Tawna Sanchez threw back her head and laughed at the idea that she was “too nice and trying to please everyone” during the 2017 legislative session, which was her first as the representative for District 43.
“They don’t know me,” said Sanchez, responding to a weekly newspaper’s comments, collected from lobbyists and other observers of the session.
Sanchez, 56, the director of family services at the Native American Youth and Family Center, won a close race to succeed Lew Frederick, who was elected to the state senate in 2016. District 43 stretches from Jefferson High School to the Grant High area, across North and Northeast neighborhoods between Humboldt and Alameda.
A photo of a bear, standing on its back legs with its mouth wide open, as if roaring to the sky, is on a wall behind Sanchez’ office chair. Asked if that’s more her style than the “nice” label, she smiled at the suggestion.
Sanchez grew up in Portland of Shoshone-Bannock, Ute and Carrizo descent. She is the second known Native American to serve in the legislature. The first was Jacqueline “Jackie” Taylor of Astoria, a senator in the 1990s. Taylor, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Tribal Legislature, died of cancer in 2008 at the age of 73. Before joining the Legislature, Sanchez, who has raised 18 foster children, served on the state’s Family Services Review Commission and the Child Welfare Advisory Committee.
“The child welfare issue is a huge concern of mine,” she said. The state’s system is overburdened, she said, and she believes too many children are being removed from their homes without sufficient accountability. However, she believes new leadership in the state Department of Human Resources may have solutions for some of the problems.
In the 2017 session, Sanchez was vice chair of the House Human Services and Housing Committee and a member of both the Judiciary Committee and the Joint Ways and Means Subcommittee on Public Safety. Those assignments reflect her interest in providing more affordable housing, conserving natural resources and, she said, “pushing to make our criminal justice system more humane.”
Sanchez began working as a community activist in the 1980s when she moved to California to push for the rights of women and indigenous people. While in Oakland, Ca., she attended the two-year Merritt College where she earned certification as an alcohol and drug treatment counselor.
She returned to Portland in the 1990s, becoming a volunteer at NAYA, which parents and elder volunteers started in 1974 to provide services for the ninth largest Native American urban population in the United States. NAYA incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1994, and Sanchez was hired as the agency’s second employee. It has grown to more than 120 employees, providing a range of services including housing assistance, health care, educational programs, domestic violence services and elder care.
Sanchez completed her bachelor’s degree at Marylhurst University and earned a masters in social work from Portland State University. She has worked on programs to keep Native American youth in school, expand early childhood education, and provide alcohol and drug education. The Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence gave her the Midori Hamilton Award for work in that field.
Emotional support as well as academic assistance often is needed for Native and non-Native high school-age students who enroll in NAYA’s Early College Academy, Sanchez said.
“There’s a reason kiddos are struggling in school, and it’s not because they aren’t smart enough,” she said. “Instead, students may feel family financial strains or the effects of dysfunction.”
In the 2018 five-week legislative session starting in February, Sanchez hopes to continue work on child welfare issues. However, if voters defeat Measure 101 on a January ballot, she said, “I’m afraid we may be slashing budgets.”
She urges residents to learn about the measure, which asks voters whether to approve a tax on health insurance premiums. The Legislature approved that tax as part of a larger bill which also expands a hospital tax. The funds are intended to continue health care coverage for people on the Oregon Health Plan, the state version of Medicaid.
Supporters say up to 350,000 people could lose health care if the measure fails. Three legislators objected to the tax on insurance premiums and gathered enough signatures to get the issue on the ballot.