On paper, Jamie McLeod-Skinner might seem a long shot to win Oregon’s conservative Second Congressional District.
She’s female, a Democrat and gay.
McLeod-Skinner, 50, last year joined a crush of other female candidates vying for a Congressional seat nationwide. The wave of women included 339 Democrats and 92 Republicans.
McLeod-Skinner prevailed over six rivals to win the primary and take on Oregon Rep. Greg Walden in November. The Republican incumbent leads the state’s massive Second Congressional District, encompassing Eastern Oregon and most of southwestern Oregon. Walden, who has breezed through the past 10 elections with ease, chairs the House Energy & Commerce Committee.
Eastern Oregonians have known Walden for 20 years, but McLeod-Skinner is a less familiar name, though she’s logged around 40,000 miles in a quest to get to know the constituents in the 65,491-square-mile district.
Recently, she agreed to talk about her life and what led her to run against an incumbent who is lodged firmly in the upper echelons of Congress. She sat down at a table upstairs in the loft of the Hamley Cafe in Pendleton, nursing a cup of something caffeinated. She admitted she’d been up late giving her dog a tomato juice bath after he tangled with a skunk.
She settled back and pondered a question about the path leading to her candidacy, took a sip and got started. There was a lot to tell.
McLeod-Skinner spent her early life in Wisconsin, the daughter of a single mom who drove school bus and picked apples to make ends meet. When McLeod-Skinner was nine, her mom took a teaching job in the East African country of Tanzania. The little girl attended a school where the kids spoke English in class and Swahili at recess. When Idi Amin invaded Tanzania two years later, her mother sent her to a boarding school in Kenya for her safety. There McLeod-Skinner learned how to play soccer.
“Girls didn’t really play soccer, but because I was a white kid, I was an anomaly anyway,” she said. “I was not only the only white kid on the team, I was the only girl.”
She carried that skill back to the states. At Ashland High School, she captained her soccer team.
Later, McLeod-Skinner earned a degree in engineering, a master’s in regional planning and a law degree that focused on water law. She designed water systems in rural Kosovo. She worked as a city planner in Silicon Valley. In California, she got her first taste of public office as a member of the Santa Clara City Council.
Later, she took a job as the eighth city manager of Phoenix, Oregon, in seven years. She said she found out why after she got there and “looked under the hood,” where she discovered “fiscal mismanagement and inappropriate use of funds.”
“Those were gut-check moments,” she said. “I had the choice of keeping quiet or losing my job,” she said. Soon after, she was fired.
These days, based at the Crooked River Ranch in Jefferson County, she spends most of her time driving around the district in her Jeep and sleeping in a teardrop trailer that she hauls behind it. Her Doberman rides shotgun. Sometimes she’s joined by her wife Cassandra Skinner, executive director of the Oregon Board of Chiropractic Examiners, and her four stepchildren.
McLeod-Skinner said she didn’t start out wanting to run for the House seat. When her dissatisfaction with Walden grew, however, she got involved.
“He led the attack on health care. Our district, I think it would have been the hardest hit in the entire country and he still had the hubris to do that. I was at a town hall in Medford last spring. He came in and was asked specifically about pre-existing conditions. He said, ‘Absolutely I will protect pre-existing conditions.’ The next week, he went back and helped author the bill that cut out pre-existing conditions.”
She believes Walden has lost touch with his constituents, many of whom are just trying to survive financially.
“I really think if you don’t get that, you aren’t qualified to lead this district,” she said. “It’s a visceral thing, it’s a fear thing. People are hurting. People are scared. People want to take care of their kids.”
She says she spends her days chatting with people about what is important to them. She finds them at Kiwanis meetings, powwows and county fairs. They converse about health care, trade tariffs, water and scores of other subjects. She prides herself on talking to people wearing bright red “Make America Great Again” hats and finding common ground.
“You end up talking about your kids or family issues,” she said. “You have to go a couple of layers down. We all are struggling and concerned with so many of the same things.”
Once when she couldn’t connect, she asked, “What do you hate most about Democrats?” The man, momentarily shocked, told her.
“At the end of it, he said, ‘I’ve never been able to talk to a Democrat cause all they want to do is argue with you,’” McLeod-Skinner said. “This guy just needed someone to hear him out and then we had a fabulous conversation.”
She said she doesn’t worry about being judged for being gay. When friends in Ashland predicted that people in Eastern Oregon wouldn’t vote for her because she is homosexual, she shook her head.
“I joke that I’m not afraid to tell people in Eastern Oregon that I’m gay, but I’m a bit nervous about telling people in Ashland that I listen to country music,” she said.
She sees the district not as insurmountably red, but rather purple. Forty percent are non-affiliated and many Democrats and Republicans are tired of the polarization.
“Very few people fit into those narrow silos on either side,” she said. “Who can bridge that? Who can get us beyond that political rhetoric? If we talk red versus blue, that language is missing the mark.”
Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0810.