State Sen. Jackie Winters, a veteran lawmaker who passionately advocated changes to Oregon’s criminal justice system and whose fierce but kind style garnered fans on both sides of the political aisle, died Wednesday.
Senate President Peter Courtney sent an email shortly after 2:30 p.m., informing lawmakers the 82-year-old Winters had died at Salem Hospital.
Winters had spent more than a month away from the Capitol, due to what she characterized in April as side effects from “proactive treatment” to keep away lung cancer. She’d been diagnosed with the disease in 2017.
Among her last votes: a sweeping bill that changed sentencing requirements for juvenile offenders, adding greater flexibility for judges and prosecutors to keep younger offenders out of the adult penal system under Oregon’s mandatory minimum sentencing rules. Winters’ advocacy for the bill led Republicans to prioritize it, even though many were skeptical. It passed the House last week.
Winters spoke about Oregon’s criminal justice system — and the need to stop automatically sending young offenders to adult prisons — from personal experience: Her late husband, Marc “Ted” Winters, spent time behind bars as a teenager.
“Jackie Winters made sure (her Republican colleagues) understood how important it was that this had to pass,” Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, said. “She was passionate about it because she had seen the damage that had been done by the way we’d interpreted and worked with Measure 11. It was a part of her history.”
News of Winters’ death created a somber air in the Capitol, where lawmakers are pushing into the final stretch of this year’s legislative session.
In the House, Speaker Tina Kotek stopped proceedings to announce the news.
“The long-serving president of the Senate, Sen. Jackie Winters has passed away,” Kotek said, her voice quavering. “A true champion for justice and fairness in many ways and has given many years of her life to the state.”
The chamber briefly adjourned. When it gaveled back in, Rep. Mark Meek sang Amazing Grace in Winters’ honor.
Bipartisan tributes to Winters began circulating not long after.
“Senator Jackie Winters has been a bastion of integrity, justice, and common sense in the Oregon Legislature since she first took her seat in 1999,” Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement. “I will always remember her courage in moving forward on Senate Bill 1008 just this session.”
“I’ve lost my partner in public service,” said Senate President Peter Courtney who, like Winters, represents a Salem-area district. “The Legislature and Oregon has lost a dedicated servant. We’ve lost the best of the best.”
“It was an honor to know and work with Jackie,” Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger, Jr. said in a statement. “Oregon would not be the state it is today without her incredible dedication to the causes and people she fiercely believed in.”
Born in Kansas, Winters and her family moved to Portland in 1941. After graduating from Portland Public Schools, Winters began working for Oregon Health and Sciences University in the medical records department. Ten years later, she was recruited to work in the administration of then-Gov. Tom McCall, launching a career in service that eventually led to her winning a seat on the House of Representatives in 1998. She was the first African American Republican elected to the Legislature.
Winters won a Senate seat four years later, eventually rising to Senate Minority Leader during the 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions. She most recently won re-election in 2018, weathering a campaign in which decisions she made as part of her homeowners association were scrutinized.
Winters was also a restaurateur, opening Jackie’s Ribs in Salem in 1985, according to her online biography. The operation eventually expanded to three restaurants and three franchises, the biography says.
Praise and sorrow over Winters’ death rolled in Wednesday afternoon from her fellow lawmakers. They recalled her as a dedicated advocate for both racial equity and her own brand of fiscal conservatism. She was the rare lawmaker well-liked by members of both party and from all corners of the state.
Under state law, county commissioners in Marion and Polk counties — where Winters’ district sits — must appoint a Republican to fill her place within 30 days. If they don’t meet the deadline, the appointment falls to Gov. Brown.
Though Winters’ four-year term just began, her death means the seat will come up for election again in 2020.