Q&A with County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal

Susheela Jayapal

County Commissioner | Multnomah County, OR

Susheela JayapalTell us about your background. What are the experiences, including education, that make up the person you currently are?

I’m an immigrant; I was born in India and came to the U.S. when I was 16, to go to college. My experience as an immigrant is essential to who I am and what I do, in that I’ve experienced both the barriers faced by those marginalized by our systems as well as the amazing opportunities offered by this country – and want to pay that forward by removing barriers and increasing opportunity for others. I’m also a lawyer – I was a litigator and then general counsel of a company and I have long experience with nonprofit organizations.

What was your trigger moment and why this specific office?

Looking around my city and county and seeing that they are increasingly unlivable for low-income people and people of color. This office because Multnomah County is the social service safety net for the folks I’m most concerned about, and, through offering health care and basic social services, has immediate impact on their daily lives.

What made you feel qualified to run for office?

The combination of my legal, business, and nonprofit experience. The last of those was particularly relevant as our county does much of its work through contracts with nonprofit organizations.

Do you work full-time or part-time?


Most people don’t know what their elected official does on a daily basis. What’s a typical day looking like for you?

My days typically consist of meetings. As an example, one day last week included a Board of Commissioners meeting during which we voted on whether to adopt renter protections to deal with the effects of COVID; a meeting with our Director of Homelessness Services; a check-in with one of my commissioner colleagues about various issues we’re working on; a meeting with the director of our health clinics to discuss LGBTQ and gender-inclusive services; and a meeting with advocates for woodsmoke curtailment. I also meet regularly with my team of three staff; and I keep blocks of time for communicating with constituents, either on social media, through my newsletter, or by phone.

Additionally, they might not know what their elected official is responsible for. What is your role in comparison to other elected offices on your level?

The Multnomah County Commission is composed of five commissioners. Four are elected by district — ie from a specific part of the county; one is the Chair, who’s elected county-wide. The Chair is the executive, with day-to-day responsibility and authority for management of the County and its 6000 employees. I, along with the other commissioners, am a policy-maker, with the responsibility of evaluating and voting on our budget and on policy decisions. The County is primarily a social service provider – health services, aging & disability services, domestic and sexual violence services; etc. We’re also responsible for community justice services, which include parole and probation supervision. Many of our functions are delegated to us and financed by the state government. By contrast, the city of Portland, which is the largest city in our county, is responsible for more of the “infrastructure” services – roads, water and sewer, parks, and police, among other things.

What do you think people would be surprised to know someone in your position does?

I attend a lot of social events and fundraisers for the nonprofits that partner with the county.

What are 3-5 skills needed to be successful in the elected office you served in/are currently serving in?

Communication; listening; negotiation; systems thinking.

What’s the best part about serving in elected office?

Dealing with a wide array of substantive issues, and a wide array of constituents.

What has been the accomplishment you’re most proud of while in office?

During COVID, communicating regularly and clearly with my constituents about what’s happening, what we’re doing, and what they can expect.

In terms of finances, how much money did you have to raise for your campaign?

I raised about $160,000 through my primary, which I won outright (we have a system in which you have to get more than 50% of the vote to win outright in the primary; if not, the top two finishers go on to a general election).

What’s one piece of advice you would give to someone who’s thinking about running for the position you serve/have served in their community?

Focus on what you want to accomplish, rather than the position you want to hold.