The Board of Commissioners on Thursday unanimously appointed Travis Nelson to fill the Oregon Legislature’s vacant House District 44 seat in North and Northeast Portland.
Nelson, a Democrat, will serve the remaining term of House Speaker Tina Kotek who resigned from both her leadership role and her seat on Friday, Jan. 21. His appointment comes just days before lawmakers launch a 35-day session on Feb. 1.
District 44 is 60 districts in the Oregon House of Representatives. The District, which falls entirely within Multnomah County’s boundaries, has approximately 70,620 residents.
Commissioners chose Nelson from a ranked list of four nominees selected by District 44’s local Democratic Party committee members. The nominees, in order of preference, were Nelson, Eric Delehoy, Rita Moore and Marc Koller. Moore later withdrew her nomination.
“Your experience as a nurse, as a labor organizer, and as an advocate for healthcare/health workers, and all essential workers is experience we need in the legislature,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, whose district overlaps with District 44, told Nelson. “You’ve demonstrated the ability to advocate for your values and beliefs, to bridge differences, and to elevate the voices of those who are too often not heard.”
The grandson of sharecroppers, Nelson was born in a small, rural town in Louisiana. His parents moved him and his sister to the Pacific Northwest to pursue a better life. He worked odd jobs to pay tuition at a community college. Nelson later graduated from Washington State University with a degree in nursing.
In 2005, he moved to the Portland area. He became a board-certified registered nurse and worked shifts in the emergency room and the intensive care unit. He also served on the leadership team of a physical rehabilitation unit.
Nelson said he has seen the impacts of COVID-19 firsthand. That expertise as a frontline healthcare worker is critical as Oregon seeks to recover from the pandemic, he said.
“The pandemic has shown how broken our healthcare system truly is,” Nelson said, “and it’s important that we have nurses in the Legislature to do the work of repairing the cracks in our healthcare system and to ensure that we are ready when the next pandemic inevitably strikes.”
Nelson is vice president of the Oregon Nurses Association, a founding member of the Alliance of Black Nurses of Oregon, and a delegate to the Democratic National Committee. He also served as a union labor representative for nine years, advocating for better working conditions for nurses.
Nelson received endorsements from Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, Oregon Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle, and several large Oregon labor unions.
Nelson is the Legislature’s first Black LGBTQ+ member and the only Black man currently serving in the House.
“People like me are too often told that we aren’t supposed to run for office, or to wait our turn,” Nelson said. “I want an Oregon where your skin color, the amount of money you’re born with, gender identity, or who you love shouldn’t be barriers to achieving your dreams.”
The appointment hearing included public comment, including 48 written submissions and testimonials from four speakers. Each nominee had two minutes to deliver opening statements, followed by questions from the commissioners, and then time for closing statements.
Commissioners asked the nominees about some of the most pressing issues facing Multnomah County, including housing and homelessness, gun violence, equity, public safety, and health.
“As we move beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, what will you do to ensure our public health system is ready for the next pandemic?” Commissioner Lori Stegmann asked.
Citing his tenure on the Oregon Health Equity Task Force, Nelson advocated for more investments in mobile health units. He said expanding the mobile health unit program could meaningfully improve public health by making healthcare more accessible to diverse communities.
“Having those around the County, where healthcare could be readily accessible, would be absolutely phenomenal,” he said, “because we know people are more likely to get the treatment for their conditions if you take the care to them, rather than expect them to come to you.”
As an emergency room physician and behavioral healthcare advocate, Commissioner Sharon Meieran asked the nominees how they would work to address Oregon’s behavioral health crisis. “As a legislator, what would you do to support local communities like ours in building the behavioral health needs of the people we are so desperately trying to serve?”
Nelson said Multnomah County should receive more money for behavioral health, because of its state-leading population. He also called for more investments in wraparound services to ensure people have the stability they need to stay housed and recover.
“Before you address the mental health crisis of somebody who’s houseless, you’ve got to make sure they have housing first and then make sure they have drug treatment, job training, and mental health services,” he said. “More money needs to go towards wraparound services.”
After each nominee delivered a two-minute closing statement, Board members commented on the group’s combined qualifications and breadth of their experience. But the Board was unified in their support for Nelson.
“For me, the priority is putting someone who is going to jump in and work effectively from day one, to take advantage of the opportunities that this session offers to improve the lives of Oregonians, to improve the lives of people from House District 44, and the bigger work we have of people who have been and still are so greatly impacted by COVID, by racism, and so many other inequalities in our society,” said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. “Because of that, I’m going to be supporting Travis Nelson.”
“I think my colleagues have expressed a lot of the thoughts I had, as well,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “I, as well, am going to cast my vote for Travis Nelson this morning.”
Nelson followed the vote with some brief remarks, pledging to advocate for Multnomah County at the state level.
“I appreciate the confidence that you have expressed in me,” Nelson said. “I want to do the absolute best that I can to represent the citizens and diversity of House District 44. If there’s anything you need from me, know that I’m only a call away.”