May 17, 2012 at 11:30 AM
Portland man recruits minority votes in a state with a changing face
With the magic of Barack Obama’s 2008 election long gone, fears of anemic minority turnout in November are prompting some to take action.
PORTLAND, Ore. — Swaddled by a booth of clothing and outdoor garden trinkets, Johnny Richey hands out voter packets and homemade signs endorsing Barack Obama. Richey points to a stack of registration forms, noting that there used to be thousands of applications when he and his partner first began recruiting voters.
Since he started pounding the pavement, Richey has wheedled that stack down to just four or five.
“A lot of people have given up hope on the American electoral process,” said Richey, who spent last weekend recruiting at Portland’s Saturday market.
Richey, who is black and lives in this town, said he was not an active voter himself until he found somebody he identified with in a position of leadership.
President Obama galvanized his political career.But Richey worries that Obama faces an uphill battle this election year. He says covert racism has surfaced as a part of the political folly and general mean-spiritedness of the campaign season. He points to examples such as the Trayvon Martin tragedy, police brutality and the structural racism in cities like Detroit.
“There’s been a lot of disrespect for blacks since [Obama’s] been in office,” said Richey. “You have to be black to notice it.”
Which is why Richey has made a particular effort to recruit black and Hispanic voters.
Tapping the minority vote has long been an issue for candidates of both state and national elections. Last month the Portland Urban League Forum spotlighted this very issue, citing a lack of representation and decreased funding for programs that disproportionately affect communities of color, as contributing factors to their lower voting rates. Portland Mayoral candidates Eileen Brady, Jefferson Smith and Charlie Hales, all present at the April 24 forum, retorted by pointing to diversity on their campaign staff.
According to 2010 Census data, Oregon’s Hispanic population grew by 63.5% in the last decade, the black population by 24.3% and the state’s Asian population by 39.4%. Oregon is still the 20th least diverse state in the country, but this is a big demographic shift that will require politicians to start taking notice.
Regardless of his own particular political leanings, Richey says his biggest concern is engaging citizens in their electoral system.
“We’re here to register people to vote.”