The Skanner News interviewed both candidates for Multnomah County Commissioner. Here is our Q&A with Loretta Smith, who is a 20-year staffer for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden. Smith, who has raised a son, now a student at the University of Washington, works as a field representative for the senator in Multnomah County.
The Skanner: Why do you want to run for Multnomah County Commissioner?
Loretta Smith: As a longtime resident of Oregon and a staffer for a U.S. Senator Wyden I had a great opportunity over the last 20 years to learn about the federal system and to engage with folks on the county and state level – so I have a really good working understanding of politics and public policy and how to connect the dots between the federal state and local level and how to have the impact.
I've had the opportunity to gain skills and to work with a lot of different people from vulnerable populations – people that Multnomah County Commissioners are responsible for as the social service agency for the city.
I'm committed to this community – my family has lived here for over 68 years -- and now is the time for me to take the skills and the relationships that I've built over the last 20 years and use them to help the residents of Multnomah County.
As a single parent I understand that struggling families right now need the safety net of the county more today than they did yesterday. And I think that being committed and dedicated to this community that I have something to offer in that I will be able to be their voice on the commission to help strengthen the commission. I don't think there is anyone like me on the commission – as a single parent and as someone who will represent underrepresented communities -- from the LBGTQ community to youth to seniors – I will be their voice and stand up for them.
The Skanner: You know the budget coming up in next biennium is going to be a ticking time bomb budget: What would you prioritize and what would you cut.
Loretta Smith: I'm going to stick to the priorities: public health, mental health and public safety. At this time I don't think we can afford to do one-time programs that we get one-time money for either from the state or the feds. We are going to have to tighten our budget and stick to our core mission, which is to help folks who desperately need the human services that the county has to offer.
I want to make sure that we maintain SUN school program, which serves kids from 0-5 and through after-school programming in the schools. If you look at the data, juvenile delinquency is at its highest between the hours of 3 and 6 pm so we need to make sure that we take care of those programs. I know that my son benefited greatly from after-school programs -- especially with the kind of work that I do – it's not a 9-5 job. I want to make sure that other kids have that same kind of opportunity, who are coming from single parent family homes or from struggling families. We need to make sure that we have enough programming to invest in our youths' futures.
Also Project Independence is on the chopping block every single year. Yet it helps to keep seniors in their homes, who for the most part can take care of themselves, but just need a little bit of assistance, say, to help clean their house, help with cooking and grocery shopping. We may have a small investment of around $700 compared to $3000 to $7,000 to keep them in a nursing home. That makes sense to me. We need to keep that program for seniors so they can live in our neighborhoods so we can strengthen our neighborhoods. It's going to be a hard chop and we are going to have to make some tough decisions, but we need to stick to our core mission.
The Skanner: What changes would you seek to make to the way the commission runs now?
Loretta Smith: I can't make any wholesale changes because we are driven by our charter, and we are designed the way our charter does. It's going to be my responsibility to look at the budget after the chair identifies his budget and look and see which things I'm supportive of or not supportive of in terms of the budget. One of the things I would like to see done a little bit differently – I'd like to see us streamline our process for getting competitive federal grants. Because at this time we don't have one person who is responsible for looking at the federal register every morning and saying 'Oh, there is a program that SAMSA is offering that we should apply for.' SAMA is the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration and they put out grants we can use to help with our mental health programs at the county. So I'd like to see us streamline that process and have one person looking at it every day so we can identify opportunities at the federal level where we can partner with them to bring in new funds.
I'll tell you why: One of my responsibilities as an assistant to Senator Wyden is to identify federal funding for different organizations and to write support letters for these grants that people apply for. About a month ago, the Daily Journal of Commerce had an article out that said OHSU received a record number of grants from the federal government this past year—the most ever- and in this kind of economy. And the reason they get so many grants is because they apply for everything that looks remotely similar to what they do. And I know they apply for everything because I write the letters of support on behalf of the senator. That's why I say we can streamline how we do business at the county to bring in more federal funding, if we mirror what's happening at OHSU.
The Skanner: What can the county do better to support communities of color that are suffering disproportionately from unemployment and poverty?
Loretta Smith: I think as a commission we need to put our equity lens on with everything we do to make sure there is equity within the system and in the programs that we offer within our public health system and within our mental health system. We need to be identifying opportunities to find ways to offer culturally specific drug and alcohol rehabilitation services, mental health services. We need to be mindful of those kinds of things.
The Communities of Color report showed some really egregious discrepancies for folks in Multnomah County, specifically. The unemployment rate for communities of color in Multnomah County is upwards towards 35 percent. Just that alone that tells me that there is a huge population of folks who don't have access to affordable healthcare; they don't have access to food, and they don't have access to affordable housing because they don't have jobs.
And in my opinion jobs are the most critical thing that we could actually use our leadership to influence in Multnomah County. If folks have jobs they can purchase homes. If you can purchase a home and you can pay your property taxes, Multnomah County is getting the funds to run the programs. Because at Multnomah County has only two ways of raising money and that's through property taxes and business licensing tax. So it's a twofer if you have businesses coming in they are going to pay their business license and tax and they are going to hire people, and people will be able to take care of their families.
We need to be very mindful that communities of color have taken a big hit in everything from jobs to accessible health care. I just know everyone is hurting and there are a huge number of folks in communities of color who need the safety net of the county more today than they did yesterday. That's something that commissioners as a collective group must keep in mind when processing these ordinances on Thursdays. We need to make sure that we're covering everyone and understanding that the poverty has spread from Portland proper -- North and Northeast Portland -- to mid-county. Past 82nd there is huge pocket of folk who really need our services. What I understand from the schools out in David Douglas is that they have more students who qualify for free and reduced lunch this year than they have ever. Folks just don't have jobs; their families are struggling and they are going to need our services. It's important that we make sure that services are where the people are.
The Skanner: Here at The Skanner we see two strong, well-qualified African American women running for the same seat. At the same time there is a severe shortage of African Americans and other people of color at every level of state government: What can communities of color do to get fair representation in government? And what are your own political aspirations? Whether you are elected or not in November, can you forsee yourself moving into other roles.
Loretta Smith: Whatever happens we will have an African American on the commission, but with me: I have a track record of over 20 years and I bring something to the commission that they don't have right now. I bring a perspective of a single parent who understands struggling families and who has worked with the school districts, who has worked with many elected officials on the state local and federal level.
I have relationships with people in the business community in the nonprofit community, and I've worked in my own community for years. People know me, they know who I am, they trust me. So you get a different package with me but you certainly do get an African American woman.
I haven't really thought about what I'd do next because the issue for me is: I have a great job right now. I've worked for an amazing elected official and he's given me an opportunity to see things from the ground level up in terms of both federal policy making and how to be accessible to constituents. I haven't thought about what I'd do next other than being a county commissioner.
In terms of accessibility I think it's a two-way street. I will be a voice for communities of color, but I will need some help. I will need folks to come out and show what they care about to make sure that others on the commission know that there are different communities who support different programs.
So it's going to be very important for me not only to reach out into different communities – to the Latino community, the LGBTQ community, youth, seniors to make sure all these folks know what's at stake. So they can come down and support the programs they support.
Everything is about what people see. Take the communities of color report. If you haven't read or you're not experiencing it, you don't know what's in it. But if you see someone--or a group of people-- who come down to the commission and they testify on why a program is important, that sticks.
You have to interact with folks and this is what I do – this is what I've done all of my adult career. When Sen. Wyden proposes legislation, we have to talk to all the stakeholders involved, because we want to make sure we are doing something that is going to be beneficial to the end user, in how it's going to impact people.
I think I have a track record of working with people in our community and it's not going to be a stretch for me to go out and talk to folks and make sure they are informed about what is going on. Information is key when you're an elected official or a public official. I consider myself an information broker. That's what I do.
So how do we get more elected officials of color? There's a huge barrier. And one of those barriers is being able to raise money. We don't have voter-owned elections and so right now we have to go out and raise money from our friends our families and quite frankly the majority of our money comes from cold calling folks: introducing yourself in a two-minute call and saying I have to ask you for money.
So those are some of the barriers that prevent a lot of folks from communities of color from getting into this elected official realm because we don't have access to capital. Because I have relationships with people around this city I've been able to raise money. I raised more than anyone else in the primary. It was basically from people that I know, and people that other folks that knew me know. I'm raising money now so I've gone through mostly everybody that I know and I'm asking them again. I thought I knew a lot of people in Multnomah County, but through this campaign, I've learned how many people I don't know. I told the senator that win lose or draw I'll be a better field representative for you after this.
The Skanner: Is there anything else you want people to know?
Loretta Smith: I think as a result of me running I think I've raised the bar for a lot of youth in my community to see me run and to run successfully to a runoff which has never happened before with two African American women If I'd done any one thing other than winning the race to inspire some young kids to one day run for office then I think I'll be quite pleased with what I've done in the last six months – not only for my son (UW wide receiver Jordan Polk) because I want to be a good role model for him -- that's my lifetime goal is to make my son proud and to give him an example of something he can be and beyond -- but not only for him, for other youth too.
The reality is I was inspired by Lew Frederick who ran for this seat back in 2006. He ran a great race. He made the runoff against Jeff Cogen. And I was inspired by him. I was inspired by Cyreena Boston who ran for state representative. So I think that sometimes, even if you lose you win, because of the impact you have on people and where they might go from there as a result of seeing you. I was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention and I was definitely inspired by President Obama. That he was elected president has definitely raised the consciousness of folks who come from communities of color, who can run for office and be successful and do a great job in their own communities. This is how you get to be a U.S. Senator like President Obama. He was a state legislator. You have to start on the local level in order to go up. And that's what kids have to know. With both me and Karol being in this position we will raise the bar for the youth in our community.