The week after Labor Day, as other political candidates were making campaign phone calls, Dacia Grayber was putting in long hours fighting catastrophic wildfires. But in four months time, she’ll most likely be the newest Democratic state representative for Tigard in the Oregon Legislature. Grayber, 45, is Oregon labor’s best chance to add to the handful of union stalwarts serving in the Oregon Legislature. If she beats Republican Bob Niemeyer in House District 35 on Nov. 3, she’ll take to Salem her experience as a first responder, a record as a super-volunteer, and a habit of speaking her mind.
Grayber spent her childhood in upstate New York in a diehard union household. Both parents were public elementary school teachers active in the teachers union. When she was 10, a fire started in the chimney of her family home, and firefighters came to extinguish it.
“I watched them, and I was just totally rapt. I said, ‘I want to be a firefighter.’”
She’ll never forget the male firefighter’s reply: “He said, ‘Sweetheart, your brother can be a firefighter. You can join the ladies auxiliary.’ And I was like, ‘Hell no. I’ll show him.’”
Fifteen years later, she was living on Orcas Island, Washington, and working multiple jobs when she joined a volunteer fire department. Within a year, she enrolled in the state fire academy, and went to work part-time for Orcas Island Fire & Rescue.
Then her marriage unraveled, and she took a job as a professional firefighter in Bellingham, Washington in 2007. In 2010, she met Matt Laas, a lieutenant at Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue (TVF&R). It was a set-up, engineered by friends. They hit it off and soon married. She got a job at TVF&R and moved with her son to Portland to join Laas and his three kids.
Right away she got involved with the union, International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 1660. Grayber says it was a union that stood loudly and proudly for wages, working conditions, and retirement security, but struggled with social issues. She started asking why there were so few women on the job and in the union. The moment she finished her probationary period, she became chair of the union equity and inclusion committee, and pushed the union and TVF&R to do more to recruit and retain women and minorities. TVF&R soon joined with Portland Fire and Rescue in sponsoring an annual fire camp for young women. It’s now in its 10th year.
One winter, she realized TVF&R was getting lots of 911 calls to check on unhoused people, and it was putting a burden on the system. So with support from her union, she started a free clinic for houseless residents of Tigard and King City. Every Saturday from November to March she volunteers at a space in Tigard’s severe weather shelter to do triage and foot care, and she partners with county health officers to provide flu shots and vaccinations.
She also became one of the most active volunteers in the union’s political program, and traveled to Salem repeatedly to testify on legislation. In May 2019, she was at the Capitol with her fellow IAFF members when she got a text: “Come to the gallery.” Democrats were preparing to vote on a bill to cut contributions to public employee retirement accounts.
“All the firefighters, we were all in uniform … We stood there while they screwed us over. We wanted them to have to bear witness that these are the faces of the people doing the work.”
Now one of those faces will most likely be heading to the Capitol as a legislator. Grayber got the idea to run for office from her own state representative, staunch labor ally Margaret Doherty. After spending a day at the Portland Metro Fire Camp, Doherty told Grayber she was planning to retire, and suggested she run to replace her.
“I laughed,” Grayber recalls. “I came home that night and told my husband, ‘Rep Doherty said the craziest thing to me.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Oh my god, why wouldn’t you?’ I said, ‘Because I’m not a politician.’”
Then it dawned on her: “I look at the world my kids are about to inherit. I look at the things I’ve fought for. When I go to work and someone’s having the worst day of their life, I have the ability to tackle that head-on and make things better one call at a time.” Being in the Legislature, she’d have a chance to make things better on a much bigger scale.
Sponsored by her union, Grayber enrolled in the Oregon Labor Candidates School, and learned the nuts and bolts of running a political campaign. She graduated March 7, just as the pandemic hit.
Now co-workers, even conservative ones, are rooting for her. Grayber tends to swear, so they’re preparing her for the Legislature with a swear jar. “Every time I drop an f-bomb, I have to put a dollar in.”
House District 35 covers all of Tigard, some of Southwest Portland, and a little sliver of Clackamas County.
“It’s a strong labor district, a lot of labor households,” Grayber says. “I’m excited by that. It’s a lot of working class folks.”
Her opponent, conservative Republican Bob Niemeyer, got just 33% of the vote in his challenge to Doherty two years ago, but Grayber’s supporters aren’t taking chances. As of early September, her campaign had raised $116,000, including over $55,000 from her union’s local, state and national political action committees, and cash and in-kind support from a dozen other unions. Niemeyer has raised just $1,500.
If Grayber wins, she’ll fight to expand health coverage, affordable housing, and public transportation infrastructure. She’ll push to lower college tuition, reduce carbon emissions, and build more renewable energy. Having been the one who had to tell a mother her child was dead due to gun violence, she wants common sense gun violence reduction measures, like secure storage of firearms. She wants police reform. She wants a more equitable tax code. She wants Oregon to be better prepared for earthquakes and wildfires.
The work ahead is urgent. Grayber likens it to her work as a firefighter. “Right now the entire building is on fire, and people are jumping out the window. We have this emergency in our state, and across the nation.”
MORE ABOUT HER CAMPAIGN: DaciaForOregon.com