In 2017, Jackie Winters made history when she was named Minority Leader of the Oregon Senate, the first African American to lead an Oregon legislative caucus. It’s par for the course for Winters: When she was elected to the state’s House of Representatives in 1998 she became the first African American Republican ever to serve in the Legislature. She’s also the state’s longest-serving black senator, and when she finishes her current term will be the longest-serving Republican woman in Oregon history. At age 80 (with four kids, 11 grand- and three great-grandkids) the Kansas-born Winters has shaped our state for decades—surviving a heart attack and battling lung cancer along the way. She now serves as the co-vice chair of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, which oversees budgetary matters. Her dictum? “You have to work together,” she says. “And nine times out of 10 you’ll find that people are more alike than different.”
I first cut my teeth on politics during the Tom McCall administration [in the 1970s]. It was during a period of time in Oregon’s history when it was bold—we didn’t know what we didn’t know, and it was exciting. We created the Department of Human Services. Land use came into being during that period of time. They were all big events.
McCall certainly was a huge influence in my life. And so was Gov. Vic Atiyeh. But also, growing up, my father would talk about Charlie Curtis, a Republican from Kansas who was part Native American. Charlie Curtis was elected to the statehouse in Kansas, and then to Congress, and then became vice president of the United States. And my great-grandmother was family friends with Charlie Curtis. So you have someone, who was part Native American, who was Republican, who was vice president of the United States. Isn’t that an inspiration? Minorities were once very involved in the Republican party.
My father loved to get us to talk politics around the table. He never ran for office, but he’d take his old tattered almanac and force us to discuss and debate current events. I tell everyone that Jackie’s Ribs, the barbecue restaurant I opened [in the 1980s], that was from my mom—she loved barbecue. Politics? That’s my dad.
I believe in independence, I believe in entrepreneurship. I own Jackie’s Ribs and ran it for 18 years. I believe there are some things that we can do for ourselves. So, when I start combining all these things that I believe in, my choice was to become a Republican. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a middle ground.
Probably one of my biggest achievements is when I set up Oregon Food Share in 1979 [the predecessor to Oregon Food Bank]. At the time it was a problem that needed to be solved. I was getting letters from seniors who were being forced to eat dog food, you name it, because of their income. I presented it to Governor Atiyeh and I said, ‘By the time the feds act, our citizens will be dead. They’ll starve to death.’ That’s how Oregon Food Share was born.
I think all lives matter. All. Lives. Matter. I come from a place where I’m not going to look at you because of the color of your skin, and I would hope that our law enforcement community doesn’t either. I’m not going to say that you don’t have some individuals who are quick on the trigger. That would be unrealistic, too. But am I going blame everybody? Because I guarantee you that if they weren’t there to protect me, I’d be the first one to holler. If I was having somebody breaking into my house and I’m calling and they didn’t show up, I’d be madder than an old wet hen.
I don’t have an African American community in Salem. And why do we think that you have to have like people in order to elect you to an office? I have 0.06 percent African Americans in my community. My last election, 86 percent of this population voted for me, and they weren’t African Americans, and they weren’t all women.
I look at those individuals that I admired during the day: the Norma Pauluses, and the Betty Robertses, that group of individuals that paved the way. They’re the ones that made it so that you could go get a loan as a woman. Young people are benefiting from all the work that those old folks did, and they worked in this building when it was very male-dominated. And they didn’t have to stand on a corner and yell, either, to get it done.
I wouldn’t tell you if I did or didn’t vote for Trump. That’s the beauty of an election. I don’t throw anybody under the bus. If they get on it, they get on it by themselves; they get off, they get off it by themselves. I guess I believe in Reagan and the 11th commandment—go look it up!