SHHS alum Candalynn Johnson seeking change through ‘civic engagement’

Scott Swanson

Candalynn Johnson has never been one to miss an opportunity to get involved.

So working to garner support for a new process of establishing electoral districts in Oregon is right in line with efforts she’s been making for years.

Johnson arrived in Sweet Home from Lebanon midway through her seventh-grade year and, by the time she’d finished high school, she’d been active in various choirs, Drama and Key clubs, cross-country and in the Low Income Youth Garden Program. Oh, and she was also a member of the 2012 Sportsman’s Holiday Court.

Moving on to Linn-Benton Community College, she got involved in student government. Two months into her sophomore year, she was student body president. She also was among local residents chosen for a New York Times story on Sweet Home and how it has been affected by the virtual shutdown of logging in the Willamette National Forest, which appeared in November of 2014.

At Oregon State University, she became a lobbyist for the student body, traveling twice to Washington, D.C. and frequently to Salem to advocate for student issues. She spent two weeks in Havana, Cuba, in 2016, doing a short-term study-abroad program there on that country and its culture, and its political relations with the U.S.

She was involved in the Oregon Students Association, helping transition LBCC’s student government into that organization and sitting on its board of directors for three years, the last as vice chair.

“I just love civic engagement,” said Johnson, 24, leaning across the table in a Salem coffee shop on a recent afternoon. “I love community service and I love being involved in the community.”

The first of her family to graduate from college, she finished Oregon State University with a bachelor’s degree in political science on top of her associate’s degree in business from LBCC.

“It really gave me some of that statistics and non-profit kind of background, as well as a lot of spreadsheets and data processing that you use quite a bit in political science,” she said of the latter.

After college she served a year with Americorps, teaching leadership seminars to Chemeketa Community College students and running a mentorship program through the Boys & Girls Clubs of Marion and Polk counties.

“That was really awesome because it was, like, three jobs in one,” Johnson said. “I got to learn what it would be like to work in student services at a college, what it would be like to be a faculty member at a college, and what it would be like to work with youth at a Boys & Girls Club. It was a wonderful experience.

“I have always had a passion for education and I love working on things that impact kids,” she said. “As a first-generation college student myself, I really value organizations that really focus on people who need extra resources.”

A side benefit of her time in Americorps, Johnson said, is that she now volunteers with the organization as a confidential advocate on a 24-hour crisis hotline for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.

“It’s been such a rewarding experience,” she said. “These are people who need resources or who are calling to tell someone their story for the first time in 20 years.

“I’m still young. I still have so many career paths available to me. But one of my dream jobs that I keep going back to, over and over again, is running community education programs for youths on consent and healthy relationships and broadening educational programming to prevent domestic violence and sexual assault and increase bystander intervention with kids.”

Right now, though, her main focus is elsewhere.

A big constant through her college experience was Johnson’s involvement in voter registration. That was her biggest reason for involvement in OSA, “because OSA is one of the leading organizations throughout the entire United States for voter registration and education work” and “students are known to be non-voters.”

“If legislators think you don’t vote, they don’t have any reason to listen to you. Then it’s hard to lobby for anything.”

In 2014 she organized a voter registration drive at LBCC that registered “the most students that had ever been registered there,” then followed that up in 2016 with another at OSU, which resulted in more than 4,500 registered voters.

“I’m most interested in non-partisan or issue-based advocacy,” Johnson said. “That’s what I did at OSU. All of the issues I advocated for were issues that deeply impacted students.”

All of that sort of culminated in what Johnson is currently involved in: coordinating a campaign to fix the way Oregon determines who votes for whom in legislative and congressional elections.

Last fall she took a job with the Oregon League of Women Voters as campaign coordinator for that effort.

The issue, she says, is that the Oregon legislature currently controls where district lines are drawn, which becomes a “political process.”

“The league believes that the process should be taken out of the hands of the legislature and put into an independent, multi-partisan commission.”

That move would require a constitutional amendment, which would have to be approved in a statewide election, either by referral from the legislature – “unlikely, but that’s the process we’ll try first” – or through the initiative process.

The League’s proposal is to create an 11-member multi-partisan commission that would be appointed by an Applicant Review Panel of three retired judges, one representing the largest political party in Oregon, the second representing the second-largest and the third registered with neither of those parties. They would, then, appoint three members from the largest political party, three from the second-largest and five who are not registered with either, who represent unaffiliated voters, independent voters or any third parties.

“Essentially, we’re talking about a really large group of voters here,” Johnson said. “The goal is not for proportional party representation, but for balanced political party representation. We don’t want one party to have any more influence than another party in drawing district lines. That is because that’s when gerrymandering happens.”

Johnson has spent the last three months organizing and holding 15 seminars throughout the state on the issue, including one in Albany in December. She said she hopes to do more, including possibly one in Lebanon.

The goal is to get the issue on the 2020 ballot, so voters can decide before redistricting happens in 2021, she said.

“I think a lot of the voters are for it and the reason for that is it’s a fairer process for everyone.”