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Capital Chatter: Bynum handles incident with grace

Most people don't know who their legislators are. It is unsurprising that Bynum was unrecognized by the resident.

By now, you've likely heard the story of state Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley, who was campaigning door-to-door when a resident called police on her. The caller did not know Bynum and suspected she was casing the Clackamas neighborhood. Bynum is African-American.

The story made national news, among the latest in a litany of incidents in which people have been targeted for sitting in Starbucks, selling bottled water, using a swimming pool … and, most notably, driving. The common theme was their skin color: black.

We don't know the race of the caller. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the ZIP Code — 97015 — where Bynum was canvassing is 71 percent white and 2 percent black.

Reaction to this incident largely split into two camps — "outrageous and unconscionable" or "much ado about nothing" — which mirrors the national divide on race in America. That is unfortunate.

A few thoughts: We are products of our experiences and our upbringing. We interpret situations through our biases.

Bynum, who responded with grace, noted that we don't know what was going through the caller's mind and what her past experiences were.

Unless we are people of color, we – including yours truly – don't know what it's like to feel profiled because of our skin tone. … To be followed around by store personnel when white customers are not. … To have people identify you as "the black" businesswoman, as if skin color were your chief characteristic. … Or, possibly, to be deemed a threat because you're using your smartphone to take notes of your voter interactions while canvassing.

In an emergency, including an actual threat, we should never hesitate to call 911. But there is a difference between vigilance and paranoia. Oregon is a friendly state, this was a daytime incident and the resident could have called out to Bynum instead of calling the cops.

• Stating the politically obvious: Most people don't know who their legislators are. It is unsurprising that Bynum was unrecognized by the resident.

Being an elected official in Oregon can be humbling. Sometimes it should be. Some legislators take themselves way too seriously. Some lawmakers fall in love with the sounds of their own voices. Some act as if they're too busy to be bothered with paying attention during legislative hearings or debates. That is true regardless of their political ideology.

Bynum does not seem like that. From my frequent vantage point in the House balcony, the first-term legislator reminded me a bit of conservative Republican Sen. Fred Girod of rural Stayton: Listen well, speak sparingly and when you do, have something to say.

Is Bynum a good legislator? Voters in House District 51 will decide that in a November rematch of 2016, when Bynum edged Happy Valley Mayor Lori Chavez-DeRemer.

Side note: Few news stories about the Clackamas incident included a mention of Republican Chavez-DeRemer. That seemed a glaring omission, as if Bynum were the only candidate.

• What's in a name: As for Happy Valley, the city's name seems ironic, both for its location as a Portland suburb and given its long-running dispute with Clackamas County and the North Clackamas Parks and Recreation District.

But heck, I live in a neighborhood named Brush College, where there's never been a college – only an elementary school dating to 1860.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or Twitter.com/DickHughes.