Carmen Rubio finally feels prepared for the next challenge of her life — becoming the first Latina member of the Portland City Council in a transformational time.
"Sometimes in the past, I've felt like an impostor," said Rubio, who was elected to succeed retiring commissioner Amanda Fritz at the May 2020 primary election and sworn into office on Dec. 28. "But now I feel like all of my experiences have prepared me for this."
Rubio's previous doubts will sound familiar to many members of immigrant families who broke down barriers. The daughter of Mexican and Mexican-American farmworkers who grew up in Hillsboro, she was the first member of her family to graduate from college, after almost dropping out because she felt so isolated. Inspired by groundbreaking Latina Multnomah County Commission candidate Serena Cruz, Rubio quit a secure job to work on Cruz's 1998 general election campaign, even though she had no such experience. After later going to work for Mayor Tom Potter, Rubio was tasked with reaching out to immigrant and refugee communities when no one else in Portland government was. And she was recruited to run the Latino Network with no previous management experience, growing it from a $500,000 to $10 million nonprofit organization.
"There have been many times when I felt like I didn't know what I was doing," said Rubio, who nevertheless built a large network of supporters over the years because of her collaborative approach to problem solving.
One of them was the late City Commissioner Nick Fish, who hired her after first being elected in 2009 to help work on his priorities, including creating the Portland Housing Bureau to increase the supply of affordable housing and to reduce homelessness. In fact, Rubio said, it was Fish who told her she needed to run for the council the year before he passed away from cancer in January of this year. The fateful call came in early April 2019.
"We talked all the time after I left his office to run the Latino Network," Rubio said. "One day he called and said that Commissioner Fritz was going to announce she was not going to run for reelection in a few hours, and he wanted me to do it. He told me I was ready and he would support me."
At the time, Rubio was seething with anger over President Trump's ongoing targeting of immigrants and other communities of color.
"I was angry and disgusted at the Trump administration blatantly and without-shame targeting poor people and people of color. I felt all of the unique opportunities I had allowed me to get to the point where I had a responsibility to use my privilege to advocate for social justice. I knew he was right, and it was time to walk my talk," Rubio said.
Rubio became the prohibitive front runner in the race among political insiders even before she announced for the office in July 2019. Fish kept his promise and called his extensive list of friends and supporters on her behalf after she told him she would run. Fish even called news reporters before Rubio announced to say he supported her and she would win.
Fish's endorsement carried weight. At the time, he was talking optimistically about his cancer diagnosis and maintaining a busy schedule. But he was losing so much weight, it was apparent he was anointing a spiritual successor as much as endorsing a candidate. By then, Fish was widely regarded for his moderation and consensus-building skills.
No one else with significant name familiarity even filed for the seat. Rubio secured endorsements from a wide range of business, community, political, environmental and labor leaders and organizations. Participating in Portland's new Open and Accountable public campaign financing program, she easily outraised the other eight candidates in the race with $89,254 in small contributions and $164,352 in city matching funds.
The support paid off. Rubio won the election outright in the primary with 67% of the vote. Her closest opponent, civil rights activist Candace Avalos, received just 9%.
Rubio's win was acknowledged in the press at the time as a breakthrough because of her heritage. But it was quickly overshadowed by the three council elections that went to runoff elections because no candidate received more than 50% of the vote. Former Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith and longtime school supporter Dan Ryan faced off at an August special election. Mayor Ted Wheeler was forced into a runoff against left-wing challenger Sarah Iannarone at the November general election. That was when progressive Commissioner Chloe Eudaly was pitted against the more moderate former professor Mingus Mapps.
Although it wasn't clear at the time, Rubio's primary election victory foretold how the other council races would turn out. Although a progressive, Rubio was more moderate than some of the other candidates in the race. Likewise, the more moderate candidates won the runoff elections. Ryan received 51% of the vote in the special election, Mapps received 56% in the November election, and Wheeler won a second term in the same election with 46% compared to 41% for Iannarone and 13% for write-in candidates.
The next council will not be as racially diverse as it might have been because Ryan, a gay man, defeated Smith, a Black woman. But it will still include a Latina and two Black commissioners — Mapps and Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty — who is now the second-longest-serving member behind Wheeler.
Rubio is not bothered by the relative lack of attention she's received since being elected to the council.
"I'm used to working behind the scenes. It was a big decision to run for office. But it was the right thing to do," Rubio said.
Like the other council members, Rubio said her priorities have been reshaped by the turmoil of this unprecedented year. She still ranks the issues she originally ran on high, including the need for more affordable housing to reduce homelessness and the expansion of Portland parks and recreation programs to better service low income communities.
But although Rubio also supported police and criminal justice reform, she now sees it as an even more critical issue following the months of social justice protests following the May 25 death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in the custody of the Minneapolis police.
Rubio also said she learned more about the need to fight climate change during the campaign.
"I was impressed by the energy of young people who say we need to support community-based energy alternatives. I need to learn more so I can be a better leader on those issues," Rubio said.
But even more important, Rubio said, is the need for all levels of governments to better prepare for the next crisis. That includes closing the digital divide and eliminating other disparities laid bare by this year's series of crises.
Last week, Wheeler assigned Rubio two of her priority bureaus. She will oversee Portland Parks & Recreation, which she sees as essential for ensuring equality across the city, and the Office of Community Technology, which she believes should bridge the digital divide exposed during the pandemic.
For once, Rubio said she is approaching the challenge with confidence.
"I don't feel like an impostor now. I feel like I'm prepared for this."