Sen. Jackie Winters dies amid lung cancer battle

(Portland Tribune photo)

SALEM – State Sen. Jackie Winters, a Salem Republican who spent decades in public service, has died.

The solemn news was delivered on the House floor by Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, shortly after 2:30 p.m. Wednesday as lawmakers began receiving an email announcing her death. Several House members, including Rep. Denyc Boles, R-Salem, and Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon, D-Woodburn, broke into tears.

Representatives stood for a moment of silence to remember Winters, who was a force in the building, known for her progressive work on criminal justice reform as well as a uniter in the Senate Republican caucus.

Rep. Mark Meek, D-Clackamas County, sang “Amazing Grace” at the dais of the House Wednesday afternoon.

Winters, 82, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2017. She last participated in a Senate vote on April 18. In a statement on April 23, Winters said that her cancer “is currently in remission, and I continue to have proactive treatment to keep it that way.”

She said at the time that she was “having side effects from the treatment and I am being treated for those side effects.” She added that she was “taking a couple of days away from the Capitol.”

“It was an honor to know and work with Jackie,” said Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger, Jr., in a statement. “Oregon would not be the state it is today without her incredible dedication to the causes and people she fiercely believed in. Elected to the Oregon Legislature in 1998 as the state’s first African-American Republican, Jackie was an icon and leaves a legacy for all Republicans. Her life is a great example that with hard work and a strong character, the American Dream is possible. She will be deeply missed.”

Just last week, Winters said in a statement that she was “working hard” to return to the Legislature.

Winters was a key legislative budget writer and advocate for criminal justice reform, and one of only 12 Republicans among the Senate’s 30 members.

In a statement released after her death, Courtney’s spokeswoman, Carol Currie, called Winters the “soul of the legislature.”

Former Rep. Vicki Berger said Winters was an “Oregon icon” who was her mentor.

“If I needed advice, either political advice but mostly legislative advice on how to get things done in that building, Jackie was your go-to,” Berger said, adding Winters’ institutional knowledge was limitless.

Winters led the Republican caucus in the Senate from November 2017 until December 2018 and was vice chair of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, the legislature’s powerful budget writing committee. She co-chaired a subcommittee handling budgets for the state’s public safety agencies.

Going into the 2017 session, Republican senators were divided over who would lead. Winters emerged as a candidate because of the sense of unity she brought and the respect she held.

Winters was elected to the Senate in 2002, after two terms in the House. She was the first black Republican member elected to the House.

“We are saddened at the passing of Sen. Jackie Winters, a true pioneer, stateswoman and valiant leader,” Senate Republican leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, said in a statement. “For many years, Sen. Winters embodied the spirit of Oregon, overcoming obstacles, setting a course for others to follow and bridging divides. Oregon has lost a truly great legislator and remarkable woman.”

Shortly after announcing her death, the House went into recess until 6 p.m.

Winters’ last major vote came April 16, when she carried a bill on the Senate floor that was near to her heart. It was reform of Oregon’s mandatory minimum sentencing law, Measure 11.

Senate Bill 1008 changed how juveniles are treated in the criminal justice system. It’s something Winters said she had worked on for 50 years. The bill passed the Senate that day, and last week passed the House.

Less than a half hour after her death was announced in the Capitol, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, signed the bill that will surely go down as part of Winters’ legacy.

“I am heartbroken,” said House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland. “Jackie Winters was a true original – an extraordinary public servant whose life’s work has made Oregon a better place. She was a fierce fighter for truth, justice and fairness.”

Both women have worked tirelessly on criminal justice reform, including on SB 1008.

“I was not only fortunate to call her a friend, but fortunate to have her as a partner in the charge for a more just criminal justice system,” Williamson said. “I am not quite sure what we will do without her.”

Winters’ interest in criminal justice reform comes in part from her husband’s experience in the system. He was convicted as a teenager and spent time in adult prison – no place for a child, she said.

“You are teaching the individual, especially the juveniles, how to be better criminals,” Winters said on the floor.

When an Oregon legislator dies or resigns midway through her term, her political party is obligated to nominate three to five applicants for the position, and one is then chosen by county officials.

In Winters’ case, the appointment will be made by Marion and Polk county commissioners, since Winters represented parts of both counties in the Senate. The vacancy has to be filled within 30 days.

An election will be held next November to fill out the remaining two years of Winters’ term.