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The Only Black Woman in Oregon’s House Tries To Keep Seat

Rep. Janelle Bynum’s re-election battle is closer than many initially anticipated, part of which is caused by significant redistricting. About 29,000 of the 50,000 registered voters are new to the district.

(TNS) — To the surprise of some observers, Rep. Janelle Bynum of Happy Valley, Ore., the only Black woman in the Oregon House and a lawmaker who’s showed significant policy prowess, is in a fight to retain the seat she’s held for six years.

There are clear indicators that her reelection battle is closer than political strategists initially expected. Two Democratic Party PACs have poured close to $500,000 into Bynum’s reelection campaign in the past three weeks, and statewide and regional labor unions and others have contributed another $120,000 in that same period to a campaign that just this summer appeared a sure thing.

That outpouring has more than doubled Bynum’s total fundraising, which as of Monday stood at just under $1 million and was four times larger than that of her Republican opponent, first-time legislative candidate Kori Haynes.

Haynes, a homemaker and former insurance worker who is white, is running on a platform that is anti-abortion, pro-Second Amendment, anti-big government and pro-police.

Bynum, a small business owner, led the 60-member House in 2021 to increase police accountability and limit violent tactics in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. But this year, she is championing her support from some police groups as well as pledging to support state funding for schools and to help small businesses.

One factor in the tightness of the race: Bynum’s district was significantly redrawn during 2021′s Democrat-led restricting to remove portions of east Portland, Gresham and Multnomah County and add more of unincorporated Clackamas County. It was also renumbered: She represents what is now District 51 but is running for the new District 39, both of which are centered on the Happy Valley area of Clackamas County. About 29,000 of its nearly 50,000 registered voters are new to the district.

Some political strategists think racial bias is also one reason Bynum is facing stiffer-than-expected political winds this year.

As was true before the district was redrawn, Bynum enjoys a heavy Democratic Party advantage among registered voters: 33 percent versus 22 percent for Republicans.

But, in a sign that Republicans sense the potential to flip it red, their party’s political committees have dramatically upped their previously modest financial backing of Haynes. In the past two weeks, the party has pumped $110,000 into her campaign, nearly doubling Haynes’ take to $225,000.

Neither side is sharing polling data. But an Oregonian/OregonLive poll of the three-county metro area found that 84 percent of such voters living outside Portland city limits felt things in the Portland area were on the wrong track, suggesting incumbents and Democrats have a particularly uphill battle this year.

The redrawn district’s boundaries mean a large swath of voters are not only unfamiliar with Haynes, who has never held public office, but Bynum as well. Republican strategist Rebecca Tweed, who is not involved in either campaign, said recent polling data shows Haynes has a competitive chance in a district, state and nation in which many voters are fed up with crime, the homelessness crisis and the weakening economy.

“Incumbency is not necessarily a strength anymore,” Tweed said. “It might be in name recognition, but voters and citizens in general are wanting to see something different. …(It’s) people really feeling like ‘OK, what’s been working has actually not been working.’”

Some political consultants, however, suspect there also may be more at play in the Bynum-Haynes match-up: unconscious, ingrained bias in a region of Clackamas County where – unlike in Portland and Multnomah County – many voters have never elected a Black candidate.

Democratic political consultant Paige Richardson, commenting as an observer who is not part of either campaign, said she believes the new district’s voters are “perfectly capable and willing to vote for” a candidate of any race.

“But they don’t know (Bynum),” Richardson said. “And in a world where they don’t know her, there is still an unbelievable amount of unconscious bias against Black Americans.”

Bynum, who has lived in Happy Valley for 20 years, has encountered that bias. In 2018, a Clackamas resident called 911 because she saw what she thought was “weird” – a Black woman going door-to-door in the neighborhood and taking notes after some of those stops. Turned out it was Bynum, campaigning for her second term. The deputy who responded described Bynum as polite and professional, before posing for a photo with her and leaving her be.

In 2019, Bynum called for community action after she described what she believed was racial profiling of her then-17-year-old daughter: A mall security staffer at Clackamas Town Center walked up to a car that the teen and two friends, all people of color, were sitting in and told them suggested they were violating the mall’s anti-loitering policy.

Rough census numbers show about 2 percent of the new district is Black, compared to 3 percent to 4 percent of the Multnomah County regions that the district just lost.

Bynum said she didn’t have time to comment for this story by Tuesday’s deadline.

Her opponent said she hasn’t seen race as an issue.

“People are sick of crime, homelessness and inflation,” Haynes said. “Janelle Bynum has contributed to every one of those problems.”

Haynes, 40, didn’t come to the ballot through traditional means. A mother of two, she says she has an associate degree and has been working to launch a continuing education platform for the insurance industry. But she also describes herself as a homemaker. In 2021, she unsuccessfully ran for North Clackamas School, losing by more than a two-to-one margin.

This year, she entered the race for House District 39, saying she was motivated to action after her fifth-grade son came home from school and told her about a “very controversial” gender identity lesson that parents hadn’t been notified of or given a chance to opt out of.

From there, Haynes has expanded her platform. She is pro-life and pro-Second Amendment, and has decried “government overreach” in the early days of the COVID pandemic. She also disagrees with the police accountability legislation that Bynum helped shepherd through the Legislature. And Haynes said she would like to repeal or modify a 2019 measure that aimed to create more affordable housing by allowing for duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes in cities such as Happy Valley. Haynes thinks that will strain infrastructure.

Bryan Iverson, a senior adviser for state House and Senate Republicans, said Haynes doesn’t have “that classical resume,” but she represents a change in course that people want.

“We have a citizen Legislature for a reason,” Iverson said. “It’s not a professional Legislature where you have to have a better resume than the other person.”

Haynes has caught on and captured the attention of voters and the Republican Party, Iverson said. After seeing recent polling numbers, he said, “we’re fully engaged in Kori’s race now.”

Democrats, however, contend the better fit for the district is Bynum, 47, a mother of four with an electrical engineering undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in business administration, who left her engineering job 20 years ago to move to Oregon to help her mother-in-law run a McDonald’s franchise. Today, Bynum and her husband operate four franchises.

“She’s perfectly matched for the district,” said Richardson, the Democratic political consultant. “She’s a moderate Democrat, small business owner, parent. She matches Oregon’s values perfectly – socially progressive, fiscally moderate. She’s smart, she’s bright, she’s everything you’d want a legislator to be.”

On her campaign website, Bynum says she is working to find stable funding to shrink class sizes in public schools and make college more affordable; building sidewalks and adding lighting to increase pedestrian and driver safety; and working for equity in opportunities “no matter what you look like, your gender, your race, who you love or where you are from.” She said she has been a supporter of increasing the minimum wage and paid sick leave and also has voted to limit the costs of medications and prevent drug company’s price-gouging.

Bynum’s candidacy has been both supported by police and criticized by them. She lists Oregon Chiefs of Police and the Sheriffs of Oregon PAC among her endorsements. Meanwhile, the Oregon Coalition of Police and Sheriffs says “law enforcement officers overwhelmingly have not felt supported” by Bynum.

Democrats believe Bynum will win a fourth term, but they are having to put extra efforts in to introduce her to new voters, said Andrew Rogers, communications director for the House Democrat’s campaign arm, FuturePAC.

“She’s an excellent candidate,” Rogers said. “We’re not taking chances, because she’s such an important voice for her district and the Legislature.”

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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