It would seem axiomatic that each district votes into office the contender it feels best represents the interests of the community. But District 23 is not one community; it’s dozens, combining Northeast Portland’s House District 45 (where Dingfelder has been representative since 2001) with Southeast’s House District 46. Bordered by NE Marine Dr to the north, NE 143rd Ave to the east, NE 21st Ave to the west and SE Knight Dr to the south, it claims (like all state senate districts) roughly 114,000 constituents. Unlike more homogenous state senate districts, however, the constituents of District 23 live in neighborhoods as disparate as verdant Mount Tabor and less-than-verdant Lents; upscale Laurelhurst and struggling Concordia.
‘Take a look at the district. You’d be hard pressed to find any wetlands here. We’re more interested in our businesses’.
Local governance must give equal attention to the business needs of environmentally friendly pet-food stores in Beaumont-Alameda and discount mattress warehouses in Foster-Powell. They must heed the concerns of those who own million-dollar homes around Grant Park and those who live in trailer parks on NE Killingsworth St. This part of the city also happens to be home to large populations of recent immigrants, many from Mexico, Somalia, Vietnam and China, nearly all of whom must navigate a new language and culture to find jobs, housing and schools for their kids. While similar “in-migration” trends are occurring in other parts of Oregon, they are taking place more rapidly in District 23, which makes the area both tremendously fertile and tremendously challenging to govern.
Since 1996, the district has been represented by Avel Gordly, who two years ago, disgusted with what she considered extreme partisan politics in the Oregon legislature, left the Democratic Party and became an Independent. The first African-American woman senator in Oregon’s history, Gordly is known for speaking her mind while being, in the words of Peter Wong, political reporter for Salem’s Statesman Journal, “a voice for procedural fairness and for the rights of minorities.” Her accomplishments include winning support for Measure 14, which removed all racist language from the Oregon Constitution; petitioning successfully to increase Oregon’s minimum wage; and pushing through the Expanded Options bill, which requires school districts to offer college-credit classes to high school juniors and seniors (and pay for them) in the hopes of getting more underserved kids on the college track.
The economic divisions within District 23, evident during Gordly’s tenure—a 2000 census shows the median family income in Alameda-Irvington to be $84,347, and in Parkrose, $34,092—are only widening. According to Gordly, between the time that the Oregon Health Plan Standard began to purge its rosters in 1995 and the time it closed enrollment in 2004, some 43,000 people in District 23 lost their health insurance—more than in any other district in the state. Gentrification, she says, continues to price some residents, notably African-Americans, out of the area. In other words, District 23 is a kind of microcosm for Portland’s most intractable problems.
These are among the issues facing whomever is elected in November, a race that—with 54 percent of the district registered as Democrats (and as yet no Republican contenders)—will in all probability be decided two months from now, in the May primary. It would seem a tough first gig for any politician, let alone an untested one like Cruz, but Gordly, who for five years has watched Cruz grow into his role in Salem, thinks he is ready. “He has a heart for public service,” she says.