Kathryn Harrington, Washington County Chair – Candidate Interview
WCD: How do your values and those of the Democratic party align?
Well, I was really careful to reacquaint myself with the Democratic party and policies, as part of completing the endorsement process. What I fundamentally believe in is a set of democratic values that allows the opportunity for everyone to thrive and have the opportunity to succeed. I like to speak from examples: what people have seen from me is making sure your county government is open and transparent. We have adopted equity as one of our core values, and we have been operationalizing equity throughout our programs and in the use of our public resources. And to me, that is one of the strongest values, Democratic progressive values, that we have. As we recover from the pandemic, when I think about what the county does–part of what the county does is public health. And we have worked very hard to serve our community. That is why we have one of the highest vaccination rates. We were also helping individuals and families during the pandemic, and also operationalizing equity in that.
When people elected me in 2018, and I started in January of 2019–it’s a new day in Washington County. We now embrace a full portfolio of responsibilities. We understand that we are a safety net government–that is also a value. Also, with me getting elected, we are now a progressive majority, and we have transformed our service to the community to where it’s based on community need, which really comes into play with budgets and implementation. We now look at “What does the community need?” Not “How much money do we have?” Money is important, but we have to look at what are the problems we need to solve, and go look for those funds to solve those problems. I specifically center the underprivileged and underrepresented in my work, and I really work to make sure that their voices are at our table. So I’ve worked very hard to ensure that we are broadening our outreach, whether it’s through our town halls, or new ways for people to reach us through email. And we have a much stronger relationship with community organizations, such as Centro Cultural and APANO.
I’ve also done work to ensure that we have more job training access, as well as availability of affordable child care and preschool access. How can we make sure working parents can show up to work? We’ve really expanded our program through the pandemic to support more child care, we’ve used the ARPA federal funds to provide grants, to help the child care facilities increase their capacity, and we’ve adopted an equitable development framework for that. We were also using the equity lens for the financial assistance we were offering businesses during the pandemic.
WCD: What else did we learn from the pandemic experience?
During the pandemic, I pursued every idea to prevent one more death, one more person from suffering with illness. After work, I had to turn off my Facebook, because my newsfeed was so filled with hate. It was very hard on me, it hurt my heart. But I learned from that, aren’t we all works in progress?
Another thing the pandemic taught me: communication is so vital. This virus was so new. Me and my colleagues, we set up so many forums, so that no matter who had questions, they could get information.
WCD: Which elected official do you most admire and why?
There are two that have really inspired me: one is former governor Barbara Roberts, but also Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici. She is so intelligent, and she works hard to be out in the community. Something she excels at–that I’m trying to work on every day–she is such a gracious and graceful person.
I am a hard driver, I don’t want to waste a single moment of us having this progressive majority, because it can change in one election, so I’ve pushed really hard to make the changes that I believe our community needs. What I learned was that I ran into an organization that was very hierarchical, very siloed, very set in its ways. Processes, whether formal or informal, had been in place for decades, with no standards for excellence. Continuous improvement is now an expectation. But as you can imagine, there has been some resistance. Change can be hard on some folks. Modern practices are now the norm in our workforce culture. It’s been hard to keep the board focused on equity and environmental issues, especially those members who prefer the status quo. Political change is necessary, and yes, it can make for difficult policymaking, but that is something I don’t shy away from. I have brought a lot of drive and passion to the work, and I have realized that in breaking new ground, that can involve rubble. We have to embrace the fact that we are facing serious issues, like climate change and racial justice. Working families need us to do a better job.
WCD: What are your strategies for dealing with homelessness in the county?
We have chosen a housing first approach because it’s proven and it works. It is hard because it can take a little time, but it’s effective, and we have many many stories about how providing different types of shelter works. For some people, they just need a housing voucher. For others, they just need to connect to bridge services. We had one gentleman with his wife and support dog–we helped them get support housing at the shelter in Hillsboro, and he told us, “Wow, now I’ve been able to apply for Social Security and disability. I wasn’t able to do that before because I was too busy worrying about where my next meal was coming from.”
Some people just need some job skills, and we’ve done that. Other people need mental health support, for some it’s addiction support. We’re also partnering not only with community organizations, to make sure the services are culturally appropriate, but also with the school district, to make sure that if there are homeless families in the district, they can receive assistance. These things work. And we are getting better at telling the stories.
And we have a homeless encampment program, where we can help people move from camping in their tents to these other bridge programs. People are frustrated, and I can understand why they’re frustrated. We have to be thoughtful, compassionate and humane, but we also have to follow the law and the law doesn’t allow us to tell people that they have to go to these places, or to force people to go there.
But it’s working. It’s getting better.
WCD: The population of Washington County is growing. How do you deal with the need for more housing, and more density in housing, while preserving livability?
We need more styles of housing. So this is where the state legislature said “Okay, local government, you’ve gotta do a better job.” There’s House Bill 2001, which says we’ve all gotta have mechanisms in place that allow duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes in single family neighborhoods, that should allow, if the market deploys properly, for people to get into the housing market. You know, when I was 24, for my first home, I bought a garden-style condo. It was a two-bedroom apartment, it wasn’t a single home with a yard, but that was okay. It allowed me to get into the housing market and build equity.
The other component to that is there are many people who are struggling to make ends meet. The cost of housing–there’s a big gap between what people earn for income and what they can get in the market. There are three things I wanna share: We’re implementing the affordable housing bond. We’ve already opened two new apartment complexes, to the tune of almost 200 apartments, and we have another 812 that are in the construction pipeline. In addition to that, we the county, through the Housing Authority, we own almost 900 affordable apartments. We’re doubling our portfolio, thanks to the affordable housing bond.
Then the third thing is we provide rental assistance vouchers–they’re another tool that helps bridge the gap between people’s income and housing, and they help provide housing stability. We’ve provided 3200 vouchers–these go to our low income families and individuals, individuals who are experiencing houselessness, veterans. And because of our Housing Authority, we’ve been provided funding for an additional 500 units. Our team has really been innovative these last three years. With my leadership, they’ve been able to pursue more of these funding opportunities.
The board has finally embraced that we are a safety net government. The prior regime believed that if you fell into difficulty, it was because of bad decisions you made. We all have difficulties at different times in our lives. We all deserve the opportunity to thrive, and that is a value I believe in to the core of my person. And that is why I made the career change to run for office and give back to the community that’s given me so much. You know, I went to public schools, my father was in the military. I depended on public programs. I got to see all kinds of different states, and learned about equity and racism at a very young age growing up in the South. So I’ve been deeply committed to looking at things through the equity lens. Equity, racial justice, social justice–this is who I am. And I’ve learned that my passion has really struck people who have not wanted to see any change, who really wanted the status quo. And I have really seen that these changes can be very hard on some people. But that does not mean I should have to move to the center. I should not have to compromise my progressive values, and I will not.
WCD: What is your strategy for dealing with the climate crisis, and how do we prepare for more extreme weather, like more heat waves and wildfire smoke?
What did we learn from (the heat wave)? We opened cooling centers right away, including shelters that accepted pets, which hadn’t been done before. I participated in a training session with the health department and emergency services, and found that the system people called to get help–211–it wasn’t operational 24/7. So people were calling and getting no answer. We made sure 211 became a 24/7 service, and that funding has been continued for another year, but it isn’t permanent yet, so that’s another thing we have to work on this year.
The second thing–we can no longer expect our most vulnerable residents to leave their home to get to a cooling shelter. We have to find ways to help people shelter in place. So for example in the short legislative session, and I wanna give credit to Beaverton Mayor Lacey Beaty for this, they adopted a “right to cool” law. So some apartment complexes that did not allow people to install AC, those restrictions are no longer being allowed. We also need to invest more and ensure that the most vulnerable community members are able to purchase and afford those AC units. We have to think of this just like we would think about people who are on dialysis. We have to figure out a system, as a state, to ensure they can get the care they need at home.
We have a whole other body of work around ensuring that we have safe and secure access to water. We learned a lot from the fires in 2020, about what it’s like to shelter in place from the smoke and fire pollution. Rather than think of these events as one-offs, we have to think holistically and think of the continuous nature of these events. What that means is that we have to prepare right now, in March, for the upcoming summer.
WCD: Is there anything else I’ve missed?
One of our big priorities in 2019 was the need to develop a new county strategic plan with our community. The current one that we are using was developed in the 1980s. We’re in the 21st century now, and we have 21st century problems, like climate change, racial justice and population growth. Also, the shifting demographics in the county–we’re far more ethnically diverse than we’ve ever been. The county strategic plan needs to reflect that.
I have learned that there have been some folks that have been really off-put by my drive and my passion. And it is true that the work culture at the county is changing, and I’ve ensured that we’re doing our work transparently, and modernizing our work processes. I’m not perfect, each one of us as humans, we’re a work in progress, and I’ll continue to do my best each and every day.
I’m really proud that two of my commission colleagues that see my work every day, based on my values, support me in this very hard work we’re doing together. And my ongoing focus is on the work that needs to be done to help families, as we work to recover from COVID-19 and build a county which allows everyone to thrive. I do believe that we can have a bright and hopeful future. I hope that the voters of Washington County support me as I run for my second term.
Learn more about Kathryn Harrington, Candidate for Washington County Chair, at her campaign website.