As Oregon’s May 17 primary election creeps closer, campaign signs are scattered around roads and neighborhoods, trying to grab residents’ attention. For the first time in 20 years, according to election data, residents of Eugene’s Ward 4 will have a decision to make about who speaks on behalf of their community on the council.
Incumbent Jennifer Yeh has represented Ward 4 on Eugene’s City Council since her appointment in 2017. Ward 4 encompasses the area of Eugene north of Franklin Boulevard and east of Oakway Road. Yeh says her passion for community involvement started years ago when she joined the Harlow Neighbors Association.
Her challenger, former city councilor Jennifer Solomon, spent six years representing Ward 6 until 2010 before not seeking re-election in order to focus on her sons. While the two candidates’ names and stated goals overlap, their campaign finances tell another story.
Yeh says her passion for the work she does comes from her desire to help people with affordable housing, adequate public transportation, and equity and inclusion within the city.
“It’s been a great honor to represent the people in my neighborhood. That’s really what drives me,” Yeh says. “My job is to not be that expert on everything, but to be able to find, talk to and make time for folks who are, and listen to staff and community members.”
Yeh says it is important for her to model progressive values that put people first. Yeh, whose children are half Chinese, says her own racially diverse family has helped her to be an advocate for ensuring that those who face the most barriers or are the most vulnerable are getting attention and being heard.
“People are why we’re here. It’s not about things, it’s about people. So I try to find where the people fit in — where do people’s needs or their values connect with this particular issue,” Yeh says. “I try to remember that equity can’t just be a word, it needs to be an action.”
Yeh says her work at the Lane County Historical Society, where she is transitioning into a co-executive director position, has shown her how people can positively impact their communities in ways that don’t go down in history books.
“When I read the stories about people who have done something that had a positive effect on their community, it encourages me to remember that if we all work hard, we can all do that, we can all have that positive impact,” Yeh says. “It’s easy sometimes to feel hopeless or to be cynical, but we have to keep trying. We have to keep pushing forward because the alternative is to slide backwards.”
For Yeh, a grassroots approach to campaigning has helped her connect to the community and share her values. She says she values speaking to people on all sides of issues and that more can be learned by talking to somebody with a differing opinion.
“Voters will have a real choice in what they want to move forward,” Yeh says. “No matter what your values are or where you are at, it’s a clear choice, which I think is good for our voters because they can voice what they want.”
While council positions are nonpartisan, Yeh is a registered Democrat and Solomon is a Republican. Differences in campaign funding also separate the two candidates.
Yeh’s campaign relies on smaller contributions, raising $29,251 in contributions in 2022, according to campaign filings with the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office. Her contributions include $740 from Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis, $250 from state Sen. James Manning, $2,500 from Oregon AFSCME Council 75, and contributions from housing and rental advocates. Yeh’s husband, Carl Yeh, has also loaned the campaign $10,000.
Solomon’s campaign has raised more than $50,000. Her list of financial supporters leans heavily on construction, timber, gravel and construction money, such as from Jordan Papé, CEO of the Papé Group, an industrial machinery and equipment supplier as well as several other Papé family members, and from the Brian Obie Revocable Trust, which gave $1,000. Obie is a former Eugene mayor and a developer who has benefited from tax breaks awarded by the council in building the Fifth Street Public Market expansion.
Sierra Pacific industries, which recently acquired Seneca forest products, contributed $1,500, and several family members who were associated with Seneca have been giving money or in-kind contributions as well. Wildish Land Company gave $3,000 and John Hyland Construction contributed $1,000.
Solomon says her work as director of philanthropy at the nonprofit Relief Nursery has allowed her to stay connected and provide support to families and children in need within the community. Now that her own children have left for college, Solomon says she is ready to rejoin the City Council.
“I am motivated every day to bring grace and a smile to people,” Solomon says. “I try to come to the table ready to help and use whatever skills I have to make a situation better and try to be part of a solution.”
Solomon calls herself an “eternal optimist” who works to listen to and meet people where they are on the issues that matter most to them. She says one issue that she’s surprised to see unchanged in her time away from office is a lack of access to adequate and affordable housing. She says the fact the city has been so far behind on housing is a “big miss.”
“I don’t believe that any challenge is insurmountable,” Solomon says. “It might just take a different mix of people to get to some solutions.”
Solomon credits her social and professional network as one way she stays connected with the issues that residents care about most. She says she is unafraid to ask for help when needed and that this open communication and collaboration is part of her approach to leadership.
“I just try to be open-minded and really listen to both sides,” Solomon says. “Eventually, you have to make your own decision, especially as an elected official, but it’s important to me to understand both sides.”
Despite the years between her previous work on the council and her current campaign, Solomon says, “I am excited to be back at the City Council table. It was a great privilege for me the first time to be there.” She adds, “I am ready to be back there to do the work that it takes, to do the research to really understand the issues and dig in.”
She says her experience will help her hit the ground running should she be elected.
“I’m focused on the issues that really matter to the residents of Ward 4 and I want to be their voice at City Council,” Solomon says. “I’m going to run a good race and I’m not going to leave anything on the table, and we’ll see what happens.”