Oregon Cities

Mayoral candidates meet and miss milestones in Umatilla County

A smiling woman stands in a spacious sunlit room in a historic building. In the background is a display table with city maps and black and white photos of the building.

Pendleton Mayor-elect McKennon McDonald stands at an open house in Pendleton, Ore. on May 23, 2024.

Antonio Sierra / OPB

Photos of men in suits line a wall in Pendleton City Hall.

The wall is meant to commemorate every mayor in the town’s 144-year history, and up until now, that club has been exclusively male. But come next year, McKennon McDonald’s portrait will be added to the wall.

The Pendleton city councilor won the mayor’s seat in a landslide earlier this month, becoming the first woman to hold the office.

Neighboring Hermiston also had a chance to create a milestone. Depending on the results, the largest town in Eastern Oregon could have elected its first Black, Latino, woman or nonbinary mayor. Early elections show those candidates likely fell short in their efforts to make history.

Both in Pendleton and Hermiston, the candidates acknowledged the potential milestones but chose not to make their identities a campaign focus.

Together, the candidates represent the generational changes, demographic shifts and emerging communities happening across Umatilla County. But for those running for mayor, it’s still mostly about the nuts and bolts of running a city.

McKennon for Mayor

A former elementary school teacher, McDonald remembered the conversations she would have with students walking by the wall of mayors in city hall.

“We talk about what’s missing there and the representation piece, and it’s always something that, interestingly enough, the kids haven’t really pointed out on their own,” she said. “But it’s something that has always been a big point of me to say, ‘You do have female elected officials representing you on the council.’”

Even with that in mind, McDonald said she decided early in her campaign that her gender would not be the center of her pitch to voters.

Born and raised in Pendleton, McDonald got involved in local politics soon after receiving a bachelor’s degree from the University of Portland. At 23, she beat a former city councilor to win a seat on the city council. Four years into her tenure, McDonald was named council president.

When Mayor John Turner announced his retirement last year, McDonald entered the race with the intent of continuing the efforts Turner helped shepherd over the past eight years, a list that includes housing, sustainable infrastructure and economic development.

Obtaining a promotion to mayor means McDonald will actually give up some of her power. Pendleton has a weak mayor system, meaning the mayor doesn’t have any day-to-day responsibilities or a regular vote on the city council.

McDonald said she was motivated to run for mayor because she will have the ability to shape debate during city council meetings and represent Pendleton during state-level discussions.

The May primary election was Pendleton’s first competitive mayoral election since 2004, and saw both McDonald and another woman seeking the office.

McDonald’s most viable opponent was Joseph Hull, an executive at a local construction company and the chair of the city’s planning commission. Ultimately, the race was a blowout: Early results showed McDonald beating Hull by 26 percentage points.

McDonald understands the context of her milestone in a town known for its cowboy heritage. She serves on a council with gender parity and as mayor, she’ll also serve as an ex-officio member of the Pendleton Round-Up Board of Directors. A woman now serves as president of the rodeo board, which didn’t elect its first female member until 2010, its 100th year.

McDonald said she chose to name her campaign “McKennon for Mayor” as both a way to stress her approachability and as a departure from her old professional title.

“I spent most of my career being Mrs. McDonald,” she said, referring to her life in education. “And this was the opportunity where I just wanted to be McKennon.”

A large wood panel labeled PENDLETON MAYORS features 42  black-and-white portraits of every mayor in Pendleton history. All of them are men.

A city hall display shows all the mayors in Pendleton, Ore. history as of May 23, 2024.

Antonio Sierra / OPB

Turning identity into ‘old news’

When she campaigned for mayor, Hermiston City Councilor Jackie Linton said voters didn’t ask her about becoming the first Black or woman mayor.

Linton said they talked about her platform, which included building a better relationship with the local fire district and reducing meal costs at the senior center.

Linton was one of several candidates who could have become a historic first in Hermiston. Councilor Nancy Peterson would have been the first nonbinary mayor, while Manuel Salazar had aimed to become the town’s first Latino mayor. But the latest election results show all of them trailing Doug Primmer, a city councilor and former police officer. All were running to replace longtime Mayor Dave Drotzmann, who declined to run for reelection to focus on a state Senate campaign.

While Primmer is barely above the threshold needed to avoid a runoff, his lead has remained steady even as the Umatilla County Elections Division has counted postmarked mail-in ballots.

Linton grew up in Hermiston before splitting most of her adulthood between Tacoma, Washington and Georgia. She returned to Hermiston around 2012 to take care of her mother and looked to settle down.

“This is where I’m going to stay until Jesus takes me home,” she said.

Linton wasn’t looking to get involved in local politics until city officials asked her to help them name a park after her grandfather. She began attending public meetings and her interest in city operations expanded beyond the park. Linton ran for a city council seat in 2018 but lost the election to an incumbent. She was undeterred, running for the same seat against the same incumbent in 2022 and winning.

Unlike Linton, Peterson had wanted to serve in elected office since they were in high school.

They grew up in Alaska, went to college in Montana and made a stop in Hermiston 24 years ago when they got a job as a teacher.

“I stopped overnight and they hired me the next day,” Peterson said.

Now a disability services advisor for a community college in southeast Washington, Peterson won a seat on the Hermiston City Council in 2020, becoming the first openly nonbinary city councilor in city history.

Peterson said running for mayor seemed like a natural next step. As a nonbinary person with incomplete quadriplegia – a weakening of the arms and legs – Peterson said they never wanted to draw undue attention to their identity.

“If somebody has a rainbow flag flying somewhere, that shouldn’t make the news. It shouldn’t be important to the degree that it is,” they said. “I figured the best way it could be news was if it was suddenly old news.”

The mayoral race didn’t come without coverage of identities. On Election Day, the East Oregonian reported that Linton had posted several transphobic memes on her Facebook page. Linton said she didn’t view the memes as anti-trans but defended her use of them.

The mayoral loss won’t be the end of the political road for Linton, who plans on serving out the next two years of her term. But it will be for Peterson, who will let their term expire this year so they can spend more time on political organizing and personal pursuits.

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