Redistrict Me This is a series of interviews with state legislators from across the United States. Conducted beginning in spring 2021, they will continue through the decennial redistricting process following the 2020 census. While we hope the unusual amount of national media attention to state-level politics generated by redistricting will spark interest in this series, we intend to go beyond the process story. We ask interviewees to examine how their foundational beliefs inform their approach to redistricting and their preferred outcomes. Though these interviews use redistricting as an anchor point, they are wide-ranging, exploring numerous topics both political and personal. We hope that, as a collection, they will shed light on how the men and women who draw the lines of our franchise both shape and are shaped by American democracy.
In this installment, we meet Oregon Representative Andrea Salinas. Rep. Salinas represents the 38th congressional district, Lake Oswego, where she lives with her husband, daughter, and labradoodle. She joined the legislature in 2017 after working as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill, and most recently in Oregon. She is the Co-Chair of the House Special Committee on Redistricting, the Vice-Chair of the House Committee on Healthcare, and the House Majority Whip.
Alexandra Vitkin: How did you know you wanted to work in politics and what was your path to the legislature?
Andrea Salinas: It was kind of a straightforward path. I thought it might be fun to do an internship when Senator Dianne Feinstein had this really big race against Michael Huffington in 1994. It was my final year at UC Berkeley, and I took my last semester to intern in her San Francisco district office. I really got the bug for politics. So, I took the LSAT because I thought I was going to go to law school. I didn’t do very well. I thought, “I’ll take the semester off,” and I went to Washington DC where I started working for Senator Harry Reid at his front desk. Again, I just really loved politics. I never took the LSAT again, and I ended up working on Capitol Hill for nine years doing tax and trade policy.
Eventually, I ended up working as a lobbyist doing some union lobbying for a couple years. Then, I had a baby and thought, “Oh my gosh, DC is not the place to raise a child,” so I moved to Oregon with my husband and our child. I worked for a congresswoman out here for a couple years. Then, I started state lobbying which I didn’t anticipate ever doing. I did that from 2009 to 2017.
In 2017, President Trump came to office; I had just helped to pass a number of bills, one of which was the most progressive reproductive health equity act in the nation. I had also recently helped to pass a bill that protected nighttime janitorial workers from getting raped by their managers. Anyway, we were at the height of all this hateful rhetoric emanating from the Trump administration when the legislator in my district stepped down. She was called upon to be a judge in Clackamas County. When she stepped down, I thought, “If not me, who?” Again, it was at the height of Trump’s hateful rhetoric, and on top of that, there was a lot of anger and awful anti-semitic and anti-BIPOC language coming out of the high school my daughter would be attending. As a mother and somebody who had been working on reproductive healthcare and equity legislation, I thought, “Yes, I should step in.” So ultimately, that’s how I ended up in the legislature—years of working on legislation and then stepping into the role.
AV: Aside from the reproductive healthcare legislation you worked on, what are your biggest legislative wins?
AS: The reproductive equity legislation for sure, but also helping people to gain access to healthcare more broadly. In 2019, we successfully passed a bill looking at hospital charity care and how hospitals measure and allocate this care. I believe this bill is being looked at nationwide. Essentially, many hospitals are considered non-profits, even though they feel profitable. Hospitals put money away in reserves for charity care, but there’s no measure of how much free or non-profit care hospitals are supposed to provide their patients. The bill is intended to determine how the Oregon Health Authority will set up a floor for the minimum amount of charity care that hospitals must provide their patients.
AV: Has that legislation evolved at all in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic?
AS: This legislation is very new. As far as I know, the first round of the Oregon Health Authority assessing the hospital system and its allocation of charity care was set to begin this past January or February, so we have yet to see what happens. But again, it’s all relevant. You enter a pandemic, and people aren’t able to access adequate healthcare, especially those who are uninsured. I’m Latina, and you’re seeing it a lot in the BIPOC community. People in BIPOC communities have more limited access to healthcare and are getting sicker and dying at faster rates than the general population.
AV: Yes, and the quality of care that BIPOC communities do receive is so often not of the same quality.
AS: Right, or these communities just don’t have access to care. So it boils down to these hospitals, which are presumably non-profits, and how they are communicating with their patients. Are they turning patients away? Are they not letting their patients know that they are non-profits? All of that needs to be addressed, and this bill is supposed to address a portion of those concerns.
AV: You serve as the Chair of the House Special Committee on Redistricting. How did you come by this position? Why did you want to serve on this committee?
AS: Well, this has taken a circuitous route because I was the chair, and now I’m the co-chair. Just last week, the Speaker of the House made a deal with the Republicans to even out the distribution of parties on the committee. Now, our six-person committee is split evenly between the Republicans and the Democrats. As part of this decision, there’s now a Republican co-chair.
I think the reason the Speaker wanted me to chair the House committee was because I served
as the co-chair of the Oregon Complete Count Committee, which led the efforts to secure the hard-to-count population in the 2019 census count. As co-chair of that committee, I helped secure around $7.5 million for Oregon to invest in identifying our hard-to-count population. Oregon had never previously invested in the census count, but we knew that we were slated to pick up a congressional seat, and to do that, we needed to have an accurate and complete count. The hard-to-count population is generally composed of our BIPOC communities, multi-generational homes, people with young children, our homeless population, and our veterans. We decided to invest in our community-based organizations to ensure that they could be part of the complete count; they deployed grassroots organizing tactics to meet folks where they were.
The Speaker knew that I have good relationships in those communities, so she wanted me to take that work from securing the hard-to-count numbers for the census and apply it to redistricting. I think that it’s the same type of work that you want to see in terms of the redistricting process, at least here in Oregon. We’re a very white state traditionally, and we have some, I think some, well, I’ll just say it, we have a history of racism and of white bias. We want to make sure that we are adhering to the Voting Rights Act and hearing all voices. So I think that’s why she asked me to chair the committee, and I believe she did a great job of choosing the other two Democratic committee members. Representative Pham is from the API community, and Representative Campos is Latina. So, the entire committee on the Democratic side is BIPOC.
AV: How were your efforts to secure the hard-to-count population numbers affected by former President Trump’s attempts to exclude undocumented people from the census count?
AS: It was a roller coaster ride. First, we were fighting about whether or not the question was going to be on the census form. Then COVID-19 hit, and that posed a serious challenge and has caused significant delays. In my opinion, we would’ve been in a very difficult place had we not invested that money in engaging our community-based organizations in the hard-to-count process.
They were truly the ones who were able to reach out to communities and remain trusted sources in the counting process. They were able to knock on doors even during COVID, make phone calls, and have access to people who may not otherwise have participated in the count. If we’d just sent out enumerators and people that they didn’t know, there would’ve been no trust in our process because of the actions of the Trump administration.
It was really wise of the state to have that kind of foresight, knowing that the Trump administration was scaring people. His administration scared all of our communities, so people didn’t want to raise their hands and say, “Yes, I’m here, I live here.” You need to count everybody; it doesn’t matter if you’re undocumented or if you’re a refugee. Everybody who is in your state at the time that you are counting needs to be counted.
AV: What is your vision for the ideal outcome of the redistricting process in Oregon?
AS: This is an interesting question because I just came from my BIPOC caucus meeting, and we had some folks stop in from a group called the New Oregon Movement which are all BIPOC organizations who are coming together to address this question. My ideal process—and I think my counterpart on the Senate side, Chair Taylor, feels similarly—is that we really want to uplift the Voting Rights Act to make sure all voices are heard in the discussion about what the lines should look like.
What I am learning about this process is that unless you have an attorney, unless you have somebody who can draw maps, unless you can afford contractors, you’re not really part of this process. Basically, you need a lot of money to participate. Within the legislature, we obviously have people who are experts at mapmaking, and we have one attorney who works on redistricting. I’m trying to demystify what this process is to make it as transparent as possible. If everyday Oregonians want to participate in redistricting, they should be able to. This is the first time where I feel like we’re truly democratizing the map-making process. We’re going to publish the actual application for map-making, so the public has access to it. I want our BIPOC communities to be able to access the map-making application in a really meaningful way, so they know the difference between a census tract and a census block and how you can manipulate or play around with the numbers. I want people to be able to identify and tell the narratives around their communities of interest and what’s important to them, and what’s required by statute and the Constitution. There are so many different rules between statutes and the Constitution, both at the federal level and the state level, so I want to be able to educate people and help bring them along in the process.
AV: Is there an established pathway for members of your constituency or Oregonians in general to provide the House Redistricting Committee with feedback?
AS: Not yet. We have had ten hearings where people have been able to come and say, “Tell us about our existing maps. Tell us where you think things are. Where you think communities of interest lie. Where transportation links are.” The hard part about the delay of the census data is we haven’t had real data to utilize to form and inform. So it’s been really difficult. I think we’re going to take another shot at looking at different counties and the county lines, looking at what the 2011 data was, and then what we think the data shows from the American Community Survey. We know it won’t be the actual census data, but we can start getting an idea of what the changes have been. For example, we can look at how demographics have shifted and how school district numbers have changed since 2011. Some patterns might become visible from the American Community Survey data, but until you have the actual census numbers, which we’re not expecting to get until mid-August, it will be very hard for people to actually start to manipulate the maps. Once we have the census data, it’s going to be a very fast process.
AV: Do you believe there are currently gerrymandered districts in Oregon?
AS: I hear that notion tossed around so much, but I actually don’t think there are gerrymandered districts in Oregon.
Essentially, I feel like you can make an argument for anything. You can pull out one piece and say, “This is gerrymandered because you only put one piece of that requirement in there, or this is gerrymandered because it only includes this transportation link and doesn’t include this community.” But what you’re missing is, it doesn’t include the entire population. We heard a lot of testimony over the last few weeks about different congressional districts where people said, “This is gerrymandered because you took the University of Oregon and this huge population center like Eugene, for example, and you split it up into four or five different Democratic districts when you should’ve kept it concentrated.” Well you can’t do that because you’d have one concentrated district with too many people in it. You have to divvy up large population centers, and I don’t think people understand that. Yes, you don’t want to split up communities of interest, and you do want to keep transportation lines and links, but you have to pay attention to where population lines fall. You can’t have half a million people in one legislator’s district and thirty thousand in another legislator’s district. That’s not going to work. It has to be an equal population, and nobody was talking about that, which was funny to me because population is the idea underpinning all of this.
AV: And population centers just happen to skew heavily Democratic.
AS: Yes, in Oregon especially, that’s exactly right. We have to pull some of those population centers into more rural areas. Of course there are pieces of Portland that don’t necessarily match up with some of the rural areas that we link them to, but we have to distribute the population across multiple districts. You have to try to figure out where the population centers are, and then how they can be logically linked with transportation and communities of interest.
AV: Have you given any thought to how the other committee members might approach the process?
AS: I’ve been including my co-chair in almost everything. There haven’t been a lot of surprises up until this point. Well, on the Republican side, everything feels very political because all three committee members are part of party leadership. In general, there have been no secrets so far. But we don’t have the data, so it’s hard to say what will happen. I spoke to one reporter locally where I said, “I think this can be a totally non-partisan process,” and he started laughing. I said, “Was that a little too Pollyannish?” and he said, “I think so.”
So yes, I suppose this is one of the most partisan efforts one can partake in. As I said, once the data comes in, the process will be very quick. But I’ll be curious to see what [the Republicans] come up with in terms of maps and map-making, and then what we come up with.
AV: Moving on from redistricting, do you think that Electoral College votes should be allocated based on congressional districts (i.e. Nebraska and Maine) rather than the winner-take-all approach?
AS: I’ve seen data and statistics for both arguments, but I feel like we need to go to the popular vote.
AV: So your stance would be to abolish the Electoral College?
AS: I think so, yes. You know, even having senators in states with so few people outweighing other states can get tricky. California, for example, has so many people, yet two senators like every other state. That just doesn’t sit well with me. But I suppose the Senate is its own beast.
So I ask myself, “What’s fair?” And I get it, we’ve had the Electoral College for a long time. But also, as I said, I worked on Capitol Hill for years, and I was in the minority. When I worked for Senator Harry Reid and Congressman Pete Stark, we were in the minority under Bill Clinton, and then again under George Bush. Being in the minority is really hard, especially when you feel like you don’t have a voice. So I understand what that feels like, but I also get the sense that individuals don’t believe they have a voice and are getting ignored. Maybe moving to the popular vote could alleviate some of that sentiment.
AV: When you abolish the Electoral College, with the population centers, Democrats would win most of the time, so do you think you’d feel differently about moving towards a national popular vote if this wasn’t the case?
AS: For me, it’s a sense of justice. I feel like people don’t feel like it’s just; you don’t have a sense of one person, one vote without the national popular vote. It feels like it’s a little skewed.
AV: On that note, to conclude our interview, what is one piece of advice you have for college students?
AS: Don’t get down, just get involved. You all are already so much more involved than I was when I was younger. At [UC Berkeley], I thought I was avant garde because I was interested in the apartheid movement and getting all these big investment firms like Bank of America out of South Africa, but you all have so much more that you’re interested in. Just keep at it. I feel like I’m getting ready to pass the baton and the leaders emerging in your generation are incredible. You’re all doing so much more at younger ages. Go do it. Don’t wait for permission. Just go do it.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.