In Hermiston’s 117-year history, the office of mayor has been occupied by a very specific demographic – white men.
That could change when voters choose a new mayor next spring. Mayor Dave Drotzmann announced he will not seek another term and instead is running for state Senate.
There is still almost four months before the filing deadline and so far, only two people have filed. Those two are Hermiston City Councilors Nancy Peterson and Jackie Linton.
If either one of them is elected, the winner will make history in more ways than one. Both would be the first female mayor in Hermiston’s history. Peterson could also make history as the first mayor who identifies as non-binary, as well as the first disabled mayor. If Linton wins, she would be Hermiston’s first African American mayor.
But making history, which they have already done with their election to the city council, is not why they are running.
“I’m not running because I’m female or anything,” said Linton, who filed on Oct. 25. “I’m running because I have Hermiston in my heart. Every voice is important to me.”
Peterson, 45, was the first to file on Oct. 13, but actually began thinking about running for office as a high school student in Anchorage, Alaska. Peterson’s dad was a career police officer and in 1994, the department was backing a particular candidate for office and Peterson was recruited to help out.
“I did a lot of envelope stuffing,” Peterson said. “As a high schooler, I got to see a lot of what goes into a campaign.
“When I knew Drotzmann was not going to run again, I thought I’d make a run. I had to check with all the people who would be impacted – my employer and my family. As soon as I had the go-ahead with everyone, I went ahead and filed.”
Linton had been a regular presence at Hermiston City Council meetings long before she was elected to the council.
“I went to all the council meetings and a lot of the committee meetings,” Linton said. “Often, I was the only one in the audience. I wanted to find out what was going on, what decisions were being made and why. I really learned a lot.”
Linton, 65, said she got her civic mindedness from her grandmother and her great-great-grandmother.
“They told me that if someone needs help, you help them,” she said. “That’s how they were raised and that’s how I was raised.”
Linton said she does not consider herself a politician, just someone who is interested in her community. Linton said she has received encouragement from family and friends.
“I’ve had people come up to me and ask me to run,” she said. “When people outside my family said I should run, I decided to go for it.”
Making history can be an uphill climb, but Peterson has faced challenges all her life.
“By government standards, I’m considered severely disabled,” said Peterson, who has a rare neurological disorder in which the body does not make enough dopamine, causing degenerative problems that at one point had Peterson in a wheelchair for a year and a half.
“The doctors didn’t think I’d get out of it,” Peterson said. “I was pretty immobilized. It has been a journey to get this far.” Peterson is hoping to blaze a trail for others who don’t fit the conventional mold of public office holder.
“When I became a councilor, it was important that my work speak louder than my label so that anyone who comes after me won’t have to work as hard,” said Peterson.
Peterson was homeless for a brief period between high school and college, living in their car and couch surfed for three months. Both Peterson and Linton have been vocal advocates for the homeless. Linton volunteered for years at the Warming Station and made sure to be there every Thanksgiving and Christmas to help, knowing a lot of volunteers preferred to be at home with their families.
Both have also made history within their own families, as well. Peterson was the first in the family to go to college, and Linton was the first in her family to graduate from college. She enrolled in college as an adult and earned her master’s in teaching at Eastern Oregon University.
Peterson also has a master’s degree. In fact, several.
“I’m kind of the family rebel,” Peterson said. “I have 10 tattoos and four college degrees.” For those keeping track, Peterson has a degree in elementary education, a master’s degree in teaching, a master’s degree in special education and a degree in business administration.
Linton is undaunted by the prospect of becoming Hermiston’s first African American mayor. Being in the minority is nothing new to her. Growing up in Hermiston, there were only a handful of Black families.
“It has always been a very small community – maybe five or six families that came here for the work. When the work went away, most of them did, too.”
Linton said African Americans make up 0.03 percent of the city’s population, which means she won her council seat with an overwhelming support from white voters.
“People were surprised I won,” she said.
Peterson came to Hermiston in 2000. These days, Peterson is an accessibility specialist at Columbia Basin College in Pasco, Wash. Linton has worked as a substitute teacher, but when she mentioned she is currently not working, Peterson took issue with that.
“But you volunteer EVERYWHERE, Jackie,” Peterson said. “That counts.”
So much for political rivals.
Whatever the outcome of next May’s election, Peterson said Hermiston is the winner.
“Jackie and I are representing four under-represented groups,” Peterson said. “No matter what else comes after this, that is a testament to the kind of place we live in. Hermiston is the kind of place where history can be made.”
“Yes,” said Linton. “I agree.”