Teresa Alonso Leon says that growing up in the city of Woodburn has given her “the unique advantage of knowing firsthand the obstacles that families in our communities are facing.” The daughter of immigrant farmworkers, Alonso Leon adds, “I know we need better investment in our schools, because school was my pathway out of poverty. I know families need living wage jobs, because I saw my parents having to choose between putting food on the table and paying the bills.”
Alonso Leon is one of two candidates vying to represent HD District 22 – a narrow district that runs from Woodburn south to upper Salem in November’s election. The administrator of Oregon’s GED program and a member of the Woodburn City Council, Alonso Leon sees public office as a means to increasing access to education for all students and helping create a fair economy.
“All across Oregon,” she says, “we have seen a decrease in the number of teachers, while at the same time our school age population is growing, leading to vastly increased class sizes and lower graduation rates.”
In contrast to Oregon as a whole, which has a Hispanic population of 11.8%, 48.4% of House District 22 identifies as Hispanic.
“Growing up as a young Latina,” Alonso Leon says, “I didn’t see elected leaders that looked like me. I was lucky to have teachers, parents, and role models who believed in me and saw my potential and encouraged me to go to college.”
Endorsed by departing Democratic representative Betty Komp as well as Oregon AFL-CIO, Senator Jeff Merkley and the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, Alonso Leon reflects that her experience on the Woodburn City Council has been deeply gratifying. “We have achieved meaningful progress in increasing access to affordable housing, opening up to new businesses in our area, and creating living wage jobs for workers in Woodburn.”
Among her supporters is Jaime Arredondo of PCUN, the largest Latino organization in Oregon. “Take a look at who lives in HD 22,” he says. “It’s one of the most diverse districts in our state. Teresa represents that diversity and not just in terms of race. She comes from a working class family. She’s knows what it’s like to struggle to pay the bills. She knows how to succeed when the odds are stacked against her.”
Four Hispanic legislators currently serve in the Oregon House of Representatives, and two are not running for re-election.
“The State House of Representatives should reflect the diversity of the citizens of this state,” says Paul Krissel, a volunteer who canvassed for Alonso Leon on a recent weekend. “Instead it is overwhelmingly white. It is time to unite behind a terrific candidate… [whose] experience as a Woodburn city counselor confirms that she cares deeply about the entire community and equal opportunity for all.”
Krissel says Alonso Leon’s opponent, Patti Milne, a Republican former county commissioner, state representative and school board member, “has a long history of taking the most extreme conservative positions on issues such as fair wages, fairness for state employees, women’s rights, immigrant rights, and opposes any form of sensible gun regulation.”
Alonso Leon believes that Oregon needs to prioritize investment in schools. “Bottom line,” she says, “we need to increase funding for our schools so we can lower class sizes and improve graduation rates.” She wants to ensure that dollars are being targeted for programs and resources that help students learn and resources teachers . “That also means hiring more teachers and bringing back the classes that help students find their passion and stay in school — music, sports, shop classes, and career and technical education.”
Levi Herrera-Lopez, Executive Director of Mano a Mano, cites population trends that show increases in local Hispanic populations, noting that these populations have no direct representation in government. “While most elected officials in Marion County are good and honest people who care for their community, they would admit they struggle engaging Latinos,” he says. Mano a Mano is a Salem area organization which provides resources for those who self identify as low income, immigrants or people of color and does not endorse candidates, but Herrera-Lopez observes, “There is an urgent need for Latinos to stand up and run for elected office, so that their community is represented.”
It is a goal Alonso Leon shares. “I want to be that leader that other young people of color see,” she says, so they “know that it is possible for them to work hard and grow up to be future leaders in their own communities.”