Senator Jackie Winters was the first black woman ever elected to Oregon’s legislature. She is also the state’s longest-serving black senator and soon to be the longest-serving Republican woman in Oregon’s history. She is widely admired on both sides of the aisle for her commitment to criminal justice reform, as well as her role in creating the Oregon Food Bank, her diabetes and obesity prevention campaigns, and her leadership role across countless organizations and boards of directors.
Prior to joining the Oregon House in 1998 and later the Senate, Sen. Winters was the owner of Jackie’s Ribs in Salem—an entrepreneurial experience which shaped her steadfast commitment to protecting independent small businesses. Before that, she worked in the Oregon Health Sciences University medical records department and for the Portland Model Cities Program. Governor Tom McCall recruited her to supervise the Office of Economic Opportunity’s New Resources Program in 1969, and ten years later, Governor Victor Atiyeh made her Ombudsman.
Sen. Winters has received prestigious honors throughout her career, including the Salem First Citizen Award, the United Way Outstanding Achievement Award, the NAACP President’s Award for Advancing the Cause of Civil Rights in Oregon, and an International Women’s Who’s Who recognition. She currently is the co-vice chair of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, as well as its Subcommittee on Public Safety.
Please note that this interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
[OnlineEducation.com] I know your time is precious, so I’ll jump right in: how did you initially decide to get into public service?
[Senator Jackie Winters] I had not really thought about a political career. I came to Salem in 1969 and it was interesting because often when you’re not looking for a job, everything falls in your lap.
I’d been involved with helping to establish Model Cities in Portland and as a result, there was a lot of discussion around the history of developing human services. The Model Cities information center was a forerunner to what we know as the “multiservice concept.”
So I got this call prior to coming in for an interview with Bob Logan, who was a senior policy planner on the McCall staff. I found it to be one of the easiest jobs I’ve ever obtained! And he interviewed me up in Sherwood in Greenbriar. I still remember that interview because he was so taken back by my composure—that was his word—and he thought, how disarming it would be to the county commission if she came out to the members of the government. In those days, we were referred to as “black,” not “African Americans.”
[OnlineEducation.com] Is it true that you asked your then-future husband to put in a word that McCall needed a black woman on his staff?
[Senator Jackie Winters] He was the governor’s representative to Model Cities. So I said, “When you go back, will you tell the governor that 1) He doesn’t have a woman in a prominent policy position, and 2) He doesn’t have anyone black on his staff.” That was my comment and I’m usually not that forward! Not knowing whether that would be delivered, I just thought the governor needs to know.
[OnlineEducation.com] Yes, absolutely. You are widely admired on both sides of the aisle for your commitment to criminal justice reform. What are your legislative priorities for this session?
[Senator Jackie Winters] I have a couple. One: there’s some work that needs to be done on domestic violence. I’m creating a commission so there is a voice across all of the issues related to domestic violence. Also, we need to address the gaps in service in both the shelter beds and temporary beds. There is a need for stability. Here in Salem, Jane Downing and her group are actually building apartment complexes.
Also, in 2013, we started our justice reinvestment work, which provided money for the first time for domestic violence; we had a formula so that they got some of the money. We did sentencing reform that benefitted men as well.
During the last session, we passed Bill 3078—the one we’re all crowing about! We were successful in getting that passed and getting the Supreme Court to agree with us. In that session, we also addressed the issue of profiling and changed the first-time possession of certain drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor.
And so now that leaves juvenile support. Senate President Courtney asked if I would take a look at that. And I told him yes, I would.
[OnlineEducation.com] And as you probably know, Oregon is now the only state with non-unanimous jury convictions in felony trials.
[Senator Jackie Winters] I think we’ll get there. Representative Williamson has talked to me about that, and yes, and that’s high on our priority list. First, I didn’t like it to be just us and Louisiana! Now I certainly don’t like for us to be alone. That piece of legislation will be passed.
[OnlineEducation.com] It’s nice to see the Oregon Republicans also adopting criminal justice reform as a priority.
[Senator Jackie Winters] Well, you know what’s interesting: for Oregon, I was surprised because most of the reform—the early reform—was coming out of the Republican party. All of this to me is a very common sense approach to the criminal justice system.
[OnlineEducation.com] Creating more taxpayers? Getting people rehabilitated rather than incarcerated?
[Senator Jackie Winters] Going back to the early 1970s, the philosophy and the policies were a lot better than they are today. You can look at it. There was a whole work release program and for a Governor to say, “Hey, I’m supporting this and I’m going to put them on my staff!”
[OnlineEducation.com] You don’t have that so much anymore.
[Senator Jackie Winters] Heavens, no. Now we have, “Hey, you’d better do a background check” or “Hey, I’m not going to trust anything that comes out of there.” Back then you had a robust education program, retraining, and rescheduling. And now we’re playing catch-up.
What happened for us to become contrary to the Constitution? It talks about redemption and rehabilitation…I think we went to determinate sentencing first, and from there, we went to “Well, let’s see: we’ll just hang that scarlet letter around the neck forever.”
And so then we say, “We’ll get busy and prisons will become the economic driver in Oregon.” Oregon has 14—I call them cities. Oregon has 14 cities, and each one of those cities has over 1,000 inmates.
[OnlineEducation.com] That’s heartbreaking. I want to make sure that we get a couple of other things covered. My series is called Women Breaking Barriers….
[Senator Jackie Winters] Have I broken them?
[OnlineEducation.com] You’ve already broken so many barriers! Not only were you one of the first black women ever elected to our legislature, but you are also soon to be the longest-serving Republican woman in Oregon, where you’re already the longest-serving black Senator. In my mind, you’ve already joined the ranks of other famous firsts, like Betty Roberts and Charles Curtis, who I know were big influences on you and your family. So what have been the challenges for a pioneering African American woman in Oregon’s Congress?
[Senator Jackie Winters] I came here in 1969. I started med school is 1959. I think the biggest challenge of coming here is when you’re the only one. I can still remember Bob Logan who said to me, “You need to go over to the capital so that they can get to know you.” We were housed in the State Library at the time. And I’d say, “They know I’m here.”
During my years in med school, where I was supervisor and having been around [doctors], I didn’t feel any different because I had already experienced the issue of being a woman. My immediate supervisor and two others were the only women— the administrators during my time at the med school. And you knew how hard it was as a woman to break through those barriers.
By the time I came to Salem, it was really about “How do I, Jackie, fit in with this environment?” Fortunately for me, the McCall administration and the chief of staff were outstanding. It was an environment where you were given responsibility without this whole thing of “I can’t give it to you because you’re either a woman or black.”
[OnlineEducation.com] So you didn’t have any experiences facing discrimination in those days or more recently?
[Senator Jackie Winters] No. And the other part of it that I tell everybody is that I’m comfortable with who I am in my own skin. And when you’re comfortable with who you are—whether it’s you as the woman or you as the black—you actually look at your environment not in terms of “the woman.” I call myself Heinz 57 because I don’t want to deny any part of me!
I remember when I was the head of new resources, I only had one individual who really challenged whether I should be the boss.
[OnlineEducation.com] What happened in that interaction?
[Senator Jackie Winters] The guy had his PhD, so he felt that education-wise, he was better and he was more qualified. So he became a problem and he was terminated.
This was during the McCall years. He had threatened to go to Edith Green, who was a Congresswoman that he had some kind of tie with. He wanted an audience with my boss and with the federal counterpart who was funding us but nothing changed. He still was terminated.
I saw him later, and he said, “You know, that was one of the best things that ever happened to me.” He was running something in Goose Hollow in Portland, which was a better fit. All of his animosity toward me had gone away and he was feeling good about where he was in his life.
[OnlineEducation.com] Oregon is one of four states where at least 40 percent of the legislature comprises women. Why do you think that women and people of color are still underrepresented in government leadership across the country?
[Senator Jackie Winters] Part of it is women not seeking it. It’s whether or not we take those opportunities or whether we feel that there’s this barrier that cannot be overcome. Or that we may not feel like we’re welcome. I don’t think that there’s any barrier that we cannot overcome, by the way.
Maybe it’ll be a little rough elbowing to begin with, but I think about those who came before me—the Betty Robertses and the Norma Pauluses of the world—who I admired. There’s always somebody that came before us. There’s always somebody who actually took the brunt of what we’re all feeling and seeing.
[OnlineEducation.com] You’re that somebody for a lot of people now.
[Senator Jackie Winters] Yeah, I can wade through these waters. First of all, we have got to get rid of all of this doubt when we think about ourselves.
I realized something when I was doing a training with Mary Jo Hall at Oregon State. We were doing intergovernmental work then. One of the things she said stuck with me: “We have skills we didn’t even know we had.” and We don’t do a very good job of stepping back and doing an assessment of those skills.
For example, I’ve been on the Budget Ways and Means [Committee] pretty much my whole political career. I didn’t think about it in terms of having that big math degree, but I raised a family on budgets.
[OnlineEducation.com] And ran a small business…
[Senator Jackie Winters] Yeah, I ran a small business. We have to start thinking about the transference of skills. Sometimes we don’t do that. We’ve allowed ourselves to minimize who and what we are.
I lived in New York for a bit and although I didn’t like it, it was a huge big growth period for me. We have to get out of our comfort level. My comfort was here in Oregon with my family because that was my support system. And then in New York, I had to learn how to actually make decisions so that when trouble came my way, I overcame it.
[OnlineEducation.com] That’s true. I know that you have said that your reasons for joining the Republican party included that you were a small business owner and you support entrepreneurship and independence. To you, what does the Republican party stand for today?
[Senator Jackie Winters] Well, you have to remember that I admire Tom McCall and those who I’ve actually served under.
If you go back to the original principles of being a Republican—and I’m constantly telling everybody this—it was that rather than give you a fish, I should teach you how to fish to help you to become independent. That to me is the embodiment of the Republican party.
I think both parties have gone so wayward. They have become extreme on both sides to the point that they’ve forgotten about the middle. Debate and discussion of issues and ideas is healthy. When we stop doing that, we—not only in Oregon—collapse. It’s a huge mistake when we think it’s my way or the highway. Once I’m elected, I represent all of my district: Republican, Democrat, and Independent.
[OnlineEducation.com] Let me ask you this: do you consider yourself a feminist? And what does that mean to you?
[Senator Jackie Winters] I don’t know what that means to me! I like being a woman.
[OnlineEducation.com] Today is Oregon’s 160th birthday. Back then, our state’s constitution made it so that African Americans couldn’t own property, couldn’t work, and really couldn’t live here. It makes me very angry and sad to reflect on that. How you reconcile your love for this incredible state with that shameful past?
[Senator Jackie Winters] Well, that’s assuming that there is just one shameful past, whether it’s Oregon or whether it’s man’s inhumanity to man.
If you start talking about man’s inhumanity to man even before slavery, then you put it in its perspective. That’s what my father would say. If you don’t know history, you don’t know where you can go to improve it.
The important thing is that we’ve come to recognize it and change it. It was important to me coming back from New York to appreciate and to understand that not all the pieces were there. The Fair Housing Act, the Civil Rights Act and Movement…
Even though I was first denied access to business school, I ended up at the med school and got employment in 1959. It was very important because when I left Oregon, what was available to me as a black female was domestic. If you’re lucky, you got to be an elevator operator in Meier & Frank or change bedpans. That’s what was available.
So to return home and find that things had changed enough for me to go to university or medical school…it’s the change that’s important. If we stay stagnant you wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t be here.
When I look at things like giving voice to women, giving voice to the blacks and Hispanics…do you know the governors who did that? The Republican governors.
[OnlineEducation.com] Interesting. Do you think that it’s still that way?
[Senator Jackie Winters] We haven’t had a Republican governor since Vic. A long time ago, I didn’t concentrate on what happened in other states. My home is here. This is the state I make the investment in.
We often think they’re more enlightened someplace else. I remember when [my husband] Ted was invited by the federal government to come to Philadelphia. He and I took a little airplane jet to get there and I said, “Oh wow! I’m going to the City of Brotherly Love where everybody’s nice!” Well, it wasn’t. We found that the closer we got to the Pacific Northwest, the better. We were an interracial couple and I thought surely people are going to [give us problems], seeing us walking together hand in hand on the street. Here, there was nothing said or done about it.
I thought of New York as the melting pot before going there. Heck, they run from each other!
[OnlineEducation.com] I have one question about the Republican party. It’s no secret that it’s predominantly male and white. The Democratic party is arguably more reflective of the demographics of the nation. I’m wondering if your identity as an African American woman has ever come into tension with the demographics of your party?
[Senator Jackie Winters] No, but it has with the other one. The other party assumes that because I’m black, I am a Democrat. They assume that because I’m a member of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, that I’m a Democrat, too.
The first year I was here—I was elected in 1999—I got the Freshman of the Year award from the Republican party. I was a part of the Reagan progressive assembly of Republicans, which was predominantly black.
[OnlineEducation.com] I can see the Eleventh Commandment here…
[Senator Jackie Winters] Yes, I respect the Eleventh Commandment. The tragedy is that we did not continue what Reagan and Bush talked about: that the tent is large. Both said you’ve got to embrace all in order to be viable.
[OnlineEducation.com] There are many GOP policies today that don’t jive with that though. Just on a national level, with the Muslim ban or the immigration policy locking kids in cages; things like that don’t represent this original idea of the Republican party.
[Senator Jackie Winters] I think partly it’s because so much of the narrative has come from the national media. If you get painted into a corner constantly, you get tired of getting beat up.
Nobody talks about Condoleezza Rice; nobody talks about the Bushes; nobody talks about the policies of Reagan. For example, the set-aside program was not a democratic program; it was a Republican program from Nixon. Republicans also aren’t big on tooting their little horn. The other side is really good at using a concept that’s been done on this side and taking it as their own.
[OnlineEducation.com] Obamacare was based on Romney’s healthcare policy in Massachusetts…
[Senator Jackie Winters] We’re so competitive among D’s and R’s that we’ve forgotten who starts what and it gets warped. And I think that’s unfortunate. I think the demagoguery of both parties need to cease. It’s just awful. And I think the general public, the voter, is tired of us both. To be honest, I think they would like to see us sit down to work together and get the job done—what they sent us to do. They’re tired of the polarization; they’re tired of the fighting.
[OnlineEducation.com] What advice would you give to women and others who are interested in public service?
[Senator Jackie Winters] Oh, it’s wonderful. I would encourage any woman and any minority to seek office. It’s very rewarding to be doing something for others, shaping public policy, and giving voice. It’s very important that you’re able to hear from those voices outside of your own echo chamber.
We sometimes don’t like to say it, but it’s true: we bring a different perspective to the discussion. It’s the women that got together over the years and talked about the improvement of healthcare for women. There was a time when you couldn’t buy a house or have a credit card. It was the women who banded together in this building—Republican and Democrat. There are some issues that we deal with that don’t have an R or D by their name.
Recently, a report came out on the achievement gap between African American and white students in Portland. It was 53 percent. It was very disheartening and voices in that community need to be heard. And if you’re not a part of it, then like my dad said, you’re sitting on the couch. And you can’t sit in your living room or in your classroom and complain about it if you’re not willing to get up and do something.
[OnlineEducation.com] That’s why voting is so important.
[Senator Jackie Winters] The other thing that I think is important is that we spend too much time thinking about differences. We don’t spend enough time thinking about what we all have in common. King had it right: the judgment is not about the color of one’s skin, it’s about the character.
I like things very simple. From my years working at the med school, I saw we’re all the same. When you peel back all these layers of skin, we all bleed red. And in bleeding red, that’s our sameness. We don’t bleed yellow; we don’t bleed purple; but we get caught up in siloing rather than saying we’re all part of this human family.
[OnlineEducation.com] Do you think that there are legitimate instances of people being treated unfairly by those who have more privilege or power?
[Senator Jackie Winters] I think that it is inherent in man to flex. Go back through man’s history. Man’s history is about being better or one-upping the other man. Who’s the brightest and strongest? What we’re trying to do is to make man realize that you can still be powerful and you can still be who you are without doing damage to the other person.
[OnlineEducation.com] When you speak about man do you mean mankind or men as opposed to women?
[Senator Jackie Winters] I’m talking about mankind. Because women do the same thing, we just do it differently. We can get pretty catty. You see it in all the races. It’s because we don’t have that healthy respect that we need to have for each other.
I mentioned before that I feel very good in my skin. And I think that when one feels good about themself, they don’t need to step on anybody.
[OnlineEducation.com] That’s profound. I agree.