After just seven months as chair of the Multnomah County Democrats, Lakeitha Elliott has resigned. And it's no secret that her tenure has been marked by raw feelings on all sides.
Elliott says she left after months of trying and failing to work with some longtime party activists who never embraced her leadership.
"This is one reason why people of color have so little representation in the state legislature," Elliott told The Skanner News. "You're constantly told you have to wait your turn, or you're not qualified enough yet, because you haven't been qualified by some special group of folks who hold onto the power."
Elliott says she's still a Democrat, and she'll remain a precinct committee person so she can vote on party policy. But she plans to uses her energy to serve the community in a different way, through a newly forming group, the Vanport democratic Collective. The collective will work to register voters.
Sue Hagmeier, who handles communications for the Multnomah County Democrats said the issue was a mismatch between Elliott's skill-set and the job of party chair.
"The chair position is a really big job and I'm not sure that Lakeitha was fully aware of what she was getting into," Hagmeier said. "A job like that is the equivalent of being the executive director of a nonprofit.”
What nobody disputes is that trust was missing from the beginning.
Elliott threw in the towel at a special meeting, Aug. 4, where she delivered a statement about her experiences. The Skanner News attempted to attend, but was told the meeting was a private mediation meeting: confidential and closed to press. Read the statement here.
Some other party stalwarts have followed Elliott out of the door.
T.A. Barnhart, a precinct committeeperson, says he's lost faith in party leaders too.
"Some of the people were adamantly opposed to Lakeitha from the beginning," Barnhart says. "And not only have they not worked with her, they have opposed her and they have been hostile to her, and they have been hostile to anyone who has been supportive to her."
Colleen Davis, a district leader for five years, took time out from the party this year to recover from brain surgery. Now, she says, she won't be so involved.
Attitude matters, she says. Kindness helps build relationships.
"It was tones of voices, rolling of eyes. That was the culture on the admin team."
The Multnomah County Democrats are responsible for the Democratic Party's local campaigning and grassroots organizing. Party activists campaign, fundraise, build party membership and decide party policies. The group takes pride in Multnomah County's ability to deliver the votes and the money that elects Democrats to statewide offices.
Elliott had been active in the party as a precinct committee person since 2010. An enthusiastic community organizer, she spent many hours registering voters and getting the vote out. She also served on the endorsement task force, and as secretary of the Black caucus. Elliot was on the fundraising team for the 2013 Celsi fundraiser and was named "Barbara Roberts Young Democrat of the Year.”
Nevertheless, the single mom had a bumpy ride from the start. She first ran for the party chair position in November 2013 after Teddy Keizer resigned to pursue a seat in the Oregon House of Representatives.
When the votes were tallied, Elliott emerged as the winner. But after complaints and amid dissension the admin group invalidated the election because of a procedural error. Hanson said she wouldn't run again.
A new election in December 2013 pitted Elliott against the party campaign chair, Tracee Larson. Elliott won by two votes. But the tension surrounding the invalidated election lingered and relationships were strained from the beginning.
Hagmeier said important party business including fundraising wasn't getting done.
"We provided her with quite a lot of written and other ways of outlining what needed to be done, and offering support so those things did happen," Hagemeier says.
"I think the support was available to her, and it was made clear it was available. I think that for whatever reason that support wasn't taken advantage of."
Elliott admits that she gave up on fundraising. But she says she felt she was being ordered around rather than supported.
"I started doing it and then I stopped," she says. "My integrity wouldn't allow me to call people up and ask them to contribute money to support the chaos and the bad treatment.
"They did not offer support or ask me how I needed to be supported. There are people who have offered help, and their sense of help is that I need to do what they tell me to do, in the way they tell me to do it, or in the way they've always done it. "
Sam Kahl is district leader for House District 47, which is home to a diverse population of people who speak an estimated six dozen languages. Kahl says the group missed an opportunity.
"I knew something extraordinary was happening when she got elected," he says. "People around me were really excited. In June our precinct people and volunteers met with Lakeitha and another party leader, and it was really a great experience of people coming together for a common interest. She was a perfect fit."
"No matter the challenges to the party in embracing Lakeitha's leadership, and to Lakeitha in administering the party, her leadership represented an opening to enlarging the capacity and representation of the party," Kahl said. "Had we exploited that opportunity, I think we would have been rewarded."
Vice-chair Lorraine Van Hoe is currently acting chair of the party, and the admin team is focused on organizing the group's largest annual fundraiser, The Dick Celsi Awards Dinner, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Sept. 6.