Carmen Rubio, Portland’s 1st Latinx City Commissioner and proven bridge-builder, takes office

First published in The Oregonian on January 5, 2021.

Some residents in East Portland must take multiple buses to get to a doctor’s appointment.

In some families, three school-aged children share a single computer for virtual public-school classes while their parent works a frontline job.

These are the people on Carmen Rubio’s mind as she prepares for her first week in elected office.

“How do we make sure that the city of Portland represents them too?” she asked in an interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive.

It’s a challenge — and opportunity — that the 47-year-old might be uniquely suited for. After two decades in government and nonprofit work focused on those historically overlooked by city leaders, Rubio will begin a four-year term on the Portland City Council, becoming the first Latinx commissioner in its history.

Rubio, who was born and raised in Hillsboro in a family that immigrated from Mexico, “will ensure communities of color and others who are marginalized have a voice at the table when decisions critical to their lives are made,” said Serena Cruz, a former Multnomah County Commissioner. “Representation matters. It makes a difference.”

Rubio became the first in her family to attend college — studying political science at the University of Oregon — and entered public service after graduating.

She spent the late 1990s and early 2000s working as a policy adviser for Cruz and then-Portland Commissioner Nick Fish, as well as director of community affairs for former Portland Mayor Tom Potter.

Rubio then went on to work more than a decade as the executive director of the Latino Network, which serves Latinx youth and families in Multnomah County. The experience provided a firsthand view into the lives of Portlanders struggling to get by even as the city flourished economically.

It also compelled her to run for the seat being vacated by longtime Commissioner Amanda Fritz.

“Many of the people I’ve worked with, you know, are working so hard just to provide for their families,” Rubio said. “Those are the stories that we need to lift up.”

She won the election to replace Fritz outright in the May primary, capturing more than two-thirds of the vote in a crowded field of seven candidates. Rubio received the backing of nearly every swath of the city’s political establishment, including elected leaders, unions and business groups.

By the standards of Portland city politics, she’s relatively moderate, more bridge-builder than firebrand or radical reformer. A studied, deliberate approach to policy has earned her the praise of progressives and business leaders alike throughout her career.

On the council, Rubio wants to play the role of a problem solver and consensus builder, even on the most contentious issues, she said.

“I will be the person committed to listening to all stakeholders to achieve a solution or goal, to know all sides of an issue” she said. “That’s the only way you can truly tackle things at their root cause.”

How such an approach might play out during such a divisive time in politics, both locally and nationally, is yet to be seen. But Rubio said she feels undeterred.

“It’s incumbent upon us to do the work to make sure we have carefully considered and weighed everything,” she said. “That’s often going to involve hard decisions. But I’m under no illusion that’s part of this job.”

That could pit her at times against the other woman of color on the council, Jo Ann Hardesty, who after decades digging deep into what she and others say is blatant Portland police mistreatment of Black people and a lack of accountability for misconduct is impatient for change. She, too, wants to listen to a broad spectrum of Portland residents – but she prefers to listen fast, then act faster.

In part because of those two women’s electoral success, the new Council that convenes Wednesday is the city’s most diverse.

Joining Rubio is Mingus Mapps, a former city employee and political science professor who unseated Commissioner Chloe Eudaly in November. He is only the third Black man to serve on Portland’s city council.

Commissioner Dan Ryan, who is openly gay, took office in August after winning a special election to replace Fish, who died of cancer last year. That makes Hardesty, who joined the council in 2018 as the first Black woman elected to the Portland City Council, the second-longest serving member behind Mayor Ted Wheeler, who narrowly won re-election in November.

Portland is also at an inflection point. Calls for radical changes to policing have been at the heart of months of racial justice protests. The city is reeling from a battered economy and an ongoing homelessness crisis. Meanwhile, the coronavirus continues to disproportionately harm the city’s most vulnerable.

“What this pandemic has done has crystalized the deep disparities that already exist in our communities,” Rubio said.

Police reform, homelessness prevention and charting an equitable path to recovery from the pandemic are among the most urgent issues facing the council, Rubio said.

But she also sees a great opportunity to improve the lives of Portlanders through the three city bureaus that she’s been assigned to oversee — Planning and Sustainability, Parks & Recreation and the Office of Community Technology.

Among her priorities, she said, are seeking ways to achieve Portland’s climate goals to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and making the city’s byzantine planning process more equitable and inclusive.

She is also looking to increase greenspace access to communities of color, particularly those who live east of Interstate 205, and expand popular parks programs to low- and moderate-income Portlanders.

“During the summer, they can be a lifesaver for working families,” she said. “Many single parents, many immigrant families, can’t afford the traditional summer camp programs for children who are out of school.”

Even the sleepy and often overlooked city Office of Community Technology can — and should — be leveraged to help shrink a digital divide that remains in Portland, Rubio said.

“One of the biggest disparities to emerge during this time, in my opinion, has been the lack of internet and digital access for Portlanders, especially for BIPOC and low-income communities,” she said.

To achieve these goals, Rubio is likely to often align with Wheeler, Ryan and Mapps, who are seen as centrist figures in the council, according to longtime political observers and those who’ve known her for years.

“I have been fortunate to know Carmen for over two decades. She is steady, measured and persistent as she fights for justice,” Ryan said.

He and Rubio worked together when she was on the board of All Hands Raised, the education nonprofit Ryan previously ran. Both also previously served at the same time on the board of the University of Oregon Alumni Association.

“In both roles, dealing with wildly different perspectives and ideologies, Carmen operated with authenticity and grace,” Ryan said.