After years of being accused of taking minority voters for granted, the Democratic Party of Oregon is actively trying to include minorities and other underrepresented groups in positions of leadership.
This year, Oregon's delegation to the Democratic National Convention is more diverse than it ever has been. The delegation includes six African Americans (with two alternates); seven Hispanics; two Native Americans; four Asian/Pacific Islanders (with one alternate) and five representatives from the GLBT community.
Meredith Wood Smith, the chair of the Democratic Party of Oregon, said the party actively courted groups of people not normally involved in politics.
"It's an opportunity for all of us to sit down and talk about what's going on in the community and our lives," she said.
Leading the effort was Lew Frederick, chair of community involvement. Frederick immediately recognized that minority involvement was bigger than just a convention delegation. Much bigger. It was about including people who had never been listened to before.
"We have seen those folks regularly dismissed by both parties," Frederick said.
And not just the folks with Black or Brown skin. Frederick went after groups that were obvious and not so obvious – different ethnic and faith groups, people who lived on the coast or east of the Cascades, single moms, the GLBT community and many others. He wanted a delegation and party that "reflected what Oregon looked like." He said it is part of a national strategy to increase minority representation.
Wood Smith said they saw an increase from about 450 people involved in the delegate election process to about 1800 from 2004 to 2008. Anyone who would like to become a delegate can try, it doesn't mean being an elected official (contact the Democratic Party of Oregon for more information).
While the delegates traveling to Denver for the convention won't likely make headlines for their choice of Democratic nominee for president, they will be able to mingle with other party leaders from across the nation about the concerns in their community.
"If you look out in the audience … you will see the whole rainbow color of the U.S.," Wood Smith said.
But Promise King, executive director of the Oregon League of Minority Voters, a nonpartisan organization, says that while the Democrats' push for inclusion is a good thing, it won't mean much until party leadership looks a lot more like the people they're supposed to represent. Right now, even Wood Smith admits the board is pretty White.
King says it's important for Whites to advocate for minority rights, but more important for minorities to represent other minorities. And the number of state lawmakers of color decreased after the May election.
"It's not been an effective means of pushing for civil rights," King said, about the lack of minority leadership. "They should set an example by increasing people of color in senior party positions."
Both Wood Smith and Frederick say that is their ultimate goal. Although the strategy could be interpreted as a way for Democrats to merely expand their voting base to win elections, Frederick sees it the other way around — a groundswell for change coming from the people neglected by some of the party's old guard. He says some people have said, "you're not going to take us for granted because we're going to take over the party … you're no longer going to ignore us."
In order to become a force in the party, many minority groups have turned to forming caucuses. Go to www.oregondemocrats.org to read the whole list of caucus "communities" which include everything from the African American caucus to the Election Integrity caucus.
The Republican Party did not respond to an inquiry about the diversity of their delegation.
African American Delegates:
John Cuff of Eugene
Karen Lonon Jones of Reedsport
Shirley Minor of Portland
Gail Rasmussen of Canby
Loretta Smith of Portland
Shirley Woods of Wilsonville
Bob Boyer of Portland
Bob Williams of Clackamas