First black woman in Oregon's Legislature returns to private life

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Former state Sen. Margaret Carter plays with her dog Madison in her Northeast Portland home. Carter, the first African-American woman in the Oregon Legislature, spent decades in a variety of public service positions.When Margaret Carter retired last week after six decades of work — and three decades in Oregon public life — she returned to her family.

Carter has nine children, 26 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.

But on display in the living room of Carter’s home in Northeast Portland is a framed photo of Yaremi Mejia, who led the girls’ basketball team at South Medford High School to the 2012 state championship and the 2013 Class 6A runner-up. Mejia is now at Portland State University, where she is on the women’s basketball team — and Carter says she makes it a point to catch Mejia’s games when she can.

Carter will have more time to do so since she stepped out of public life after five years at the Oregon Department of Human Services and nearly 25 years in the Oregon Legislature, where she was the first elected black woman.

For more than a decade before then, she was a counselor at Portland Community College, which has the largest enrollment of any post-secondary institution in Oregon.

In all of those jobs, Carter also developed relationships akin to family.

“I have always believed very strongly in family,” she says.

“To me, it’s the cornerstone of our society. And it does not always mean just those you give birth to. It means those you care for dearly. You help each other out in times of struggle — and they are with you in times of opportunity.

“That’s what happened to me when I came here. People lent me a helping hand.”

Early life

Margaret was one of 10 children born to Hilton Hunter, a Baptist minister and homebuilder in Shreveport, La., and Emma Hunter, a school cafeteria worker. Of their six girls and three boys — one sister died young — Margaret was the youngest girl.

“My father was a smart man for someone with limited education,” Carter says. Because of the skills he acquired for homebuilding, “we learned multiplication and other math before we even started school.”

She also recalls Bible study classes on Wednesday nights and visitors after church services on Sundays. Company also meant food.

“My father told me that no matter how angry you get, when you share your bread — your food — people tend to reach common ground,” she says. “He felt the relationships you built were lasting, simply because when you make friends, you tend to stay friends.”

She didn’t cook, however. Her older sisters did so while she played the piano at church.

She also sang in a semi-professional group, the Mt. Calvary Gospel Singers, who performed in a circuit covering Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas.

“I knew stage life early,” she says. “I have been on a public stage since I was 5.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Margaret Carter slices a lemon pound cake in her home as she welcomed guest. Carter firmly believes that, When you share your bread, people will come to common ground.

Coming to Portland

She was the salutatorian at her high school and went on to three and a half years at Grambling State University, then a college. But she did not earn a degree.

She got married, and by age 28, she had five daughters.

She also learned how to cook.

“I learned how to cook out of a desire to be a good wife,” she recalls.

“My husband, who was a cook in the military, threw one of my biscuits against the wall. He said no one wants to east this hard stuff, and I should have learned to cook when I was with my mother. I remember that it was so embarrassing.”

On this day, she offers visitors slices of lemon pound cake she baked. “This house always has something welcoming for people who enter it.”

But the biscuit her husband threw against the wall foreshadowed more serious domestic violence, which led her to arrive by train in Portland on Dec. 1, 1967.

“I was pretty beat up when I came here,” including a broken jawbone.

She stayed with friends, and got a job during the holidays as a clerk in a discount store. The next month, she was hired as a teacher assistant by Portland Public Schools, and within a couple of years, she was able to return to college and earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

She then became a counselor at Portland Community College, where she worked for the next 16 years. The technology education building is named in her honor, as well as a scholarship fund to assist African American and Hispanic males, two groups with the highest school dropout rates.

Into politics

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Carter holds a copy of the U.S. Congressional Record with a floor speech praising her decades of service in Oregon.“As a girl from Louisiana, I never thought I would mix religion and politics,” Margaret Carter recalls.

She accompanied her mother, who assisted the NAACP with ballots during an era when blacks were beginning to assert their right to vote in the South against white resistance. She was not involved in the civil rights movement herself.

But in 1983, a bipartisan group known as the Alliance for Economic Development approached her about running in House District 18, which in a 1981 redistricting included the African American neighborhoods of North Portland. To that point, only one black legislator (Bill McCoy) had been elected in Oregon.

The motive of some in the alliance was not necessarily to promote Carter, but to oust the one-term Democratic incumbent who had won an eight-way primary and a five-way general election the year before. He was white.

Carter was recovering from surgery, and in addition to her work at PCC, she was director of the Joyful Sounds, an a cappella choir performing spirituals. Members did urge her to run, she recalls, “but if I didn’t keep up the singing group, they were not going to support me.”

Carter won in 1984 to become the first black woman elected to the Legislature.

On the eve of her taking office in January 1985, “I was so scared that I cried,” she recalls. “But it turned out that people were so welcoming.”

Among her early mentors, she says, were then-Speaker Vera Katz of Portland and Rep. Darlene Hooley of West Linn, both Democrats who would go on to higher office, Katz as mayor of Portland and Hooley to the U.S. House.

While members were friendly, some in the public were not.

Carter recalls an aide in her Capitol office relaying a remark from someone who said, “we’re going to have to start serving watermelon on this floor.”

“But in terms of the membership, I had a great time,” she says. “I felt I had reinvented family.”

Early struggles

by: COURTESY OF MARGARET CARTER - Margaret Carter, second from left, at her nieces wedding in Shreveport, La., in 1955.As the first African American woman in the Legislature, Carter was expected to carry the banner for several causes.

Her bill in 1985 to create a state holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader, passed the Legislature and was signed into law.

Her bill in 1987 to require Oregon to divest its holdings in companies doing business in white-ruled South Africa also passed. But Carter says it was not as easy as the final votes made it appear to be.

The bill was resisted by groups, including Democrats, that asserted state investments should be guided solely by financial considerations.

Carter says Katz knew how important the bill was not only to her but also the cause of resisting South Africa’s racial separation policies, known as apartheid.

Though Carter said the bill got support from legislative leaders — Katz in the House and John Kitzhaber, then the Senate president — it hinged on the stance of Rep. Jeff Gilmour, a conservative Democrat who was House co-leader of the Legislature’s joint budget committee.

“I did not see what I was getting into with the controversy,” Carter says. “I was coming to grips with the fact that I was asking them to go out on a ledge — largely men from districts that were conservative and did not have black constituents — and support my legislation.”

Gilmour said he would support the bill. But Carter, who would one day sit in Gilmour’s position as budget co-chair, didn’t hear the response at first.

House Bill 2001 passed the House 51-9, and the Senate 22-8, and was signed into law. Oregon joined the ranks of divestiture states, which numbered 26 by 1989, when F.W. de Klerk became South Africa’s president and began the transition that led to Nelson Mandela's election and black majority rule in 1994.

“Had I not had good relationships with people, I would not have gotten that legislation through,” Carter says.

Later years

Carter did have critics who said the legislation did not go far enough fast enough. “But you create legislation so you can build on it the next time around,” she says. “Even if it was not as strong as you had hoped, let the next person come around and make it stronger.”

She herself would build on those lessons as she gained experience and a seat on the Legislature’s joint budget committee.

In 1997, she was one of three Democratic negotiators who reached a budget agreement in a House divided between 31 Republicans and 29 Democrats.

Forced out of the House by term limits then in effect, Carter won support from many Republican colleagues in her 1998 bid for the nonpartisan position of state schools superintendent. She lost to Stan Bunn, a former Republican state senator.

But she won an open Senate seat in 2000, and was named to the budget committee in 2003.

Between 2003 and 2009, the Senate half of that committee had Carter, Avel Gordly of Portland and Jackie Winters of Salem as members. In 2003 and 2005, they were three of 10 Senate members; in 2007, three of 12.

“While it symbolized the growth of African American political leadership in this state, it also showed a sense of accomplishment despite our party differences,” Carter says.

Gordly was a Democrat, but left the party for a few years; Winters is a Republican.

“Did we have differences? Yes,” Carter says. “But those differences never made us unaligned in terms of our work for the poor people of this state.”

In 2006, Carter was the Oregon Statesman of the Year award from the Oregon Business Association, which recognizes public achievement.

In 2009, after Kurt Schrader was elected to the U.S. House, Carter became Senate co-chairwoman of the budget committee.

But she served just one session in that position before she resigned from the Senate.

"Someone will be named to succeed her," said Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem. "But no one will ever replace her."

A new phase

After the 2009 session, then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski asked her to became deputy director of the Department of Human Services — then and now the agency with the largest workforce — during a transition that separated health services from the other programs.

“It was a hard decision to leave the Legislature,” Carter says. “But it was not hard to go to that work, because the work was so important. We needed to make sure that children, families and seniors did not fall through the cracks.”

But what was hard on Carter was the criticism, some of it from former legislative colleagues, for accepting the $112,000-a-year job.

She declined the higher pension benefits she could have accrued. But her hiring prompted bills to curb eligibility of legislators for some public-sector jobs, although none of the bills became law.

“I never wanted anyone in this state to believe I would cheat the public,” she says. “The criticism that resulted made me sick, because I was not guilty.”

Winters was not among Carter’s critics. But Winters, who herself once worked in children’s services, said, “She found that implementing policy in an agency is a lot different than making policy in the Legislature.”

In 2012, during a second reorganization of DHS, Carter became director of community engagement at a lesser salary.

Now, she says, “I want to know what it’s like to have a summer off.”

She says she was genuinely moved when 300 people showed up for her retirement reception in Portland last month.

She isn’t stopping entirely. She says she will volunteer one day a week at the Alberta office of DHS and one day at the skills center, which she founded, at PCC’s Cascade campus.

Then there is her family, both blood relatives and her many acquaintances over the decades.

“While you do not know when your time comes, you try to live to the greatest degree you can,” she says. “When you get to be my age, you know there is more time behind you than ahead of you.”

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