Kayse Jama, a longtime community organizer and Multnomah County Democrat, was appointed by the Multnomah and Clackamas County Commissioners to fill the State Senate seat vacated by Shemia Fagan when she became Oregon’s Secretary of State in January 2021. We sat down with him recently to talk about why involvement in the County Democrats is important.
Connect with State Senator Jama on Twitter at @kaysejama, and HERE: https://www.oregonlegislature.gov/Jama
- Why and how did you become involved in the Democratic Party of Multnomah County?
A friend invited me to the local campaign kickoff for John Kerry’s presidential race back in 2004. That’s all it took to get me involved. It’s important for people to have that personal connection. It takes friends and family — people you trust — to get started . Someone I counted as a friend said, “Hey, come to this event — we are hoping to elect John Kerry.” That was the first step.
I took the second step because I found that my values aligned with the Democratic Party: issues like expanding voting rights to all people, caring about poor and middle class people on economic issues, and protecting immigrant communities. Those values speak to me and align with my own values, so I decided to become more involved. I want to emphasize that I wasn’t yet a citizen at the time I was canvassing for Kerry. I knocked on doors, encouraging people to vote, carrying the message. That was my contribution. Even if you can’t vote yourself, you can encourage others to vote. In that way, you are participating in the process and promoting the issues you care about. Engaging in the party is a two-way street: you learn from others and you provide your own ideas, and in that way we become a stronger, more community-centered party.
- Why do you think it’s important for Democrats to become involved at the local level?
Working here in Portland is extremely important. This is where you hone your leadership and community engagement skills. It’s the space to build relationships with others in the party. If you have political ambitions, like running for office, it’s a place to start networking, making relationships with other people who care about the same issues, and learning how to make an impact. Maybe from there, you run for the school board or another local office.
Local party engagement is where things happen. You listen to your community and hear what the struggles and challenges are. Without listening and building these relationships, you won’t be effective. It is super important to engage with people, build skills and hear what is happening.
If you try to impact issues at the national level, it can be overwhelming. Once you see that you can make a difference in your local community, it is really powerful.
- What are some of the priorities for our state and for Multnomah County this year?
I’ve got several, but here are four:
Of course, the housing crisis is very important right now in the state, whether we are talking about urban or rural areas. If you haven’t seen what is happening and not been completely overwhelmed by how the housing crisis is affecting our state and county and city, you are not paying attention. We need to figure out how to address the homeless issue as a state. I’m the Chair of the Housing and Development Committee in the Senate, so this is a top priority for me.
Secondly, after the killing George Floyd and others, it became clear that we need to deal with police accountability and criminal justice reform. I have been working on this issue for over 15 years, but it feels like we are in a true “movement moment” where much is possible, and I am working on several bills through Governor Brown’s Racial Justice Council and through the BIPOC Caucus to advance criminal justice reform.
The pandemic is, of course, a big issue. People of color are extremely affected by COVID-19, particularly in my district, which has some of the highest transmission rates in the state and a very high percentage of immigrants, refugees, people of color, and frontline workers. So, equity issues are important. Our district did not receive relief dollars commensurate with our rates of infection. And we need to implement an economic recovery plan that is equitable and fair to those who are affected like this.
Small businesses are the backbone of the Oregon economy, and so many are struggling right now. We need to support recovery for these small businesses — restaurants and other industries.
These are four priorities for me.
- What is making you hopeful right now?
The recent election gives me hope, knowing that we are shifting the trajectory of our country. Federal programs and relief packages will trickle down to the state and county levels. I am hopeful that finally the wind is blowing in the right direction.
Another thing that makes me hopeful is that I have been around 20+ years in public work, and this is the first time so many people are genuinely talking about racial justice. And, they are not only talking about it, they want to do something about it.
- What advice can you provide to our Democrats in Multnomah County?
Our community needs to do a much better job of engaging people of color, immigrants and refugees, and youth — especially young people. I have seen it happening, but there is a lot of room for improvement. And this really happens at the County level.
We have to create this space. We can make all the excuses we want about the challenges, but these groups are impacted by so many issues and we must hear them.
If we want to expand and grow as a party, these communities have to be at the center. They can help us and to allow us to make a more inclusive platform and systems. We have no choice if we really want to be an effective governing body. And we need real leadership about how to engage these communities.
As a community-based leader, I’m committed to opening doors for these groups of people. I don’t believe in closing the doors behind you one you’re in the room. If you get into a door, make it wide open for others.
I am keenly passionate about engaging youth. My twins are 10 years old. They were testifying on the issues when they were 5 years old. We try to make sure that they are always engaging fully, as a part of our family and members of the broader community, on all the issues that impact their young lives. We want to make sure our children get engaged, that their ideas and contributions are valued and matter.