Election 2024

Ben Bowman became Oregon House Majority Leader at age 31. He wants to bring people together.

Oregon State Rep. Ben Bowman
Oregon State Rep. Ben Bowman Photo: Ben for Oregon

By any measure, Oregon state Rep. Ben Bowman (D) is a comer.

He won his seat representing suburbs south of Portland in 2022 at just 30 years old. After only 14 months in office, his Democratic colleagues elevated him to Majority Leader of the Oregon House.

Bowman has risen quickly with a blend of sincerity, congeniality, and competence, attributes that serve him well as Oregon legislators look to move beyond the rancor and partisanship that have colored politics in the Trump era.

The young, gay lawmaker, who studied education at the University of Oregon and Stanford, sees his role as a uniter, not a divider, working across the aisle to rebuild a productive, problem-solving civic culture—and maybe have some fun along the way.

Bowman spoke from his office in the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, where pictures of the two dogs he shares with his partner—Ruby, Oso, and Juan Luna, respectively—are displayed prominently.

LGBTQ Nation: Any day now, the Supreme Court is going to rule on City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson, which is going to decide if local jurisdictions can ban homeless people from sleeping outside. Where do you fall on the issue, and how do you think the court will rule? (Editors note: On June 28, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the city of Grants Pass, Oregon on their ban on homeless residents sleeping outdoors. This interview was conducted several days prior.)

Rep. Ben Bowman: I have no idea how this Court will rule. They have disappointed me so many times that I’m not going to try to predict.

But I think there is a shift happening in Oregon, where most people in this state would say that we need to figure out how to do two things at the same time. One is provide for the basic needs of our homeless population and help homeless people transition into housing. The legislature just passed an enormous package to facilitate production of more housing, to fund transitional housing, all those things. That’s part one.

The part two is, we can’t allow our homelessness situation to impede the public’s ability to use public parks and public sidewalks. And so, regardless of where the court comes down on the specific question, I think that’s where most Oregonians are. We’ve got to do both of these things. The court decision will impact which tools we have in our toolbox, but that’s going to be the goal.

If elected to a second term, Donald Trump has threatened to send federal troops into cities like Portland to put down protests, whether local leaders like it or not. What will Oregon’s response be to Trump’s armed threat?

Oregon is not Donald Trump country. Oregon is Joe Biden country, but we’re also a divided state. We’ve got very blue urban centers and Willamette Valley, and we’ve also got very red areas in Eastern Oregon. Our electoral votes will go to Joe Biden, period, but there are definitely people in the state who identify with Trump.

If Trump oversteps and threatens federal troops in the cities, it is not going to go well in places like Portland. In fact, I think it could go very poorly.

Reviving Oregon’s civic culture is on your list of priorities as a legislator. How is Oregon’s civic culture broken, and how should it be repaired?

I don’t think I would say broken, but what I would say is, in the 60s and 70s, in that era, Oregon was an innovator. We were the first people to solve some of our biggest problems. We passed a public beaches bill that basically said, all of our public beaches belong to the public. No individual can own them. We passed the first bottle bill in the country, which took off after that. We passed an innovative land use planning system which has preserved the natural beauty that makes our state unique and special.

We weren’t afraid to take risks, we weren’t afraid to be the first, and there was a sense of like, it wasn’t such a bad thing to work across the aisle. It wasn’t such a bad thing to take other people’s ideas and work with them, to pass them. That is a civic culture that is productive and fun and solving problems.

The path to do that now, and my legislative philosophy, is so much of what we do in politics is relationship driven. I have invested a lot of time in building relationships with Republicans, in addition to my members, and working together as much as we can. Any bill where I can get a Republican chief sponsor with me, I work really hard to make that happen.

And you can’t just talk about politics. When you talk to people, you have to talk about what makes them tick, their family, their goals. You have to actually get to know people outside of just the political space, because right now, the political space is among the most divisive spaces in our country.

You are a seventh-generation Oregonian. Do you have an Oregon Trail story to share?

Yes, I do have an Oregon Trail story. My family came across on the Oregon Trail. My ancestor, Martin Olds, gets nominated to be a delegate at the Constitutional Convention by Yamhill County, and Martin runs for president of the convention. He loses, and he ultimately does not sign the Constitution. He refuses to sign it, and he’s kind of like a pain in the ass throughout the proceedings. He believes racism is wrong. He believes slavery is wrong. And he’s opposing the conventional political wisdom of the time, which is, we’re going to bake racism into our state’s constitution, which is a deeply flawed document that indeed embeds racism.

We know the names of a lot of people who signed it, and they have buildings named after them and streets named after them, but there actually was a group of people who took a stand of integrity and against the grain to do the actual right thing, the thing that today we would all agree is courageous and correct, and we don’t know those people’s names. And Martin Olds is one of them.

Oregon’s legislators are part-timers and get paid accordingly. You earn about $34,000 a year for your service. How often does the legislature meet and have you done the math on what that works out to for an hourly wage?

We are compensated at basically the level you listed. We also get a per diem during session. During the odd-numbered years, we meet for six months. During the even-numbered years, we meet for about six weeks.

The thing about being a legislator is you can be a committed legislator who spends most of your waking hours being a legislator and representing your district and developing policy ideas and meeting with interested parties and doing government oversight and the list goes on. Or you can be someone who shows up during session and votes yes or no and then goes home.

I’d say in Oregon, you have a full spectrum where legislators fall. For me, this is a huge part of my life.

At 27, you were elected to your local school board. How are Moms for Liberty and scowls like Chaya Raichik from Libs of TikTok impacting school business in your district and, more broadly, across the state?

It’s a good question. In terms of what they have done, there have been several instances of viral videos blowing up on a teacher, individual teachers, or a school’s lesson plans, or, you know, like a board resolution — specific things that will draw a crowd or ignite a social media scuffle. Those groups are trying to make public education partisan. They’re trying to insert politics into what shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

I do feel like we’re sort of coming out on the other side of that. I feel like the peak was like in the 2020 era, where you’ve got COVID, you’ve got racial justice protests, and there was just this full-frontal attack of trying to make school board meetings like political performances. That happened in my district and happened prominently in other districts. But most of the people in my state overwhelmingly do not want that to be true. They do not want partisan politics at school board meetings. They literally just want functioning schools that provide a high-quality education to kids, and I think that’s where we’re getting back to.

What effect do you think anti-LGBTQ+ legislation introduced across the country in recent years — banning trans athletes on school teams, Don’t Say Gay bills, and the rest — is having on young people?

That is something that I’m genuinely worried about. I didn’t come out till I was in college, and I grew up in a relatively welcoming suburban community with supportive parents. Compared to a lot of people, it was an ideal circumstance to come out in, and it was still very hard.

And so I worry there’s kids who are in the closet and they know who they are, but there’s no way you could not see the articles in the newspaper, the social media hatred, the politicians who are using LGBT issues as a wedge, just like they did when I was growing up. And for a lot of kids — especially in rural places, especially in places where there maybe isn’t as robust of a support system — a lot of those kids are going to internalize that message.

There’s a reason why queer kids have a higher suicide rate, have a higher self-harm rate, have a higher chronic absenteeism rate. The data shows that these kids are being impacted severely by how hard it is to be LGBT, and these folks are making it worse.

What’s the single most important thing the world should do to address climate change?

(Laughing) One thing, like the most gigantic question anyone’s ever been asked. I would probably say electrify the grid.

Do you think compulsory national service in the military, the Peace Corps, or another form of public service would be a benefit to America’s youth and the country?

Absolutely. I think there’s an opportunity to expose students to different ways of life, different values, different people, and help them build relationships with people they otherwise would not cross paths with. And ultimately, if you care about turning down the temperature on our polarization, and if you care about having a durable democracy, I think those kinds of programs — national service, exchange programs — that, to me, is the best way to ensure that this democracy is going to stick around.

You came out in college. When did you realize you were gay?

I came out in undergrad at U of O. I knew I was gay well before that. This is cliche in the gay community, but I didn’t want to be gay, and so I suppressed it for a very long time.  Like, I probably knew internally but wouldn’t even admit it to myself because I didn’t want to be gay. And then in college, I met a guy, and we eventually started dating in secret. And I told him—I was, like, super clear with him—I’m never coming out. Like, this is a secret, and it has to stay between us.

That lasted for a few months, and then I figured out how to build up the courage and tell my friends and family. I wrote, actually, an opinion piece in the Oregon Daily Emerald, the college newspaper, on National Coming Out Day. Coming out has made my life so much richer and happier.

You have a significant other that you’re not hiding in your dorm room with. How did you meet?

Juan Luna is my partner. We met how most modern gay couples meet, on the apps.

He was from the Bay Area and was in Portland doing some work with Nike, but we didn’t start talking until he was back home. And I think my first line was like, how is it possible that you’re however many miles away? We talked on and off for a while but didn’t end up meeting until during the pandemic. Like, you’re supposed to limit your contacts, but he flew up for a weekend, and we spent the whole weekend together, dating by immersion. Eventually, he moved up here, and now we have two dogs and a house.

You say that the acrimony around the marriage equality debate kept you in the closet for longer than you wished. But things have changed since then for you and the country. So, when are you going to put a ring on it?

(Laughing) Have you been talking to Juan? I don’t know, man. When the time is right, that’s what I’m gonna do.

Are kids in your future?

Yes, 100%. I’m excited to have kids, but I’m also very scared to have kids. And almost to a person, people say if you wait until you’re ready to have kids, you’ll never have kids, so I think I’m gonna have to overcome that.

Pride Month is winding down. What are you most proud of these days?

One thing that I laugh about and I’m proud of for the country is now a majority of Republicans support same-sex marriage, which, like, if someone would have told me that would be true 10 years ago, I just don’t think I could fathom it. So the level of acceptance for the gay community has happened very quick, very fast, to the point where it just feels good.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the experience of the trans population in this country. So, we definitely have a long way to go.

On a personal level, I think a younger version of myself would be very proud that I have a partner, I have a house, I’m doing the thing that I always dreamed of doing. I worked hard to be in the position that I’m in, and to live the life that I get to live. I feel incredibly lucky and proud of that.

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