Twenty-five years ago, Nafisa Fai was in a Kenyan refugee camp after escaping war-torn Somalia. Now she’s the front-runner for a seat on the Washington County Commission in Tuesday’s election.
If she wins, Fai will cement a two-year-old Democratic majority on the technically non-partisan commission, which for decades was dominated by Republicans.
She would also be the commission’s first Black member and the first Muslim member, bringing new diversity in political leadership to a county that is one of the most diverse in the state.
“I think people are really excited about my campaign because they see themselves in me,” said Fai, 43, a public health professional. While her back story may be more harrowing than that of most Washington County voters, she said that “most folks are like myself, who are working, who are raising kids, who care about their parks, who care about safe roads, who care about their school.”
Fai is running against Jeff Hindley, who is running his own energetic – if under-funded – campaign for the seat. He’s picked up endorsements from Republican members of the board who had originally backed another candidate who finished third in the primary and failed to advance to the runoff.
Hindley, a juvenile justice supervisor who works for neighboring Yamhill County, talks up his plans to tackle high housing costs and traffic congestion while bashing Fai in his advertising as “someone that wants to bring the same policies that destroyed Portland to our community.”
One of Oregon’s most diverse counties
What’s most striking about the Washington County commission race is how it signals a growing ethnic and racial diversity in the leadership of the state’s second largest county, which is also growing more Democratic.
In recent decades, the largely suburban county on the west side of Portland has been best known around Oregon for its rapid economic growth. It’s often called the state’s economic engine because of its many high-paying jobs in such business powerhouses as Intel and Nike.
Less well-known is that its population is more diverse than Multnomah County. The latest Census estimates show that more than third of Washington County’s residents are nonwhite, mostly Latino or Asian. Jefferson County, which includes much of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs reservation, is the only Oregon county that has a larger percentage of residents who are people of color..
Washington County politics are now catching up with the county’s growing diversity. Democrat Wlnsvey Campos is the front-runner for a state House district centered in Tigard. She would be the only Hispanic member of the county’s legislative delegation. Several other people of color are running for seats on various city council seats and other elected boards.
Many of them are endorsed by Washington County Ignite, a new group formed last year to help recruit, train and campaign for candidates from diverse backgrounds. It’s modeled on a similar group in Multnomah County – East County Rising. Both are unabashedly left of center in political outlook and are loosely allied with the state’s powerful Democratic establishment.
“There’s been a real lack of infrastructure in Washington County to get some of our communities elected,” said Lamar Wise, a Black resident of Hillsboro who helped form Washington County Ignite. He’s also political coordinator for the Oregon chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and he thinks Tuesday’s elections will produce a bumper crop of successful candidates nurtured by his group.
Not everyone is enamored of this new approach to Washington County politics.
Desari Strader, who served on the county commission from 2007 to 2011, said she may have been the first person of color on the board because of her Native American heritage. But Strader, now working on a solar energy startup, said she never made much of her background.
“I didn’t campaign on identity politics or partisan politics,” said Strader, adding that she believes the commission worked better when it was focused on jobs and economic development.
A nonpartisan office, but very different promises
Some Republicans think that Hindley better fits that traditional viewpoint of what the county commission should be focused on.
“This could be your upset of the Portland metro area, if you look at all the non-partisan races,” said Dan Mason, a county Republican party official and property manager. He said Hindley showed his strength with voters by getting into the November runoff against Fai despite only spending about $3,000 before the primary. Meanwhile, businessman Manuel Castaneda finished a surprising third despite spending more than $150,000 and being backed by the two Republicans on the commission.
However, Hindley may have benefitted from the fact that Castaneda and Fai attacked each other during the primary while leaving Hindley unscathed. Fai and her supporters accused Castaneda of trying to portray himself as a moderate while actually being more tied to conservative Republican orthodoxy. Her success with that line of attack was yet another sign that races for the nonpartisan commission can still be dominated by party lines.
In any case, Hindley, 53, said his 20 years of experience working in county government make him the more qualified candidate for the job.
He said he has a better sense of how to keep the $1.4 billion county budget in check; he thinks it has grown too fast under the leadership of commission Chair Kathryn Harrington. And he touts his specific plans for increasing affordable housing – which encourages the development of “tiny homes” villages and targeted reductions in systems development charges to reduce housing construction costs.
“I might be a conservative,” said Hindley, “but I’m kind of moderate in a lot of ways. And I think there’s a lot of people out there who are kind of like that, who just like someone who’s not so ideologically driven.”
Fai talks more about building coalitions and ensuring that prosperity in Washington County is widely shared among its residents.
She calls for an “equity lens” on issues ranging from law enforcement to housing development. She said she’s working closely with Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett, who has endorsed her, to make sure "we have a law enforcement that protects everyone.
And she says she wants to “really have a robust pathway to home ownership because we know that’s one way to really uplift people out of poverty.”
Fai, who came to Oregon with her family from the Kenyan refugee camp as a teenager, also leans heavily on her career in public health. She has worked for the American Red Cross, the Multnomah County Health Department and Upstream Public Health, a Portland-based nonprofit, and done consulting work. During the current pandemic, she’s managing contact tracing for Washington County.
“Now that COVID happened and we’re in a different dynamic,” she said, “I really want to tackle this economic crisis in a more meaningful and thoughtful way and really have a courageous conversation about who is most impacted.”
Hindley and Fai disagree sharply about one of the perennial issues in Washington County: traffic congestion.
Fai is backing the Metro transportation measure that imposes payroll taxes to pay for a series of projects, saying it will provide more transportation options and also safety improvements on major county roads such as the Tualatin Valley Highway and 185th. Hindley opposes the Metro package, saying he opposes funding for a new light rail line to Bridgeport Village. He argued that light rail is proving too expensive and that this expansion largely benefits Multnomah County.
Public safety debates
Hindley says Fai’s support for the Metro measure is one reason why he thinks she supports Portland-centric policies. He also charged that her calls for “reimagining public safety” resemble the police budget cuts passed this year by the Portland City Council.
Fai said she wants to move toward “alleviating the burden for law enforcement” by providing more support services in areas such as mental health. But she insisted she isn’t interested in “defunding” the police. She calls Hindley’s charges divisive and a “classic tactic conservatives in Washington County use to fight against change.”
Fai, who lives in the unincorporated community of Aloha, added that “as the mom of three young boys, if somebody told me they wanted to get rid of the sheriff’s office, I’ll be the first one to protest and say, ‘No, what about my safety.’”
Issues aside, Fai said some voters are "scared of my scarf and my black skin and some of the perspectives and policies I bring. But she said she’s been pleased by the many people she’s talked to who are excited about “adding representation to the commission.”
That’s helped her build a powerful support network that Hindley hasn’t come close to matching. Part of it is that the district they’re seeking to represent – which includes Aloha and most of Beaverton – has a 2-to-1 registration advantage of Democrats over Republicans. That helps put her in a strong position to win a seat already held by a Democrat, outgoing Commissioner Dick Schouten.
Her list of supporters reads like a Who’s Who of elected Democrats, including Gov. Kate Brown and U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley (Fai said she bonded with Merkley after they realized that he had visited the same Kenyan refugee camp she once lived in).
She’s also drawn support from ambitious officials around the region, such as Metro President Lynn Peterson and Multnomah County Chair Deb Kafoury. They appear to see the value of tying themselves to someone who brings a new face to Oregon leadership.
The donors have also come knocking. Fai has raised $280,000 for her campaign – more than 10 times the $25,000 raised by Hindley.
Many of her donations come from such typical Democratic allies as labor unions and the Oregon League of Conservation Voters. But her largest donor is the Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors, which has given her $50,000.
“It’s one of the trustees' most proud decisions of the year, being able to endorse her,” said Michele Gila, the lobbyist for the Realtors' association. “We definitely have a membership that supports diversity.”
Gila said that Fai promised to work with them to encourage home ownership and boost the supply of housing. That was what the Realtors wanted to hear, particularly since she looked to be in a strong political position.
“If you could support someone who you think has a future in politics and in elected leadership around the region when we are in a housing crisis,” said Gila, “and you feel like they can move that needle in any way — you support them.”