Kayse Jama, a Somali immigrant who fled his war-torn country to become a prominent community organizer and executive director of Unite Oregon, was selected as the newest member of the Oregon Senate.
Commissioners with Multnomah and Clackamas counties selected Jama on Wednesday to replace Democrat Sen. Shemia Fagan, who is leaving her post to serve as the Oregon secretary of state.
Jama said he promised to empower people whose voices are often not heard in Salem. He plans to focus on housing affordability and equity, in particular as the state struggles to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Jama will serve as the chair of the Senate Housing Committee.
“My 20 plus years working in the community has been making sure people who are on the downside of power have a seat at the table,” Jama said.
The commissioners agreed, noting how much community support Jama had received. Jama also received several high-profile endorsements, including from Gov. Kate Brown and Rep. Jeff Reardon, D-Portland, who was initially seeking the seat but stepped aside to support Jama.
Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran lavished praise on Jama. Meieran said Jama is the type of leader who builds coalitions and brings people up beside him. Jama’s commitment to housing stability, economic opportunities and environmental justice have been clear and evident throughout his life’s work, Meieran said in her public remarks.
“You are one of the most thoughtful, dedicated, inclusive organizers and leaders and just people I have come across,” Meieran said.
The commissioners chose among three Democratic candidates, including Jama. The other two were Adrienne Enghouse, a nurse and former president of her nurses’ union, and Democratic Party of Oregon operations director Candy Emmons, who told commissioners she felt they should support Jama. All the candidates live in East Portland.
All 10 county commissioners voted for Jama. Clackamas County Commissioner Mark Shull was the only commissioner who said he favored Enghouse, but ultimately he voted for Jama.
Jama arrived in Portland about two decades ago with $20 in his pocket. He was fleeing war in Somalia. He co-founded and serves as executive director of Unite Oregon, which is a coalition of people aimed at improving racial and economic justice for people of color, immigrants, refugees and people from low-income backgrounds.
In 2018, Jama also ran for the Senate District 24 Democratic primary against Fagan.
In a previous interview with OPB, Jama said his own experiences will greatly shape the type of lawmaker he is.
“We are facing really urgent issues, from housing issues to COVID-19. All of these issues have highlighted the importance of bringing my own personal experience as a refugee, an immigrant, as a person of color, a Black man in Oregon to make sure we are at the table and … our state reflects the diversity of community in terms of leadership,” Jama said.
Republicans will also need to fill a vacated Senate seat within the next 30 days. Sen. Alan Olsen, R-Canby, announced earlier this week he was stepping down on Jan. 10. In a letter to colleagues, he said it was due to family issues.
Olsen, who has represented the area since 2011, has purchased a property in Indiana and his departure from the Capitol has been rumored for some time. Clackamas County commissioners will be charged with appointing someone to fill the remainder of Olsen’s term, until 2022.