Rita Schenkelberg began their final Bend City Council meeting in tears.
During a tense and emotional meeting Wednesday, the city lost a mayor and a member of the council, in a turbulent week for Bend’s elected leadership. Schenkelberg and Mayor Sally Russell had separately announced their resignation plans in the previous days.
Russell cited low pay and exhaustion. More unsettling though were the reasons that Schenkelberg — the only person of color and LGBTQ person on the council — gave for the sudden departure: an overwhelming amount of racism, transphobia and homophobia they faced as an elected official.
“Many parts of me are things that many community members are not willing to look at, have conversations with or interact in a respectful way,” Schenkelberg said at the council meeting.
Schenkelberg became the first person of color and openly non-binary person on the council in 2020. They ran a campaign that focused on bringing underrepresented voices to the fore in Bend, a city that’s 91% white, according to the U.S. Census.
Now, they have left their post burned out on public life halfway through a four-year term, leaving the council less diverse.
Schenkelberg said the hateful comments came during public meetings, in emails, phone calls and even during community events. In some cases, people approached them aggressively yelling and shouting.
This started during their campaign and escalated after the election, they said.
The breaking point, though, came in January, after Schenkelberg cut their hair short and started presenting more masculinely. The comments soon became even more aggressive; they remembered one instance when a public speaker railed against them in a public hearing on affordable housing.
“That is when it began for me,” they said. “I was like, ‘This feels like it’s about me.’”
They said people mentioned “internment camps” (Schenkelberg is Filipino-American), while others expressed animosity toward their pronouns, and angrily asked why Schenkelberg discussed their identities.
Schenkelberg declined to elaborate on specific incidents. But some of this rhetoric was on display Wednesday during the public comment period, particularly about Schenkelberg’s gender identity. Bend resident Alison Eilerman suggested councilors spend less time saying their pronouns at the start of meetings. Another speaker said his pronouns included “hey bro” and “he man.”
After the speakers were allowed to continue their remarks, Schenkelberg asked Russell to interrupt people making transphobic comments. Schenkelberg later told OPB that their colleagues hadn’t done enough to prevent these situations.
Schenkelberg also said that while they shared many viewpoints with other councilors, they often received more vitriolic criticisms from the public, while other officials would get gentler, more respectful critiques.
“Those pieces really drove it home for me that the community wasn’t ready to have anyone with any different identities,” they said.
The toll of bigotry
At Schenkelberg’s final meeting, some councilors expressed regret at not doing enough for them while they served.
“My heart is broken,” Councilor Megan Perkins said. “We had a conversation about how we could support you and I feel like we have just failed you.”
In their farewells, other councilors lauded Schenkelberg for the impact they left during their time in office, as someone who championed equity and representation.
But Schenkelberg said that, knowing what they’ve gone through, they couldn’t encourage another person of color or anyone LGBTQ to take their seat.
Eventually, the bigotry they faced while in office began to leave its mark.
Schenkelberg, who is a mental health counselor, said they started developing symptoms of depression, and the passion they felt when they announced their candidacy in 2020 slowly began to fade.
“I had a really strong fire in my belly … I just kind of felt that fire dwindling and finally go out,” they said. “That’s kind of when I knew that I couldn’t be a city councilor any longer.”
The remaining council now faces the tall order of filling two vacated seats five months before the November election. The officials unanimously chose Councilor Gena Goodman-Campbell to serve as the mayor in the meantime.
The city is taking applications for the seats until June, which can be submitted on the city’s website.
If fewer than 10 people apply, the council will interview all candidates publicly. If the city gets more than 10 applications, a subcommittee of council members will meet to decide who the full council will interview.
Replacements must be appointed by June 19, or the voters will decide In November.