Here's some awkward timing. Roberta Phillip was hired by former County Chair Ted Wheeler two days before former state treasurer Ben Westlund died. "I showed up for work on Monday and had a great day with Ted—my role was to shadow Ted for a while and work on education and prevention issues, and to work with Ted, because he is the one who got me there," says Phillip. "And then to get the news [that Wheeler had been appointed to replace Westlund] on Tuesday, I think it’s a win for the state, honestly, even though I hate to see him go."
Mercury:So how does it work, running for county commissioner while working for the chair?
"I’m allowed to, but I’m being very careful about how and when I can campaign, who can campaign for me and how. And I don’t have the luxury of taking time off."
Tell our readers about yourself.
"I’m somebody who’s driven by the work, so I’m drawn to what it is I’d be doing, and how I’d be helping and serving. And that’s why I taught high school in Florida before I came to Lewis and Clark for law school. And that's why I was with the Crittendon Foundation for two years."
What did you learn at Crittendon and teaching in Florida that qualifies you for the county?
"Teaching really taught me the value of listening, and it taught me a lot about how little I knew. When I think I have a problem solved, or the grasp on an issue, there are always other voices to be heard. And it really put a face, or hundreds of faces, on the work that I’m drawn to around equity and prevention. When we have an economy that is stalled, or services that are being cut, I have a face to put with what that looks like. And going back to my background as an immigrant to this country, that’s my family’s face, too."
Tell me about your background.
"I came to New York from Trinidad when I was 13 and started public high school, and we struggled a lot. It was a huge culture shock. I was the first person in my family to attend college, so I couldn’t look to my parents for any help. I went, and I think I have a cousin who graduated college, but when I told them I was going to law school it was a huge deal for our family, and it’s a big deal for our community."
Why are you running?
"I feel like I have a unique skill set to bring to the community, to the board, and like I told you I’m drawn to the work. We’re in a position now where I feel like the board needs someone who is tapped in to the community, who cares deeply about Multnomah County and about her district, and who is going to take the time and accept that she doesn’t have all the answers."
How do you stack up against your competitors?
"I wouldn’t be in it if I didn’t feel like I was the best candidate. I truly believe that the mix of my academic background, my life experience, and my commitment to public service makes me the best person for the job."
Do you agree that the three favorites for this seat are Karol Collymore, Chuck Currie and Gary Hansen?
"I really think it’s anybody’s race. It’s quick to say that there are favorites, and it’s premature to say that there’s a top three lineup. And there are people who haven’t been mentioned—Maria Rubio, Loretta Smith, they bring a lot to the table, as do I."
How does your experience stack up against Maria Rubio's and Loretta Smith's?
"I think I bring a more well-rounded background to this. I’m not entrenched politically, and I like that."
Do you have any endorsements yet?
"I’ve been spending my time talking with folks in the community about what’s important to them. I know endorsements are important, but honestly I see this as just a continuation of my way to stay connected to the community. I know that a lot of the other candidates are out actively seeking endorsements, and although I’m contacting some folks in that regard, it’s more about picking their brains and seeking counsel."
Whose endorsement would you most like, and why?
"I would like the voters’ endorsement, and that’s what I’ve been getting. The more people I talk to, everybody I’ve worked with, they all have nothing but supportive things to say about this race, and me in it. They feel like the county needs somebody like me, and that I bring that listening ear and that respect."
Is this race all about getting through the primary?
How much money are you hoping to raise?
"I’m hoping to raise $50,000 for this race."
How much money do you have?
"I have pledges for a couple of thousand dollars."
How are you going to run this campaign?
"In my spare time. I have volunteers, actually. When I announced, a lot of folks came out to support me and have really rallied around me. So I have people who believe in what I stand for, and who are enthusiastic about my running. I have a great class through Emerge Oregon who have all stepped up."
Remind me of Emerge Oregon’s role?
"It’s pretty much a training ground for Democratic women, and it really demystifies the process for us. And their goal is—and their track record proves—women and women of color in public office."
Is race a factor in this election?
"I don’t think it’s a factor in terms of vote for the candidate of color. But I think it’s a factor when you talk about perspective, and background and connections to under-served communities. You need to have someone on the board who has a connection to these communities, not just the black community, but other under-served communities, for instance I’m talking about someone who can reach out to the immigrant community because they understand the value of their perspective, and that’s why it’s important."
What do you think of Chair Wheeler's idea to take control of jail management from the Sheriff's office?
"To me it boils down to two very important pieces. Corrections, and law enforcement. Where is our focus, and where do we want our focus to be?"
So we should shift some of the budget to prevention?
"I think we need to have voices at the table who are talking more about prevention in this community."
Why isn’t anybody talking about the Wapato jail in this race?
"I think because it’s so complex, and it’s stumped a lot of great minds. I think Ted’s work around it has been, I admire that he wasn’t afraid to touch it, and I think we do need to explore options when it comes to Wapato, and honestly, figure out a solution."
How would you bring in more revenue at the county?
"I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and what I keep settling on is that there are no easy solutions. I can talk to you about let’s implement this tax or let’s streamline here or there, and although those things are important, I think what’s most important is having somebody at the table who when those things are proposed, can understand the impact, and whether or not there’s going to be a disproportionate impact."
Is there any issue that you’ve yet to see raised by the other people running, that you would like to bring into this race?
"I think prevention, generally, as it plays into our long term strategy for economic prosperity here."
Tell us more about that?
"For instance, my mentor program that I started at Rosemary Anderson High School when I was in law school—we work one on one with those young people to intervene in their lives and guide them, and provide resources for them, and that’s an extremely successful program. We’re talking about a life, the lives, individually of people in this community. It’s in its fifth year, right now, and our students have gone on to college, they talk about what a difference it makes to have someone in their lives who cares and gives them direction. There’s been a spinoff, the black law student association at Lewis & Clark started a scholarship in my name to help the mentee graduates of the program go on to higher education, and I’ve been raising money for that. It’s a piece of the puzzle, support from the front end."
How do you raise money for the program?
"I talk to people, mainly people in the law community. You’re selling the idea of potential, really."
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