In suburban South Salem, career union electrician Claudia Kyle is making an energetic run for state representative.
Kyle, a Democrat, is challenging two-term incumbent Republican Kevin Cameron, owner of a 12-location restaurant chain, Cafe Today. Kyle is a licensed electrician and a 31-year member of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).
“The Oregon we live in now is not the Oregon I grew up in,” Kyle says, explaining her motive for running. Born and raised in the mid-Willamette Valley, Kyle says she got a great public education, and felt a real sense of economic opportunity; those things are under threat now.
After graduating valedictorian from West Albany High School in 1973, Kyle moved to Spokane and earned an English degree at Whitworth College. Post-college, while pondering what to do with her life, she fixed up an old house with a friend, and found that she really enjoyed that kind of work. She was active in the local women’s movement at the time, so when the National Organization of Women encouraged her to pursue an electrical apprenticeship, she jumped in. Kyle was the first woman accepted into the IBEW Local 73 electrical apprenticeship program in Spokane.
Kyle moved back to Oregon in 1987, and got active in IBEW Local 48, serving on the joint apprenticeship training committee and teaching at the NECA-IBEW training facility. Over the years she went from crew member to foreman to project leader, supervising electricians at projects for Intel, Wacker Siltronic, and SEH America.
As a pioneering sister in the brotherhood, Kyle found that some members welcomed her, others not so much. But she says she took the advice of a woman friend who worked for the railroad: “‘Leave your feminist jargon at home. Work as hard as you can, get along with people, and pitch in and do the job.’ That’s what I did, and it didn’t take too long for people to see that I was there to work.”
Kyle will need that work ethic in her run for office. House District 19 is a historically Republican district, though the party’s voter registration edge has been fading and is now under 3 percent. The district has quite a few public employees, and about 80 percent of its 34,000 registered voters live in suburban south and east Salem; the rest are in rural areas and small communities like Aumsville.
As of late September, Kyle’s campaign had raised $50,000 to Cameron’s $100,000. Cameron — the Oregon House deputy minority leader — is supported by business groups, including forest, restaurant, grocery, beverage and health care industry associations. Kyle is backed almost entirely by labor — IBEW locals 48 and 280, other building trades unions, Oregon School Employees Association, and the Oregon AFL-CIO. But Kyle said she’s not discouraged by the fundraising gap. Cameron’s donors write bigger checks, but Kyle has more individual donors — over 200 — which she said signifies a broader-based campaign. And she’s proud to have the endorsement of National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), the union-signatory electrical contractors association.
This Spring, Kyle took early retirement, at age 55. Now she works full-time on her electoral campaign. On voters’ doorsteps, her pitch is persuasive.
Whether Oregon gets back on track may depend on decisions made by the Oregon Legislature in the next few years, Kyle says. “I think there needs to be some of us at the table who have lived as regular working people.”
“There are over 200,000 Oregonians out of work,” Kyle says, “so we have to do everything we can to get people back to work at living wage jobs with decent benefits, so they can know the dignity and satisfaction that comes from providing for their families.”
To do that, Kyle supports energy efficiency retrofits of public schools; low-interest loans to small businesses; and changing state government procurement rules so that the state hires Oregon contractors, employs Oregon workers, and uses Oregon-made and American-made materials.
“Revitalizing our public education system is of equal importance,” Kyle said. “We need to provide stable funding, so they can not be in crisis mode all the time responding to budget cuts. We still have great teachers and staff in all of our schools. We need to focus on things that will help them do their jobs, like early childhood education, and mentorship programs. Much like apprenticeship in the trades, young teachers need mentors.”
Kyle also supports employment-related day care and paid family leave.
Knocking on voters’ doors, Kyle says they at first seem frustrated and skeptical.
“People are distrustful of government,” Kyle said. “They’re not confident that wise decisions are being made and tax dollars are being spent well.”
“But I put it out there to them that we need to pull together as middle class people and become engaged in the process of our government again, and take it back, and make it work for us.”
Labor Press readers can get plugged in to the campaign by calling 503-375-2525 or visiting the campaign web site at www.claudiakyle.com.