As a kid, Paige Kreisman never imagined that she would one day run for office. “I could barely imagine myself surviving to adulthood,” she says.
For her, that meant joining the United States Armed Forces shortly after high school, and later using her GI bill to attend Oregon State University. Now the 24-year-old veteran, who lives in Portland, Oregon, is fighting not just for her own survival, but everyone else’s too. She’s running for Oregon’s State House of Representatives, to represent the state’s 42nd district, on a ticket that prioritizes climate justice while advocating for working class people. And she is doing so on a campaign that isn’t beholden to corporate sponsors.
Kreisman, who grew up in North Carolina, moved to Portland after she was forced to end her military service as a result of President Donald Trump’s ban on out trans servicemembers. “I’m really grateful for what I found [in Portland],” she told MTV News. “The community, especially in Portland, is really accepting and welcoming in a way that I hadn't experienced in any of the other places I lived, until this point.” Her love for her community is one of the reasons she says she’s diving into a race in the face of some steep competition: incumbent Democratic Representative Rob Nosse, who has been in office since 2014, and who won the 2018 election with 94 percent of the vote.
In a statement to MTV News, Nosse said that he’s proud of his “record as a proven progressive Democrat who has fought wealthy corporate interests on behalf of working families in Portland and won.” In particular, he cited his work as a labor union organizer, as well as his advocacy for health care reform, aggressive climate legislation, as well as the state’s Student Success Act of 2019 and his work to provide campaign finance transparency to Oregon voters.
But Kreisman, who prides her campaign on being “100 percent people-powered,” wants more than transparency: She wants radical reform, which includes commitments from lawmakers to decline donations from corporations, lobbyists, and especially from fossil fuel companies. (Rep. Nosse did not respond to MTV News’s query if he would commit to rescinding donations from fossil fuel companies.) And though Oregon’s state legislature is a Democratic supermajority, Kreisman still believes its residents deserve as progressive a future as possible. She spoke with MTV News about the work that informs her campaign, what she’s learned on the campaign trail, and why it’s up to everyone to advocate for their neighbors.
MTV News: What prompted you to run for office?
Paige Kreisman: I serve as the Electoral and Legislative Chair for the Portland DSA, which basically means I run our lobbying department. In that effort, I was down at Salem pretty much every day last legislative session, and I was constantly disappointed with the half measures and compromises I saw. This is a state where we have a Democrat supermajority in both chambers of our legislature, and a Democratic governor. And that Democrat supermajority was fought very hard for by working class people, and what we got in return from that was a series of compromises and half measures. Last year, our Democrat supermajority voted to cut pensions for nurses and teachers that got them elected, and that's unacceptable. That's when we decided we needed to get involved in this race.
MTV News: How did you determine that you were the person who should run?
Kreisman: We got together with different organizations and community leaders who all agreed that we needed to run in this race, and we each put forward a couple of candidates. We had four potential candidates, in total, and the four of us got together in a room and we just decided who the strongest candidate would be. We decided on me, and took that to the members of the Portland DSA, and let the general membership vote on it. So we actually had about 250 Portland DSA members vote on whether or not I should run.
MTV News: As a millennial, what kind of policies do you want to present to advocate for other young people?
Kreisman: The climate crisis is the biggest because no other issue matters if we don't have a planet to live on. Young people are really concerned about that, and rightfully so. We are now waiting until the absolute last minute to address this climate crisis, and the solutions that the corporate establishment of the Democratic Party is putting forward are not adequate.
We're proposing the Oregon Green New Deal, which is a comprehensive climate policy package. It's written and championed by the Oregon Just Transition Alliance, which is a coalition of climate advocacy groups and front line community groups. And it not only meets our climate goals but does so while centering on justice and equity for workers in front line communities.
MTV News: You used your GI bill to attend Oregon State University. How would your life have been different if you didn't have that support?
Kreisman: I definitely wouldn't have been able to go to college without that. And it probably wouldn't have been worth it, either, because the only way I would've been able to go without that would have just meant getting thousands and thousands of dollars in student debt. So, that's definitely something that enabled me to do something that's out of reach, for a lot of people. We have a huge student debt crisis in this country, which is why it's so important that we work to build this movement that's going to address that and work to elect people who are willing to take that on.
MTV News: You grew up in North Carolina. What was it like to then come to Oregon, after you served?
Kreisman: It was definitely a big culture shock, but in a really good way. I grew up in a really rural part of North Carolina, a place called Gaston County. And that area was effectively run like a religious oligarchy. There was one big Baptist church in town, and the preacher was from the same family as the sheriff, and was from the same family as the mayor. That one big family ran that whole little town, in a way that was very, very reactionary. A very, very far right-wing type of politics. That was definitely not a very good place for me to grow up in. If I didn't join the military, I probably just would have died there. I joined to get out of that place.
When I was forced out by the Trump administration's trans military ban, I was looking for a place to go. I needed to use my GI Bill, and Oregon State University was still taking applications at the time I got out, and the internet said it was nice. So I packed everything I owned into my $1,000 Saab 900S from 1995, and I drove across the country. I luckily got in, got into OSU about a week after I got here, otherwise I would have been in real big trouble. I'm really grateful for what I found here. The community, especially in Portland, is really accepting and welcoming in a way that I hadn't experienced in any of the other places I lived, until this point.
MTV News: How does your experience growing up in Gaston County and then serving in the military inform the work you do now?
Kreisman: My parents were open white nationalists and my stepdad was in the KKK, which was still active in Gaston County, North Carolina, when I grew up there. It really exposed me to how evil those ideologies were from a really young age. I knew I was trans at a really young age, so I never really developed any relationship with my family because I knew that it was all contingent on someone who I wasn't. That really exposed me to those really far right-wing ideologies at a young age, and how they needed to be overcome. That's something that I committed myself to, from a really young age.
And at first, it was just developing a plan. When I was 12 or 13, I decided I needed to get out of North Carolina. That was my focus, just how to survive to adulthood, basically. But afterwards, I started finding other people who were fighting back against similar institutions of oppression, or maybe different ones that I had no experience with. We got together and we organized, and we realized that we were stronger when we fought together. That's where I really learned how to fight back — not just for my survival, but really fighting back against the force of these oppressions of this type of patriarchy and white supremacy and imperialism that I experienced, while I was in the U.S. Army. And that really drives and informs the work that I do now.
MTV News: What does solidarity look like for you?
Kreisman: It's critical that we fight together, and especially in ways where we can use our privilege to help people that don't have any in that area. Everyone has some level of privilege. Around the time I was getting out of the military, I kind of transitioned from fighting for myself. There are certain areas of my life where I realized that my white privilege got me out of certain situations that I probably wouldn't have [gotten out of], if I wasn't [white].
Our campaign is really a good example of that itself, because it's really great and important that I'm the first trans woman to run for the state legislature in Oregon. But I also want to reflect on and realize why I, specifically, am the first trans woman to do that. Why Paige Kreisman is the first. And I think it comes down to who was least threatening to cis people, because it's really intellectual politics. It's really cisgender people who decide what trans people they want to uplift, and what trans people they want to be the representatives of all trans people, in their minds. They're chosen by cis people, because they're not threatening to them. Because they don't challenge other power structures, like white supremacy or capitalism. And my campaign's part of that, too, because I'm a veteran and I'm white and I'm, in a lot of ways, seen [by cis people] as less threatening than a Black trans woman saying the same things.
Nothing I'd ever said hasn't been said before by trans women of color. So why am I the one who's having the platform for saying those things? And I reflect on that, and understand that I need to use that to fight for and uplift the people whose voices aren't being heard, because their voices are more threatening to the [status quo], just for who they are.
MTV News: Who are some of the women who have inspired you?
Kreisman: Going way back, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson really started this movement. Along those lines, Chelsea Manning did some amazing stuff recently. Of course, all the amazing candidates that won last cycle, like I mentioned before, like AOC and Rashida Tlaib, like Ilhan Omar. And also people locally here, too, in Portland. There are some local leaders here that are really amazing examples of what it means to be grounded in the community, and doing work that's fighting just for the working class people of the state, like Teressa Raiford, who's a mayoral candidate now, but she's a really well-known activist and organizer with Don't Shoot PDX, which is our Black Lives Matter group. There are so many amazing women doing great work here in Portland, and across the country.
MTV News: We know that younger generations are more progressive than the generations that came before them, even within the same general party lines. What message do you hope that other people take from these shifts?
Kreisman: It is working. We've seen electoral gains for progressives continue to grow and expand in the last two election cycles. The Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016 proved that you can successfully run a campaign that's only accountable to the people. That's a movement-powered campaign that's not accountable to the 1 percent or to corporations. And then that spawned a whole movement of people running for office in 2018, where we saw AOC get elected, and Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, and so many other people all across the country, up and down the ballot, from school boards to Congress. And I think that's going to continue to grow and expand here, in 2020, and then beyond as well. Right now there are real progressive primary challenges in Democratic districts across this country, that haven't had competitive primaries in years, or decades.
It's very taboo to have a contested primary here in Oregon. There's so many sitting state reps who run unopposed. Or they've only had token opposition from the Republican Party. But when we give people a real choice, and show people what a true progressive vision looks like, that works for the people exclusively, we can really redefine what people see as possible.
This interview has been edited for length.