When Maxine Dexter applied to medical school at the University of Washington three decades ago, she says she believed she would one day shape national healthcare policy.
“That’s what I told the admissions committee,” Dexter said. “I knew that at some point in my life I would go to Congress and I would make health policy change.”
Dexter, 51, is now taking a concrete step toward that vision. The two-term state representative from Northwest Portland announced Tuesday she’s running for the U.S. House, joining an increasingly crowded Democratic field to replace retiring Congressman Earl Blumenauer.
With the move, Dexter will end an influential, if short, state legislative career. This year, she chaired the House Committee on Housing and Homelessness as the state grapples with both issues. She played a major role in pushing an omnibus bill aimed at reducing overdose deaths by expanding access to Naloxone, among other things. She plans to continue that work in next year’s short legislative session, but then cannot seek reelection while pursuing federal office.
Dexter also might have to end her decades-long career in medicine. If she’s successful in the May primary for the deep-blue district, Dexter will be all but assured a role in Congress — a change that would force her to quit her job as a pulmonologist at Kaiser Permanente and become a full-time politician.
“Being a physician and those person-to-person interactions is what fills my cup,” she said Tuesday. “What I can do at this point in time that is so desperately needed by our community is to affect change and really lead pragmatically and effectively.”
The 3rd Congressional District stretches from Portland’s east side to Hood River. It doesn’t include Dexter’s home in Northwest Portland. Dexter says she used to live in the district, but moved because Northeast Portland’s Grant High School was slated to be under construction when her daughter began there, forcing what she called logistical challenges.
“We moved so my daughter could attend a school that was within biking distance of our home,” Dexter said, adding she is “looking forward” to moving back once her son graduates high school next year. Members of Congress are not required to live within the district they represent.
Dexter is the third candidate to announce intentions to replace Blumenauer, who’s held the state’s 3rd Congressional District for 27 years.
Already in the race are two progressive candidates with national connections. Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal can count on assistance from her sister, U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Gresham City Councilor Eddy Morales has a history working in national progressive politics, notching allies like prominent Georgia Democrat Stacy Abrams.
Like her opponents, Dexter says she is “progressive to the core.” But she also believes she’s a candidate who can attract interest from moderate Democrats.
“I’m pragmatic and I want to get solutions to the table,” she said. “I do believe that that opens a lane because I’ll work across ideologies and find the areas of alignment that we can continue to make progress on.”
One issue that could motivate fundraising — in Oregon’s CD3 and nationally — is the war in Israel and Gaza, which has exposed a rift in the Democratic party. Dexter called the ongoing conflict “a tragedy in every way for the people of Israel and Gaza,” but said she has a lot to learn.
“What I want to do is show up and learn by listening and understanding as much as I can,” she said. “What I see right now is really concerning to me that we are defining our party on an issue that is so complicated. I don’t think there is a clear binary decision here.”
Morales showed solidarity with Israel shortly after the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas, posting pictures of himself on a previous visit and expressing his support for the country’s right to defend itself. He has more recently said he wants the two sides to “end the fighting as quickly as possible and get to work on a peaceful 2 state solution.”
Jayapal in October was embroiled in a debate on the Multnomah County Commission over whether to light Portland’s Morrison Bridge blue and white to show support for Israel. She said at the time she supported the lighting, but was uncomfortable issuing any statement that only condemned violence on one side of the conflict.
Rather than signing onto a statement with other commissioners, Jayapal wound up issuing her own personal statement, saying in part: “My heart breaks for all those across Israel and Palestine who are living in a state of war and continued violence.”
Dexter in recent weeks has been calling around for endorsements. Her announcement on Tuesday included votes of confidence from Dr. Andy Mendenhall, CEO of Central City Concern, and from House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, who called her “exactly who we need fighting for our state and our values in our nation’s capital.”