Local politics never seem to gain the same traction as their national counterpart in local coverage, on social media—and especially in Internet memes. It’s nearly been one year since Jessica Vega Pederson began her four-year term as Multnomah County’s District 3 county commissioner. District 3 covers a lot of ground; it spans from the neighborhood of Sunnyside to Parkrose, encompassing such local treasures as Mt. Tabor Park and the Glendoveer Golf Course.
Yet, many might ask: what does a county commissioner even do?
According to the Multnomah County website, county commissioners “adopt policies, sit as the budget committee, review and amend the executive budget, hold hearings and adopt the county budget. They act as liaisons to departments, advisory boards and commissions; make changes in administrative departments; fill vacancies in elective offices; and adopt labor agreements.”
And while this definition does flesh out many of a commissioner’s duties, it says very little about the individual politician, including their personal prerogative and journey. Pederson is unique among her peers. She started as a state representative—the first Latina to sit in the Oregon House—and served two two-year terms from 2012 through 2016. Having lived with her family in the Hazelwood neighborhood for nearly 12 years, Pederson was eager to attend to her own community, as opposed to the state at large.
“They’re such different creatures, the state work and the local work,” says Pederson. “On the local level, there’s been a lot of different projects. There are two sides to that: the policy side of it and the events and the engagement side. I love working more closely with people on a day-to-day basis. The one thing about the state work that was nice was that with sessions, you have a deadline of when you need to get stuff done. The urgency could be a little intense, but it was nice.”
Working locally, Pederson’s role in Multnomah County for the last eleven months (she took office in January of 2017) has been true to her duties as displayed by the website. Budgeting is largely the name of the game. And since the beginning of her term, Pederson has played a personal part in some innovative, large-scale commitments.
“The work we’ve done at the county level shows how the bigger policy translates to the lower level,” explains Pederson. “We’ve talked about decarbonization and environmental justice. I love the work I’ve been able to do on the state level and county level on climate work.”
One such project directly relates to Pederson’s former digs in Salem. Pederson was instrumental in passing SB 1547, Oregon’s Clean Energy Bill, which will require Oregon to cease utilizing coal-generated electricity by 2030. Currently, the state pulls 15 percent of electricity from renewable resources, but by 2050, this percentage will climb to 50. On April 10 of this year, just four months since entering office, Pederson translated this bill into a pledge made by the City of Portland and Multnomah County to ensure that by 2050, Portland’s electricity will be 100 percent clean and based on renewable resources.
In this example, Pederson played a role on the state level, but she was able to contribute much more on the local level. It’s likely the interpersonal side of playing politics close to home that’s most attractive to Pederson. She’s not just reaching out to a community; she’s embracing her neighbors. She’s still an active member of the Hazelwood Neighborhood Association. “We just had our first senior resource fair at the Midland Library [on Oct. 28],” says Pederson. “We had 17 groups focused on seniors and what resources are available to them; it was the first one focused in east Portland. We’re doing another one, and we’re hoping to expand it.”
Actively engaging with diverse sections of the populous is a targeted goal for Pederson, who began not as a politician but an activist. “What got me engaged in activism was an incident from when I was in high school in Northwest Indiana,” says Pederson. “Our football coach used a racial stereotype to talk about a player from the other team. My hometown has a small handful of students of color, but one of the players reported it and it became a big deal. It brought a lot of attention to racial issues, and my sister and I started an organization to create a space for students of color to talk about their experiences while building bridges so white students could talk about it, too.”
Diversity and “building bridges” are themes that run rampant around Portland today, specifically in Mid-Multnomah County. Mid-county is Multnomah County’s most diverse region—and the most diverse piece of Oregon. The very first resolution Pederson advocated for as a county commissioner highlighted the importance of the Affordable Care Act back in February. “We had an economist come and give a presentation on the state of Multnomah County, and it’s a tale of two counties at this point. Portland is the economic engine of the state, and we’re doing great in terms of jobs and economic activity. The average salary is going up, but that’s definitely not happening evenly across the board in our [part of the] county. People of color haven’t traditionally had the same access, and we need to look at children in poverty.”
Pederson played “principal for the day” at Creston Elementary (4701 S.E. Bush St.) in October, and even where her district lines draw nearer to Cesar Chavez Boulevard (formerly 39th Avenue) she hears many of the same questions echoed from all corners. Everywhere, it seems, you could buy a house for $200,000 a few years ago that’s now $600,000. “How do we increase our economic vibrancy but still make a space—and keep a space—for the people who are living here? What we’re seeing is that even people who saw east Portland as an affordable place to live are being priced out. How do we keep affordability with increased economic activity in our neighborhoods?” asks Pederson on behalf of her constituents. “I don’t think any other part of the city has figured that out yet.”
As the new year approaches, the 2018 budget cycle will reset for commissioners. Pederson has a few marked areas of interest on her personal agenda. “The commissioner has the most influence on the county budget,” explains Pederson. “An issue I’ve been passionate about is early childhood investment and infant health. I advocated for District 3 funding a program in the Lents neighborhood, as well as the Jade District, for a nationally based baby booster program. Another big issue in District 3 and our broader community has been dealing with immigrants and refugees. I sponsored $100,000 in immigration defense funding.”
Then there are the budgetary items that are even more specific to school districts and streets. “One of the main things that got me into running for office is sidewalks and pedestrian safety, especially in the Reynolds School District—adding pedestrian safety beacons and flashing beacon sidewalks as part of the national program Safe Routes to School,” says Pederson. “We also advocated for the SUN [Schools Uniting Neighborhoods] school expansion for Russell Elementary [in the Parkrose School District]. The SUN programs are normally after-school activities that kids can participate in. I believe Russell is one of the top high-poverty schools without the SUN program. They started work on implementation this fall, and I’m going to be visiting in January.”
While Pederson keeps herself busy providing creative benefits for her community, she’s also been able to take home some unexpected prizes of her own.
“One of the best things about being a commissioner so far,” she says, “is that my family went to the Multnomah County Animal Services Dinner and adopted a kitten. One of the things I’ve gotten from this job is an adorable cat.”
Learn more about Multnomah County’s Board of county commissioners—and find out if Jessica Vega Pederson is your county commissioner—at multco.us/board.
What does Multnomah County do?
• Multnomah County serves as the local public health authority and is the largest primary care safety net provider in Oregon.
• The county delivers healthcare services, including dental care and mental health care, through county-run clinics and partnerships with local community-based agencies and organizations.
• The Department of County and Human Services delivers services to youth and families, seniors, veterans and those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
• In partnership with the City of Portland and other agencies, Multnomah County provides services, shelter beds and other assistance for those experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
• The county plays a critical role in upholding public safety through the Sheriff’s Department, the District Attorney’s Office, and our Department of Community Justice.
• The county’s Elections Division is responsible for administering both general and special elections, voter outreach and voter education.
• The Multnomah County Library serves as a central pillar of the community. Vega Pederson is the Board of Commissioner’s liaison to the Library Board.
• Multnomah County collects property taxes and invests taxpayer dollars into all critical programs and services the county provides.