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Trail Blazing Senator Jackie Winters Dies

Business owner and civil rights champion was only black Republican in chamber

Danny Peterson | 5/29/2019, 4:29 p.m.
Jackie Winters, the trail blazing Oregon state senator and only African-American Republican to be elected to the Legislature, died Wednesday ...
Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, discusses her priorities in office during an interview with the Portland Observer in December 2017 after being named Senate Minority Leader by her Republican Senate colleagues. Winters who grew up in Vanport and Portland’s Albina community before embarking on successful career in business and politics that took her to Salem, died Wednesday, May 29, 2019 at the age of 82. Photo by Mark Washington

Jackie Winters, the trail blazing Oregon state senator who survived the Vanport Flood during childhood, grew up to become a small business owner in both Portland and Salem, and the only African-American Republican to be elected to the Legislature, died Wednesday at the age of 82.

Since 1999, Winters served as a lawmaker from Salem, first in the House of Representatives, then in the Senate starting in 2003. She was vice chairwoman of the influential Appropriation Committee and was the first African American person to hold the post of Republican Caucus leader in 2017.

Winters had struggled in recent years with ailing health, having suffered a heart attack that put her out for the entire 2016 legislative session and announced in 2017 that she was undergoing lung cancer treatment.

Before becoming a politician, Winters founded a small chain of successful barbecue restaurants, called Jackie’s Ribs, located in the Salem and Portland areas in the 1980s and 90s.

Born in Kansas, Winters moved to the Portland area as a small child where she survived the 1948 Vanport Flood and grew up in the Albina neighborhood of north and northeast Portland. She also previously worked for Republicans Gov. Tom McCall and later Gov. Victor Atiyeh.

Among many of the causes she backed was criminal justice reform and civil rights. On April 18 she cast her final vote in the Legislature when she championed a significant criminal justice reform bill to pass in the Senate, which now awaits the governor’s signature, and would roll back mandatory minimum sentences for teenagers charged with violent crimes.

House Speaker Tina Kotek lauded her achievements when she gave a statement on Winters’ death Wednesday.

“Senator Jackie Winters was a trail blazer, a truly inspiring figure in the history of Oregon politics. Senator Winters believed, to her core, in justice and fairness. I am saddened by her passing but am deeply grateful that she lived to see the passage of youth justice reform last week.”