Sen. Jackie Winters dies amid lung cancer battle

Shortly after her death was announced, a single candle was placed on Sen. Jackie Winters’ desk in the Oregon Senate, flickering in the otherwise dim room. (Claire Withycombe/East Oregonian Media Group)

State Sen. Jackie Winters, a Salem Republican who spent decades in public service, died Wednesday.

The solemn news was delivered on the House floor by Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, shortly after 2:30 p.m. Wednesday as lawmakers began receiving an email announcing her death. Several House members, including Rep. Denyc Boles, R-Salem, and Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon, D-Woodburn, broke into tears.

Representatives stood for a moment of silence to remember Winters, who was a force in the building, known for her progressive work on criminal justice reform as well as a unifier in the Senate Republican caucus. 

“She was a pioneering woman in the Oregon Legislature, a true historical figure,” said Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem. The two worked closely together for years. “I’ve lost my partner in public service. The Legislature and Oregon has lost a dedicated servant. We’ve lost the best of the best.”

Rep. Mark Meek, D-Clackamas County, sang “Amazing Grace” at the dais of the House Wednesday afternoon. The Senate was adjourned at the time. Shortly after the announcement, a readout board in the Senate lit with a message honoring her. 

Winters, 82, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2017. She last participated in a Senate vote on April 18. In a statement on April 23, Winters said that her cancer “is currently in remission, and I continue to have proactive treatment to keep it that way.”

She said at the time that she was “having side effects from the treatment and I am being treated for those side effects.” She added that she was “taking a couple of days away from the Capitol.”

“It was an honor to know and work with Jackie,” Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger, Jr., said in a statement. “Oregon would not be the state it is today without her incredible dedication to the causes and people she fiercely believed in. Elected to the Oregon Legislature in 1998 as the state’s first African-American Republican, Jackie was an icon and leaves a legacy for all Republicans. Her life is a great example that with hard work and a strong character, the American Dream is possible. She will be deeply missed.”

Just last week, Winters said in a statement that she was “working hard” to return to the Legislature.

Winters was a key legislative budget writer and advocate for criminal justice reform, and one of only 12 Republicans among the Senate’s 30 members.

Former Rep. Vicki Berger said Winters was an “Oregon icon” who was her mentor.

“If I needed advice, either political advice but mostly legislative advice on how to get things done in that building, Jackie was your go-to,” Berger said, adding Winters’ institutional knowledge was limitless.

Winters led the Republican caucus in the Senate from November 2017 until December 2018 and was vice chair of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, the legislature’s powerful budget writing committee. She co-chaired a subcommittee handling budgets for the state’s public safety agencies.

Going into the 2017 session, Republican senators were divided over who would lead. Winters emerged as a candidate because of the sense of unity she brought and the respect she held.

Winters was elected to the Senate in 2002, after two terms in the House. She was the first black Republican member elected to the House.

“We are saddened at the passing of Sen. Jackie Winters, a true pioneer, stateswoman and valiant leader,” Senate Republican leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, said in a statement. “For many years, Sen. Winters embodied the spirit of Oregon, overcoming obstacles, setting a course for others to follow and bridging divides. Oregon has lost a truly great legislator and remarkable woman.”

Shortly after announcing her death, the House went into recess until the evening.

Cards and flowers piled up in Winters’ office Wednesday afternoon. (Claire Withycombe/East Oregonian Media Group)

The outpouring of condolences and grief was immense. 

Winters was an institutional figure who garnered a rare level of respect from both parties. Secretary of State Bev Clarno called Winters a “true giant.” Winters was one of two senators who spoke at Clarno’s swearing-in this spring. 

“She will be missed by all who serve here in the Capitol, her community, and her family,” Clarno said in a statement. “She was a true and dedicated public servant, and Oregon is better because she dedicated her life to public service.”

Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, a fellow moderate Republican, remembered Winters for her courage and patriotism.

“The legacy of service she leaves behind her will better our state for generations to come,” Knopp said. “I will deeply miss my friend.”

Winters’ last major vote came April 16, when she carried a bill on the Senate floor that was near to her heart. It was reform of Oregon’s mandatory minimum sentencing law, Measure 11.

Senate Bill 1008 changed how juveniles are treated in the criminal justice system. It’s something Winters said she had worked on for 50 years. The bill passed the Senate that day, and last week passed the House.

State Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, said Wednesday that she wished the House could have heard from Winters directly on the bill.

“I think we would have had a unanimous vote because she had that much of a command, just her presence,” Bynum said. 

“Thankfully, Senator Winters, known as the soul of the Oregon Legislature, was able to watch and listen last week as her crowning legislative achievement, Senate Bill 1008, Juvenile Justice Reform, passed the House,” said a statement from Winters’ staff.

Gov. Kate Brown also mentioned SB 1008 in her statement about Winters, saying the late senator’s work would improve the lives of Oregonians going forward.

“Senator Jackie Winters has been a bastion of integrity, justice, and common sense in the Oregon Legislature since she first took her seat in 1999,” Brown said. “Her commitment to service knew no bounds.”

(Jaime Valdez/Portland Tribune)

Less than a half hour after her death was announced in the Capitol, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, signed the bill that will surely go down as part of Winters’ legacy.

“I am heartbroken,” said House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland. “Jackie Winters was a true original – an extraordinary public servant whose life’s work has made Oregon a better place. She was a fierce fighter for truth, justice and fairness.”

Both women have worked tirelessly on criminal justice reform, including on SB 1008.

“I was not only fortunate to call her a friend, but fortunate to have her as a partner in the charge for a more just criminal justice system,” Williamson said. “I am not quite sure what we will do without her.”

Winters’ interest in criminal justice reform comes in part from her husband’s experience in the system. He was convicted as a teenager and spent time in adult prison — no place for a child, she said.

“You are teaching the individual, especially the juveniles, how to be better criminals,” Winters said on the floor. 

Winters was born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1937. She moved with her family to Oregon four years later, according to her legislative biography.

Winters survived when the Columbia River flooded Vanport on Memorial Day in 1948. Vanport was a public housing project in North Portland, and the nation’s largest public housing development at the time, according to the Oregon Historical Society. The flood left about 18,000 people homeless.

Winters got her start in government in 1959, working at what was then the Oregon Health Sciences University in the medical records unit. Ten years later, at the request of then-Gov. Tom McCall, a towering figure in Oregon political history, she became supervisor of the Office of Economic Opportunity’s New Resources Program. 

And in 1979, Gov. Vic Atiyeh appointed her ombudsman. In that role she helped start the Oregon Food Share Program, a system of food banks serving the poor.

She then became a restauranteur. In 1985, Winters opened Jackie’s Ribs in Salem, and at one point had three restaurants and three franchises, according to her legislative biography. 

She married Marc “Ted” Winters in 1971. She met him while he was working in Gov. McCall’s office and she was working at Model Cities. Ted Winters died in 2008.

Speaking to reporters in late 2017, when she was made Senate Republican leader, Winters said she was “very collaborative.”

“I ran multiple restaurants, and what have you, which means that you’re accustomed to actually dealing with a variety of personalities and working to build teams to get the work done,” Winters said. “I believe that all of our members have talents and that they can make a contribution.”

“I can describe her as like a queen holding court,” Bynum, the Clackamas Democrat, said. “She was the chair of our public safety subcommittee, and when she spoke, she said what she meant, and she meant what she said.”

Bynum said Winters “commanded a level of respect in this Capitol that was unparalleled.”

Bynum and Winters were two of the four African-American members currently in the Legislature.

“I feel like I’ve lost my legislative mother,” Bynum said.

“I think she had the respect of her colleagues, and she could shift the conversation in a meaningful way when it came to issues in the African-American community in particular,” Bynum said. 

When an Oregon legislator dies or resigns midway through her term, her political party is obligated to nominate three to five applicants for the position, and one is then chosen by county officials.

In Winters’ case, the appointment will be made by Marion and Polk county commissioners, since Winters represented parts of both counties in the Senate. The vacancy has to be filled within 30 days.

An election will be held next November to fill the remaining two years of Winters’ term.

Reporter Claire Withycombe: [email protected] or 971-304-4148. Withycombe is a reporter for the East Oregonian working for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group, and Salem Reporter.

Reporter Aubrey Wieber: [email protected] or 503-575-1251. Wieber is a reporter for Salem Reporter who works for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, the Pamplin Media Group, and Salem Reporter.

Follow Salem Reporter on FACEBOOK and on TWITTER.

YOUR SUBSCRIPTION WOULD HELP — Salem Reporter relies almost exclusively on reader subscriptions to fund its operations. For $10 a month, you hire our entire news team to work for you all month digging out the news of Salem and state government. You get breaking news alerts, emailed newsletters and around-the-clock access to our stories. We depend on subscribers to pay for in-depth, accurate news. Help us grow and get better with your subscription. Sign up HERE.