Winebarger urges young people to engage in politics

Tessa Winebarger reflects back on her young political career as a member of the Ontario City Council. Winebarger urged voters – and especially young city residents – to get involved in local politics. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

ONTARIO – Just months after graduating from high school, Tessa Winebarger was on her way to a seat on the Ontario City Council.

Winebarger was one of three people who filed for three open seats in the 2014 general election. She pulled the second most votes of the three and took her seat at age 18.

She put her youth to work for her. Making the political process of Ontario accessible to the younger generations in Ontario was one of her goals.

“We have a huge population of younger people in town who are not represented,” she said.

Now, Winebarger is yielding her seat a few months short of the official end date in December to pursue a nursing degree in Boise.

She shared her views about where the city is going and why people should get involved in city government. And she noted she’s not likely done with public service.

Winebarger chatted over the phone during her lunch break at Saint Alphonsus Medical Center in Ontario, where she works as a phlebotomist. 

Winebarger said that her journey into politics began with “a lot of volunteer work” growing up in Ontario.

These experiences, as well as encouragement from a former city manager, prompted her to run for city council. The volunteer council sets city policy, oversees the city manager, and approves everything from budgets to major contracts.

“I said in a forum when I ran for office, ‘This is the city I grew up in, but I’m not sure if it’s the city I would want to raise my own children in’,” said Winebarger by email.

Winebarger campaigned the “old fashioned way” — knocking on doors in On- tario and getting to know people instead of posting lawn signs and using social media.

“I needed 20 signatures to get on the ballot,” she said. “I collected over a hundred just from talking to my neighbors.”

Winebarger, among the first high school graduates from Treasure Valley Christian School, said she pursued office to raise the voice of Ontario’s younger generation.

Winebarger became the city’s youngest council member, part of a new class that brought diversity to a ruling body that had been dominated by older men.

After her election, Winebarger networked with her peers at Treasure Valley Community College, listening to students’ questions and concerns about Ontario.

“I would ask them, ‘What’s important to you? What do you want to see in the city?’ to get their input,” she said. Winebarger also worked at the Boys and Girls Club teen center in Ontario and reached out to more young residents.

Winebarger also organized voting parties, which she described as a popular way to get her friends registered to vote.

“A lot of my friends come to me about things,” she said. They question her about what’s going on with the city.

Winebarger said she uses Facebook to reach her generation, using the live video feature for question- and-answer sessions.

She said such accessibility helped her reach her second goal for council service – drawing awareness to public safety. She said that in her work at the hospital she crossed paths with police officers, firefighters and medics.

Those chats led to more openness in the relationship that public safety workers have with the city government, she said.

“I haven’t voted no on a single public safety item,” said Winebarger.

That record led to these workers being more comfortable in approaching the city council with ideas, she said.

“They were being turned down so many times that they just stopped asking,” said Winebarger.

In her first year on the council, Winebarger worked to allocate motel tax money into a separate fund for public safety needs. Since then, the fund has paid for fire turnouts, police officers, and general street safety, she said.

Winebarger said she’s noticed the atmosphere change among city council members over her term.

“When I first started, the dynamic was a lot different,” she said.

It was a “tough atmosphere” for an 18-year-old, she said, noting that there was “not a lot of respect” for her at the time.

However, after being on for a while, Winebarger said that “whole council shifted.”

Now, there are new members making the council “one of the most diverse” that Winebarger has seen in Oregon, she said.

“I’ve seen the dynamic change and relationships with staff get better,” she said. Now, as she gets ready to move to Boise to attend Carrington College’s nursing program, Winebarger said that it’s “bittersweet” to be leaving the council a few months early.

Winebarger has a message for those in her age group who might be think- ing of getting politically involved.

“I would say to go for it,” she said. And some have, too.

At a meeting for the League of Oregon Cities, Winebarger was approached by a young man.

He asked who she was and when she identified herself, he said that she had inspired him to run for office.

Winebarger said young people tend to insist they don’t have time for public service. They need to and can, she said.

“Just jump in, don’t be afraid to try it,” she said.

According to Winebarger, working as a city council member can “fit into anyone’s schedule” and is “important to do for your community.”

“My biggest advice is just taking the leap and get involved,” she said. “Everyone can make some kind of time to get involved with their city.”

Reporter Carolyn Agrimis: [email protected] or 541-473- 3377.