions.

“For the first time, I knew it didn’t matter that I didn’t have what other kids had in their lives,” Fagan said. “I wasn’t exactly the kid you would pick out of a lineup of who was going to succeed, but I worked hard. I grew up poor and certainly know the life I live now I could have never imagined living when I was 10 years old.”

Twenty-one years later, on a beautiful April afternoon at the state Capitol, Fagan describes her journey to becoming a state representative.

by: PHOTO BY JIM CLARK - Fagan campaigned for state representative while she was eight months pregnant with her son Alton. One man she canvassed told her people claimed to care about Oregons future, but hed never seen it carried up his doorsteps in someones belly.

On her desk is a photo coffee mug with images of her son, Alton, and a famous Statesman-Journal photo of a politician she greatly admires, former Gov. Tom McCall, serving ice cream to Keizer elementary school students.

Last November, Fagan was elected to represent House District 51, an area spanning from Southeast 122nd Avenue in East Portland to family farms in Boring.

Fagan, 31, who lives near Powell Butte, also is an associate business attorney with Ater Wynne LLP in Portland, a school board member for the David Douglas School District and the proud mom of 7-month-old Alton.

“Whether they’re in East Multnomah County or Eastern Oregon, I’d tell young women the sky really is the limit,” Fagan said. “Things that may seem like obstacles or things that seem different in their families from other families really can be overcome if they’re willing to work hard.”

by: PHOTO BY JIM CLARK - State Rep. Shemia Fagan says former Oregon Gov. Tom McCall is a wonderful role model in her life. She keeps a famous Statesman Journal photo of him serving ice cream to Keizer elementary school students on her desk.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho, in 2003, Fagan went on to law school, graduating cum laude from Lewis & Clark Law School in 2009.

Fagan spent two semesters as a high school teacher and volunteered as a guest speaker at schools across the region, teaching students basics of the American justice system.

Along with regularly offering pro bono legal work, she joins neighbors painting over neighborhood graffiti and planting flowers along the Springwater Trail.

As a freshman legislator, Fagan serves on three committees — education, business and labor — and as vice chairwoman of the Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee.

Most recently, she’s become a fierce advocate for sidewalk construction and safety after Morgan Maynard-Cook, a 5-year-old girl, was hit and killed by a car Feb. 28, on Southeast 136th Avenue.

She wears a pin on the lapel of her business jacket with an image of a light purple pedestrian in honor of Morgan.

“Certainly going forward, and knowing there are many other families on those streets, it’s going to be one of those things that I hope defines me,” Fagan said. “Everyone knows it’s sad to lose a kid, but when you’re a mom, there’s an additional level of intensity with which you experience those events. I can’t imagine losing my son. That has spurred me to fight on behalf of that family. The family told me her life meant everything to them. Her death needs to mean something, too.

“We talk a lot about ... funds we want to spend, whether it’s transportation dollars for bike lanes or street cars,” she said. “But in the end, until every kid can walk to school safely and particularly in a city like Portland that prides itself on being a livable, walkable city, we’re not the city we think we are.”

Being a new mom has greatly influenced Fagan’s foray into state politics, and she says running for office while pregnant wasn’t nearly as daunting as it sounds.

The combination of walking in the heat to canvass and taking a dip in the East Portland Community Center pool afterward was perfect.

She was surprised by people such as the 65-year-old man she canvassed who told her, “Every politician claims to care about Oregon’s future, but I have never had someone carry it up my stairs in her belly. You’ve got my vote!”

“We don’t have to see family and service as separate silos,” Fagan said. “I couldn’t do this without Ater Wynne holding my job, and my husband, Richard. He is a 100 percent, hands-on parent who shares equally in the parenting responsibilities and home responsibilities. That is what works for our family, and that’s the only way it would work.”

Alton is affectionately referred to as “The Capitol Baby,” making regular appearances with his mom and attending day care five minutes away from the Capitol several days a week.

“We try to find the same work and life balance all families throughout Oregon, throughout my district, are trying to balance,” Fagan said.

"I love Oregon. I was born and raised here. It is my home and the only place I want to live for the rest of my life." — Rep. Shemia Fagan

by: PHOTO BY JIM CLARK - On Oregon State Day at the Capitol, Fagan speaks with two pharmacy students, Josh Maclaughlan and Stephanie Persaud. She joked her dad had raised her to be two things: A Republican and Oregon State fan. She couldnt let him be zero for two.

Her father was the 'rock'

Oregon State Day at the Capitol was April 17, a day she was visiting with pharmacy students. Fagan joked that her dad taught her to be two things: a Republican and an Oregon State fan.

“I can’t let him be zero for two,” the Democratic legislator said, revealing her status as a lifelong Beaver believer.

It’s been seven years since Fagan’s dad, John Frank Fagan Sr., died suddenly from heart failure, and he’s still her greatest source of inspiration.

When Fagan was a child, her mother was troubled with drug addiction and homelessness and her dad was a single parent — her best friend and the rock in her life.

“He was a very conservative but very religious and compassionate man,” Fagan said. “Even though we hardly had money, if there was someone more down on their luck than we were, he’d be giving money away. Or there would be times he invited a homeless person to Thanksgiving even though we could hardly put dinner on our own table.”

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Growing up in rural Dufur, Fagan was raised by her dad, John Fagan, and older brothers. Though he struggled to make ends meet as a single dad, John was a driving force in Fagans life. He was my world, Fagan says. John died in 2006, but continues to be Fagans biggest inspiration.

As a three-sport athlete — soccer, basketball and track — in high school, Fagan was cheered on by her father, whom she teased for wearing a collection of buttons in her honor.

There was nothing he loved more than to see his kids succeed, and Fagan joked that when she ran for office, even if it was for the Green Party, her dad would cover his hat in her buttons and cover his lawn in her signs.

When Fagan ran for the David Douglas School Board in 2011 and House District 51 in 2012, she brought a button, bouquet of flowers and lawn sign to her dad’s grave in Willamette National Cemetery, taking a picture of the lawn sign before bringing it back with her.

by: PHOTO BY JIM CLARK - Fagan grew up in rural Eastern Oregon and spent some of her childhood in East Multnomah County. She says she loves Oregon and plans to make it her home for the rest of her life.

By keeping her last name, Fagan honors her father’s influence. John Fagan Sr. was a big believer in public service who dreamed of a political career, but didn’t have the opportunity to run for public office until later in life because he was a single dad.

The two held a tradition of buying each other books for Christmas that reflected the other’s perspective. Together, they debated and had heartfelt discussions, no matter how much they saw issues differently.

Fagan continues the tradition. She picks up a book her dad would have bought her and reads it by the end of January.

“No matter how much you disagree with people, you could probably always learn something from them,” Fagan said.

Another inspiration for Fagan is her paternal grandmother, Imogene Fagan, who beginning in 1942 worked in the shipyards during World War II.

Because the ship she welded had the fewest leaks, the U.S. Navy ship bore her name.

A pioneer in her day, Imogene owned a small business, served as mayor of her rural Colorado town and stood up for civil rights, once scolding her son John in front of a football coach for making a racially insensitive remark.

Women in Fagan’s church took her under their wings and stepped in to help her shop for a homecoming dress or attend a mother-daughter tea party.

“I’m really grateful they surrounded me with love and made me feel like I was not lacking,” Fagan said.

Oregon public schools are a huge priority for Fagan, who says they changed her life. At every door she knocked on last fall, people expressed their concerns in some way or another about school funding.

“There is a real connection between the future Oregon economy and whether or not our kids are getting ahead,” Fagan said. “The fact is, we can’t just talk about finding funding for our schools — we have to have a path there.”

Fagan is also concerned with small businesses and part of an effort with the secretary of state’s office to create an office of small business administration.

In the past four years, Fagan has rekindled a relationship with her mom. As Fagan was graduating from law school in 2009, her mother recovered from an overdose. At 4 a.m. one day, she called Fagan, saying “she was finally awake.”

“I grew up in the church and have always believed in grace and forgiveness,” Fagan said. “It wasn’t a choice she made, it was a disease, and it was something that had taken over her life. I had no animosity toward her for the years she missed. I just want to make sure the years she has left she’s able to enjoy her grandkids.”

Her mom introduced Fagan at her campaign kickoff and said, “I have not always been there for my kids, but they have always been there for me.”

Amid her responsibilities as a representative, volunteer school board member, attorney and mom, Fagan loves to ride her and Richard’s Harley Davidson Road King.

She and fellow motorcyclist Rep. Greg Matthews, D-Gresham, are scheming a tandem ride down to Salem together.

Fagan still plays an occasional game of chess with elementary schoolers and looks forward to being an advocate to Oregonians in some form or another for years to come.

“Because I’m young and ran young, people like to assume I have a 10-year plan of where I would like to be,” Fagan said. “Honestly, I don’t know that I can say with certainty. I love Oregon. I was born and raised here. It is my home and the only place I want to live for the rest of my life.

“I hope people say I was honest, regardless of if they agreed with me, and I hope they say I was a fighter, even if they were on the other side of an issue.”

Exceptional Women

Several months ago the collective staff of The Outlook, Sandy Post and Estacada News sat around a table brainstorming ideas for special sections.

That's where the idea of featuring Exceptional Women came from. The endeavor was to do more than feature women who have important careers, but instead to feature remarkable women.

From there, we asked our readers to help by nominating women who fit that description. The response was amazing.

We hope you enjoy reading our Exceptional Women supplement just as much as we enjoyed meeting these women and telling their stories.

Steven Brown, executive editor, The Outlook, Sandy Post, Estacada News

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