Libra Forde is ready for Clackamas County. The question is whether the county is ready for her. Forde is a Black woman who once played professional basketball, the daughter of an actor father who originated the role of King Cartoon on Saturday-morning show Pee-wee’s Playhouse and a model mother who was a muse for fashion designer and Cher favorite Bob Mackie. She’s a child of New York City, and a lifelong advocate for foster kids and for children whose parents serve long military deployments. She’s a survivor of domestic violence, a single mother who has been homeless, the executive director of the Women’s Foundation of Oregon, a Toastmasters champion, and—whew!—the sitting chair of the North Clackamas School Board, who has absorbed lashings of fury during the past two years of extreme educational upheaval.
Clackamas County, meanwhile, is to Oregon as Florida is to the rest of the country, home to ballot-counting disasters, politicos that lean redder than most anywhere else in the metro area, and vague suspicion of so-called “Portland creep.” Long considered a key swing county and an important political bellwether, Clackamas has never elected a woman of color to its board of commissioners, a job that pays more than $100,000 a year. (School board service, by contrast, is a volunteer gig.) Should she win, Forde’s new colleagues will include Mark Shull, who has proposed via social media that the Black Lives Matter movement is “a pawn for the rise of neo-Marxism,” among other incendiary swipes against Jews, the Islamic faith, and the transgender community.
Forde is undaunted.
“Now we are just going to spew out things that are inaccurate and not helpful for this community?” she asks, of Shull’s inflammatory rhetoric. “That’s not going to work. That doesn’t represent me. And it doesn’t represent many of the people that I know who live here who don’t believe those things.” She emerged from the May primary with 36 percent of the vote; the incumbent for the nonpartisan office, Republican Paul Savas, had 37 percent, with three other candidates splitting the remainder. Should Ford, a Democrat, win the runoff—and should incumbent Sonya Fischer also hang onto her seat—the balance of power on the board would flip from conservative to progressive control.
Though it’s a tough year nationally for Democrats, Clackamas County has been trending bluer, especially as more Portlanders—there’s that creep again—have moved in, seeking more space and lower housing prices. A hot congressional campaign for ousted incumbent Rep. Kurt Schrader’s old seat could stir up voter passions, too.
Forde decided to run, she says, because she wanted people—not just white people, and definitely not just men—in Clackamas County to see themselves represented in government. Plenty of people in the county are quietly “mortgage-burdened,” she says, one paycheck away from losing their homes, feeling like they are the only ones.
She’s been there—she moved to Oregon from Hawaii with her daughters in tow and chose Clackamas County for the strong public schools and the easy proximity to nature. (Ask her for recreation recommendations in the county, and she’s ready: Trillium Lake for snowshoeing in the winter and paddleboarding in the summer, Mirror Lake for a quick hike in the summer. She keeps a hammock stashed in the back of her car to string up between the trees. Stop at Harmony Baked in Estacada for pastries on your way home, she advises.)
But she’d no sooner landed in Clackamas County in 2014 than, she says, her marriage fell apart due to domestic violence. With her daughters, she lived out of hotel rooms and sought help from public assistance. It took a year before they found a home in Damascus.
“I don’t want anyone to ever have to move here and have that same experience,” Forde says now of her rootless year. In her view, the resources are there; the county’s social services safety net just needs to be broader, stronger, wider, so fewer people fall through.
Forde is bracing for a tough campaign season. State Rep. Rachel Prusak of West Linn says the two of them were out door-knocking this spring. Prusak is not seeking reelection, but was there to support Forde, a fellow graduate of Emerge Oregon, a campaign bootcamp for Democratic women. Though Forde is six-foot-five and Prusak barely cracks five feet, there were driveways that Prusak went up alone, Forde hanging back, not sure how she’d be received.
“I think and hope that Clackamas County is ready for a woman of color to finally be a voice in the community,” Prusak says. “Those that are paying attention are tired of people sitting on the fence and not making bold statements to speak out against the racism and homophobia and Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. When voters know and meet Libra, when they see what a smart, kind, good listener she is, I think they’ll be ready.”
Forde has been under an intense spotlight before, including in 2018 as the chief operating officer at Self Enhancement Inc, when an employee accused the nonprofit of creating a sexually charged workplace that spilled over to the high school students the group worked with. Portland Public Schools launched an investigation that found no evidence to support the claims; the organization eventually settled with the employee for an undisclosed sum.
It’s the athlete in her that lets her roll with the proverbial punches, she says, and makes her feel that she’s up to the challenges Clackamas County presents.
“To me, an engaged community is healthy,” Forde says. “Do we like being yelled at, do we like being called names? No. But there’s discussion, and whether it’s positive or negative, hard or easy, change begins with discussion.”