Loretta Smith made her best mistake at age 17 when she arrived in Corvallis from Grand Rapids, Michigan.
She thought she had applied to another Oregon university and hoped to join her cousin there. She didn’t realize her error until she arrived on the Oregon State University campus.
After two days in her Buxton Hall dorm room, her roommate moved out, explaining that her parents didn’t want her to live with an African American.
Loretta was devastated, but decided to stick out the term. She became involved with the Black Student Union and in broadcasting at the student-run radio station KBVR. Later on, she studied abroad at the University of London and, in 1987, she graduated with a degree in communications from Oregon State, becoming the first person in her family to earn a college degree.
Despite her rocky start at Oregon State, Loretta says the experience prepared her for living in a diverse world.
After graduation, Loretta took a job manning the front desk for then-Congressman Ron Wyden. It wasn’t her dream job.
“I thought until you can get the job you want, you need to get the job you can get,” she says. “I needed to make my way through the city because I didn’t know anybody in Portland.”
The job she hoped would be temporary turned into a rewarding 21-year career rising through the ranks and advising now-Senator Wyden on a variety of issues and managing his office staff.
The senator asked Loretta over and over when she planned on running for office herself, but the single mother chose to remain focused on raising her son. His high school graduation and attendance at the University of Washington aligned perfectly with an opportunity for Loretta to run for Multnomah County Commissioner in District 2 in 2010.
She says she couldn’t have done it without her experience at Oregon State, where she learned to become involved and serve her community.
“OSU gave me options and opportunities to do things I wouldn’t have been able to do had I not had a degree or an opportunity to be trained,” she says.
Loretta Smith, center, at the Hollywood Senior Center in Portland.
Loretta’s district was in good shape when she began work, but she began to see gaps.
“I spend most of my time connecting underserved communities to county programs,” she says.
She also connects them to other resources. Last year, during a routine meeting with immigrant Somali cab drivers, Loretta discovered they didn’t have adequate health care, despite the availability of subsidized coverage through the federal Affordable Care Act. So she hosted an event to help them sign up.
Throughout her service on the county commission, Loretta has focused on the areas of jobs, seniors and youth.
In four years, she quadrupled a program to bring youth interns into county, city and nonprofit partner offices for the summer.
“I know that in the next five to seven years, a lot of our (county) employees will be eligible for retirement,” she says. “I need to train the next workforce.”
Loretta also regularly hosts pancake breakfasts for area seniors.
“They always tell me how much they want to vote for me, but I’m term limited after this,” she says.
She’s not sure what’s next after her term ends in 2018, and explains that county government shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as a stepping-stone to higher office.
“Plenty of people have gone on to higher office from here,” she admits. “But you don’t need to work in county government unless you really want to help poor people. This government helps the naughtiest and the neediest.”
Loretta Smith visits with Senator Ron Wyden at a Meals on Wheels event in Portland. Loretta worked for Wyden for more than 20 years in his congress and senate offices.
For now, Loretta will continue to look for ways to make county government and its programs more efficient.
“I come up with 100 ideas a day on how the county can be more helpful,” she says.
And no matter what, she’ll still be flipping pancakes for seniors in 2019.
“That’s just who I am.”