Oregon Lawmakers Promised Radical Change on Racial Justice in 2021. Did They Deliver?
Eleven months ago, the leaders of some of Oregon’s most venerable Black-led organizations—community groups, activists, nonprofits, and protest leaders—decided it was time to seize the moment.
In the wake of the massive protests over the murder of George Floyd, and with the fresh memory of how quickly emergency funding and policy were passed when COVID hit in spring of 2020, there was, as Urban League of Portland President and CEO Nkenge Harmon Johnson put it, “an opportunity for catalytic change.... Incremental change does not have to be the norm. We can move mountains to make sure that our communities are doing all right.”
So she and other leaders banded together and formed Reimagine Oregon to push for new laws and funding for education, social justice, housing. and police reform, at the city, county, and state levels.
A year later, did all that momentum, all that good will, lead to true, systemic change?
“It is safe to say that we could have done better in this 2021 legislative session,” says Katrina Holland, the executive director of Join PDX, a nonprofit that works to help houseless people transition into permanent housing.
“Many of you are now woke, but you are not brave,” added Johnson on a call with lawmakers and press this morning. “We heard legislators tell us, all over the state, that your constituents were calling out for Oregon to do better and be better. Supporters have spent hours, days, on end with you, pushing, dragging and supporting, to help make a reality what people in the streets are calling for. I heard from a number of legislators that change takes time. Does it really? If we learned anything from the previous (presidential) administration, it’s that it doesn’t really. When you have the will to make change in government, you can make it happen.”
Their mixed assessment—that while the just-concluded legislative session brought some wins, there were even more missed opportunities—is in contrast with a more positive perspective from Oregon’s Democratic party leaders, who are in charge of both the state House and state Senate. House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, and Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego said at a virtual press conference on Tuesday that the session had been “historic and unprecedented.”
“This session was about how do we do everything we to ensure an equitable recovery for all Oregonians. We set out with a pretty aggressive, bold policy agenda, and we delivered. We stood up for working families, single parents, low-income communities, rural communities, essential workers, small businesses, for all Oregonians, and we really came through,” Smith-Warner said. “I’m really proud of what we were able to accomplish with racial justice and social equity,” even as she acknowledged that there is “more to do.”
The Reimagine Oregon leaders say there were indeed some notable wins, including:
- A bill to ban suspensions and expulsions in early childhood and preschool settings, and create funds to invest in early caregivers so they can address racial biases.
- A bill aimed at supporting the retention of diverse teachers, who are often younger and more vulnerable to layoffs than their more senior counterparts.
- Reform of costly “supervisory fees” which must be paid after people are released from prison.
- Reform of access to hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency housing funding, with an eye toward eliminating racial disparities in who is accessing such funds.
But they also listed some notable, much-mourned setbacks, including the failure to pass a bill that would have mandated citations instead of arrest for certain low-level crimes, limits on prison supervision visits at places of employment, and a longer moratorium on evictions to allow social service agencies more time to build the infrastructure needed to help with an expected crush of rental back payments. Other bills that missed the finish line would have overhauled of the mortgage interest deduction rules baked into Oregon’s tax structure, which are generally seen as a boon to high-income households, and revamped Oregon’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws, a long-sought goal of progressives.
At several points, Reform Oregon leaders pointed out that their legislation had stalled in the Oregon Senate. Democrats hold a 18-12 majority in that chamber, but have several members from more conservative or rural districts. For example, State Senators Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, all had concerns about the original version of House Bill 2002, which would have reformed mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
“There’s deep disappointment and pain that came from how things went down this session,” said Lamar Wise, an organizer with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and a Reimagine Oregon member. “We are willing to work with the senators, willing to get down in the details and make sure we are working through the issues, but we must remain clear that our center is the impacted communities.”
While Reimagine Oregon won’t recruit, fund or endorse future candidates, Johnson said her recommendation to lawmakers in the months before the Oregon Legislature reconvenes again for a month-long session next winter is to seek out anti-racism training.
“We are here to help legislators build justice,” she said. “Many of you aren’t prepared to make yourselves uncomfortable enough to put an end to racism and dismantle white supremacy in government. It was an uphill climb that some of our legislators weren’t ready to take on, even though we hoped that they were—particularly in the state Senate.”