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Across Oregon, a historic number of candidates of color are running for elected office—and many have a solid chance of winning on Tuesday. But as two Multnomah County races show, with more diverse candidates come new, important questions around the role of race in political campaigns—and how a candidate of color’s past experiences might be viewed differently than a white candidate’s.
For Rima Ghandour, an Arab American immigrant and candidate in an unusually competitive Multnomah County judge race, that issue is apparent in how her white opponent, Adrian Brown, represents Ghandour’s relevant experience in a campaign mailer. Specifically, the mailer suggests that where Brown has extensive “court reform” experience, Ghandour has “none.”
What made the mailer upsetting to Ghandour, who owns an insurance law firm, is that she has a track record of providing pro-bono services and volunteer work meant to make the criminal justice system fairer for people of color.
In political campaigns, and especially political advertisements, it’s common for politicians to highlight their own record while casting doubt on their opponent’s—but Ghandour says Brown’s mailer goes beyond that. She adds that the negative impact of this ad was exacerbated by Brown’s issuing an Arabic-translated version of the mailer, in which Ghandour’s record on court reform is described with a word meaning “nothing” or “no one.”
“It was really disheartening,” Ghandour says about the mailer, which she initially saw in Arabic, her first language. “To have that be referred to as ‘nothing’ and ‘nobody’—so who is the ‘nobody’?” she said. “The community I’m helping? Or me?”
Ghandour’s experience includes providing pro-bono work for immigrants who’ve been granted temporary residency under the DREAM Act, and organizing a group of attorneys and translators to go to airports in Portland and Seattle in 2017 to assist travelers after Donald Trump instated a travel ban against people from seven Muslim-majority countries. As a board member and past president of the Multnomah County Bar Association, Ghandour presented to judges in Multnomah County about the experience of Muslim people in America’s criminal justice system, and organized panels around transgender rights, disability awareness, and the experiences of houseless people.
“When the travel ban happened, Rima was one of the first lawyers at Sea-Tac [Seattle’s airport] on the ground, providing pro-bono legal work,” says Sahar Muranovic, a David Douglas School Board member who supports Ghandour’s campaign. “She’s very known and connected in the immigrant community, in the BIPOC community. The mailer, where it says [‘none’], felt a little inappropriate.”
In the mailer, Brown highlighted her own record as a civil rights attorney who worked for the US Department of Justice (DOJ) under the Obama Administration, during which she won a settlement against the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) that required PPB to improve the way it treated people experiencing mental illness. That record might be more easily recognizable as court reform work than Ghandour’s pro-bono and volunteer work. But Ghandour says the omission of her work is reminiscent of the way people of color and immigrants are often expected to perform sometimes intangible diversity work in their industries without recognition. It also brought her back to other experiences she’s had in her career, when colleagues underestimated her abilities or condescendingly told her she speaks English well.
“There are all examples of things that are not traditionally seen,” she says. “But they are important to the community, and important to trying to move the needle toward inclusion and acceptance of people of color in the legal profession.”
Brown tells the Mercury that she thought it was important to translate her mailer into nine different languages to ensure accessibility, and that she paid a professional translation service for the Arabic mailer.
In an interview with the Mercury, Brown defended the mailer’s comparison between her and Ghandour’s records. The American Bar Association does not allow judicial candidates to campaign on political issues, she points out, meaning all she can run on is her experience.
“This has never been about degrading Rima’s experience as an immigrant,” Brown says. “This is a competitive judicial race that is about a difference between someone who’s chosen public service and civil rights, and someone who’s chosen private defense and the business of practicing law.”
“I really saw this race as not identity, but as experience,” she adds. “Rima’s experience as a woman of color is a fact, and it doesn’t trump the fact that I’m a civil rights attorney with a record that’s unique.”
Musse Olol, the chairman of the Somali American Council of Oregon, sits on the steering committee of Brown’s campaign. He first met her when she was working on civil rights issues with the DOJ.
“She’s created this bridge—a bridge that actually has maintained the last 10 years,” Olol says. “Somebody asked me, ‘Why don’t you support the Muslim candidate?’ and I said ‘I’m supporting the candidate that I think is most beneficial to the community. And that is Adrian to me.’”
In Gresham, another campaign mailer is causing a stir in the mayoral campaign—though rather than omitting a candidate’s experience, this one is under scrutiny for the experience it highlights.
Eddy Morales, a current member of the Gresham City Council, is running for mayor among a crowded field of mayoral candidates. A recent PAC-funded campaign mailer attacks Morales’ record of criminal charges, most of which are now over 15 years old.
“A lifetime of criminal activity… and now wants to be your mayor? [sic]” the mailer reads.
Morales has been candid about his brushes with the criminal justice system when he was a teenager and young adult, and even referenced them when testifying in favor of youth criminal justice reform before the Oregon Legislature. The one recent charge listed, for driving under the influence in 2017, was dropped before it went to trial. The mailer also lists infractions Morales’ business incurred for not paying taxes on time.
For Morales, the focus on his criminal record—and use of a mug shot—equate to a racist dog whistle.
“My teenage past are things that I’ve really been open about,” Morales says. “I don’t know that, had I not been a person of color or LGBTQ+, they would’ve taken that tack… It’s unfortunate someone would try to use my past to shame me, and shame other people in our community who have things in their past.”
But the part of the mailer that irks Morales the most isn’t the focus on his own record—it’s that it attacks Morales for supporting antifascist and Black Lives Matter activists. A photo of Morales with a Black Lives Matter sign is featured, as is the word “Antifa” stylized in large, bold letters.
“They started attacking me for standing up for Black lives,” Morales says.
The PAC behind the mailer is Oregon Progressives for Accountability. Its director, Patrick Sheehan, is a real estate agent and former Republican member of the Oregon House of Representatives. Sheehan dismisses Morales’ issues with the mailer in an email to the Mercury.
“With the content of the mailer laser-focused on Morales’ history of documented criminal activity —complete with citations and links to the raw police reports—it’s an obvious manipulation by his campaign to draw such a bizarre and dishonest conclusion,” he says. “We pulled a [Black Lives Matter] photo off the internet that was selected because it was suitable for print resolution, that’s all.”
But for Morales, the mailer points to anxieties over a changing political reality in Gresham.
“For the last 20 years, our city has been run by a really small group of conservative Republicans who are all members of our Chamber of Commerce,” he says. “I think this year, we’re on the cusp of changing that… This small group of people who have really enriched themselves over the last 20 years are afraid of losing control.”