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The Road To Legislative Control In Oregon Leads Through The Suburbs

Democrats are in firm control of both chambers of the Oregon legislature. But in the state House, nearly one-quarter of the current members won't be returning to the capitol next year. That's led to a number of hotly contested races for open seats.

And many of those battleground districts are in the suburbs.

When it's time to cut the ribbon at a huge new shopping center in House District 51, east of Portland, the person holding the scissors will be an old pro. Lori Chavez-DeRemer has been the mayor of Happy Valley for six years. Before that she was in the city council for six years.

And while the retail development is a big win for her community, Chavez-DeRemer has something else on her mind these days. She's running for a seat in the Oregon House. As a Republican, she wants to loosen the Democrats' grip on setting policy in Salem.

Chavez-DeRemer said more than a decade in local government has given her a good sense of what people in the district care about.

"Having spent 12 years at the local level, you really do try to listen to both sides,” she said. “So it doesn't matter, Democrat, Republican, it's all about what do the citizens care about."

She said at the top of the list of what people in Happy Valley care about: Public safety, good schools, good roads, and the economy. A win in this district and several other suburban seats would give the GOP a boost they try to eat into the Democrats' comfortable edge in both the Oregon House and Senate.

Eyeing a super-majority

Democrats, meanwhile, want to pick off a seat from the Republicans, which would give them a super-majority, which gives them broader powers to advance their legislative agenda.

The Happy Valley-area is currently represented by a Democrat, Shemia Fagan. She decided not to run again after two terms. The Democrat trying to replace Fagan is Janelle Bynum. While Bynum and Chavez-DeRemer share many of the same priorities -- jobs, education, transportation -- the two break down along more traditional party lines when it comes to how to get there.

Bynum's campaign office is about a mile-and-a-half up the road from the new Happy Valley retail development. There's a school, some churches and a small cluster of office buildings here, but there's not a chain store in sight. Bynum sees plenty of those with her day job.

"My husband and I are second-generation McDonald's owner-operators,” she said.

They run two McDonalds franchise locations. And while she's never held elected office, Bynum said running a business while raising four school-age kids would give her a unique perspective in Salem.

"There are very few people in the legislature who are putting school kids on the bus every day,” Bynum said. “And there are also very few legislators making a payroll on the 7th and 22nd like I do."

Bynum could also be the only African-American in the Oregon House if she wins. She said she'd like to serve as a voice for people of color.

"Not all communities are engaged the way they could be,” Bynum said. “And I want to make sure that those communities that aren't necessarily heard from have a seat at the table."

Districts swinging back and forth

Bynum and Chavez-DeRemer are neck-and-neck when it comes to fundraising. Chavez-DeRemer was one of eight Republican legislative candidates who received five-figure donations from Nike's Phil Knight. Bynum's been helped by the House Democrats' statewide fundraising committee.

Democrats have a growing registration edge in this suburban seat, which they wrestled away from Republicans in 2012. Pacific University political analyst Jim Moore said suburban districts tend to change hands because they tend to be areas with rapidly changing demographics.

"Watching those districts swing back and forth is vital to who controls a body, but it's also our way of keeping a pulse of what the changes are happening among voters and voter registration across the state,” Moore said.

And as suburbs like Happy Valley grow and evolve, both Democrats and Republicans are trying to crack the code of harnessing those changes to their political advantage.

Janelle Bynum
Chris Lehman / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Janelle Bynum

Copyright 2016 Northwest News Network

Chris Lehman
Chris Lehman graduated from Temple University with a journalism degree in 1997. He landed his first job less than a month later, producing arts stories for Red River Public Radio in Shreveport, Louisiana. Three years later he headed north to DeKalb, Illinois, where he worked as a reporter and announcer for NPR–affiliate WNIJ–FM. In 2006 he headed west to become the Salem Correspondent for the Northwest News Network.