Politics

Susheela Jayapal steps down from Multnomah County Board to run for Congress

By Alex Zielinski (OPB)
Nov. 1, 2023 3 p.m.
Susheela Jayapal in a portrait provided by her campaign. Jayapal is stepping down as Multnomah County commissioner to run for Congress.

Susheela Jayapal in a portrait provided by her campaign. Jayapal is stepping down as Multnomah County commissioner to run for Congress.

Courtesy of Hannah Love / Courtesy of Hannah Love

Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal is stepping down from office to pursue a run for Congress.

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Jayapal, 60, is the first candidate to announce her run for Oregon’s 3rd Congressional District since its longtime leader Rep. Earl Blumenauer announced his retirement Monday. A Democrat who represents North and Northeast Portland on the county board, Jayapal said she believes the moment calls for her to enter the race.

“I truly believe this is a pivotal time for the district, for the state, for the country in so many different ways,” Jayapal told OPB. “We came through the pandemic, and where we have landed is in a place where there is more divisiveness than before. At the same time, we’ve got these challenges here locally where we need federal action and federal help.”

Oregon’s 3rd District stretches from inner Portland to Hood River and is considered one of the safest Democratic seats in the U.S. House.

Jayapal believes her pragmatic approach to governance is right for the job, despite having only four years of experience in politics. If elected, she’d be in rare company serving alongside her younger sister, Pramila Jayapal, who is a member of the U.S. House from Washington state and chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Jayapal was elected to represent District 2 on the county board in 2019, making her the first Indian American to win an elected county office in Oregon. She won a reelection campaign last year. Before joining the board, Jayapal worked as a corporate lawyer, most recently working as the general counsel for Adidas America.

As a commissioner, Jayapal has pushed for immigration refugee services, racial justice programs, homelessness prevention policies and eviction defense support. In the past year, she’s focused on updating the county’s contracting practices with nonprofits to ensure that staff are fairly compensated. The county has struggled to swiftly distribute tax dollars meant for homeless prevention programs due to nonprofit staffing issues. Most recently, Jayapal has called on the city of Portland to ban the use of leaded diesel at the city-run Portland International Raceway.

Jayapal said she’s especially proud of her work at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when she pushed the state to provide equitable access to testing and vaccines in Multnomah County. Another top accomplishment: finalizing a contract with an online database company that helps property owners list vacant apartments, making them easier for homeless service providers to find.

But she’s found limits to her achievements at the county — limits that she believes can be overcome by working at the federal level.

“The roots of our homelessness crisis lie in federal disinvestment over decades,” Jayapal said. “And we need the federal government to come back into that space in serious ways.”

Jayapal believes heightened federal investments in public housing could help begin to dig the Portland metro area out of its expansive homelessness crisis. If elected to Congress, Jayapal said she’d also want to focus on gun control, access to abortion, LGBTQ+ civil rights and combating climate change.

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Jayapal has a unique perspective on the inner workings of Congress due to her sister’s six years on Capitol Hill. She said Pramila’s experience has offered her a window into the realities of the job — like the frustrations over partisan gridlock, the frequent flights between Seattle and Washington, D.C. and the vulnerability of being a woman of color on the national stage.

“It is appalling, frankly, what I hear,” Jayapal said. “But I also see upfront how worthwhile it feels to be standing up and fighting for the things that you believe in. So I go into this realistically and also really clear that it’s what I want to do.”

While her sister’s experience and resources in D.C. may help guide her through a major campaign, Jayapal is resolute that it’s her name on the ballot, not her sister’s.

“At the end of the day, the campaign is about me and the campaign is about whether I’m the strongest candidate, whether my values align with the voters,” she said.

Jayapal’s announcement marks an abrupt end to her time on the county board. County charter rules require county commissioners resign if they file as a candidate for another political office before the final year of their term. Jayapal, whose term ends in December 2026, resigned from the board Tuesday evening.

The county charter also mandates that commissioners designate someone to be their successor if they have to leave before the end of her term. Jayapal’s designee is Jesse Beason, the president and chief executive officer of the Northwest Health Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on improving health outcomes in Oregon and Southwest Washington. (Beason is also a member of OPB’s board of directors.)

Beason said that when Jayapal told him she was going to run for Congress, he wasn’t thinking about what that meant for him.

“Honestly, it had slipped my mind that I had signed up to be her designee,” Beason told OPB. “The commissioner had to remind me.”

Beason initially considered turning the position down. But then he thought of his nonprofit’s mission.

“Our foundation has been steadfast in supporting organizations and people of color to help build an equitable democracy,” Beason said. “It seemed disingenuous to ask others to do the work if I wasn’t going to do it myself.”

Beason has a history of working in both the nonprofit and public sectors. He previously worked as a housing policy director for former Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams and as a public affairs specialist at Metro. Before joining Northwest Health Foundation in 2013, he was the executive director of Proud Ground, an affordable housing nonprofit.

Beason said he shares many of Jayapal’s goals and looks forward to helping continue the work she began — like advocating for better staff wages within nonprofits that contract with the county.

Beason’s role as commissioner for District 2 begins Wednesday. He said he will keep his job at Northwest Health Foundation while serving on the board.

Beason’s tenure expires in May, when the county will hold a special election to fill Jayapal’s seat for the duration of her term. He said he has “zero interest” in joining that race to make his role permanent.

Jayapal has no clear competitors in the race for the 3rd Congressional District at this time. State Rep. Travis Nelson, a Democrat from Portland, has said he is considering a run, and Gresham City Council Eddy Morales is a rumored candidate.

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