Rep. Ricki Ruiz, D-Gresham, works on the House floor at the Oregon Capitol in Salem on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023. Ruiz, one of 19 members of the Legislature's BIPOC Caucus, said a recent report about challenges faced by candidates of color rang true to his experiences. (Photo by Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Oregon’s political system isn’t built for people of color to succeed and has driven elected officials from office, according to a new report based on interviews with former elected officials. 

The Oregon Futures Lab, a Portland-based nonprofit organization that aims to recruit leaders from underrepresented communities, released the report this week based on focus group discussions with nine former local elected officials who identified as Black, Indigenous and people of color. It’s intended to serve as a guide for supporting current and future candidates and elected officials. 

As in many states, the leadership ranks in Oregon do not reflect the wider population, which critics say results in a government that can’t adequately serve all its constituents. According to 2022 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, more than a quarter of the state’s population identifies as Latino or a race other than white. 

The officials who participated in the report described receiving identity-based threats and feeling like they didn’t have enough information before deciding to run for office. The report also included prior news coverage, including several articles about leaders of color resigning in the middle of their terms, some citing bullying, harassment and toxic environments.

In one instance, former Bend City Councilor Rita Schenkelberg resigned less than halfway into their four-year term, blaming racist and transphobic comments from residents and a lack of support from the city. Schenkelberg is the child of a Filipino immigrant and is nonbinary, publicly adopting they/them pronouns and a more masculine presentation while serving on the City Council. 

Our Ambassadors: Oregon’s
BIPOC Former Electeds
Focus Group Report 

In another case, Corvallis School Board member and past chair Sami Al-Abdrabbuh recounted receiving threats including a photograph of one of his campaign signs riddled with bullet holes and a warning from a friend that a neighbor was looking for him to kill him. 

Erin Kothari, executive director of the Oregon Futures Lab, said those accounts coincide with a focus from national right-wing groups on local elections and local issues, particularly school boards. Conservative groups have made education wedge issues, including arguments over how schools should teach about race, gender and sexuality, a key plank in recent elections, and people of color running for local office have become lightning rods. 

“As a community at large, we have to create policies at the local level to protect our local officials in office and also in their homes and in their community,” Kothari said. “It is really challenging to be a local elected who is singled out and targeted at local meetings, and then have to stand in line with them at the grocery stores or at the doctor’s office or at the post office.”

State Rep. Ricki Ruiz, D-Gresham and co-chair of the Legislature’s BIPOC Caucus, said the report’s findings were so familiar that for a moment he thought he might have participated in the work group. He fielded multiple threats and hostile comments when he first ran in 2020 and again when he sought re-election in 2022, including voicemails calling him a “(expletive) Mexican” and telling him to “go back to your country.”

“It’s just some of those comments that are obviously heartbreaking to read and heartbreaking to listen to,” Ruiz said. “We even did a little more of a deep dive thinking maybe this was just bots, but no, those are real people that live in my community. Those are real people that are my neighbors, and I might have run by them or crossed paths, but I would never know.” 

Ruiz said he agreed with the report’s finding that candidates don’t receive enough information about the amount of work it takes to run a campaign and stay in office. He found good mentors early who were honest about the toll political life takes, but he talks to other candidates and officials who didn’t receive that information from those who recruited them to run. 

When he talks to prospective candidates, Ruiz said he doesn’t hold back on describing the mental and physical toll of serving in the Legislature – but he also discusses strategies that work for him, like setting aside every Friday night for a date night with his wife. 

He encourages interested people to give elected office a try, saying there’s no shame in deciding that it wasn’t a good fit. 

“The good thing about being in the House of Representatives is that elections are every two years, and if that term didn’t work out for you, then you don’t have to come back,” he said. “But if you do like it, there’s things that we can help with.”

Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.