Eddy Morales confronts his troubled past
Today the Gresham community knows Eddy Morales as an activist and elected member of the City Council.
But less well known is where he got his start — the youngest of nine siblings growing up in poverty in Portland, and the child of a single mother born in Mexico who did not speak English and who had a third-grade education.
His childhood was at times a struggle as his family relocated 10 times across the Portland region before his high school graduation. He also worked three jobs at the age of 15 to support his family.
"It was tough, but not uncommon," Morales said. "People still struggle to make a dollar stretch. Having grown up poor, my motivation is to help people facing the same challenges we did."
That upbringing was difficult, especially as he was thrust into an adult role within the household. He describes times of uncertainty, even as a teenager, when he worried about how to pay the bills. And he briefly dropped out of high school following the murder of his brother.
There also were brushes with the law.
Morales faced two formal legal charges, uncovered through a background check conducted by The Outlook on all of Gresham's elected city councilors. The search revealed Morales had convictions for misdemeanor theft and driving with a suspended license (no auto insurance), though several other charges were later dismissed in court.
Morales said he doesn't shy away from the incidents that shaped his past.
Instead, the newest face on the Gresham City Council said his past frames his political activism and interest in helping others.
"A lot of people in our community have to deal with the same struggles I did growing up," Morales said.
About 10 years ago, Morales, 39, had a chance to have his record expunged of the misdemeanor theft and driving while suspended convictions. It was a suggestion made by his lawyer, and would have legally erased the convictions — effectively making it appear as if they never happened.
But Morales wasn't interested in cleansing his record.
"It's part of my teenage past," Morales said. "I have paid my fines and complied with all my service requirements. This is stuff that I've always been open about."
Earning an education
When Morales' brother was killed, it threw his young life into turmoil.
Morales said his brother, who was 18, was standing in a crowd of other Hispanic people in Portland when a stranger opened fire, shooting him in the head. Morales, who was two years younger, said the shooter wouldn't have passed a background check necessary to possess a firearm.
The death hit Morales hard, as he and his brother shared a tight bond. Morales subsequently dropped out of high school, unsure of what the future held.
"I was depressed and overwhelmed by the feeling of how easy life can be taken," he said.
Even as a high school dropout, Morales remained active in the community, continuing his earlier involvement with the Police Activities League, now known as Friends of the Children. Among his roles, he advised youths about future goals, including how to navigate the intricacies of high school and college.
One day, two young twins asked where he had gone to college.
"I felt like such a hypocrite," Morales admitted.
That question spurred Morales to seek support from his peers and community. He returned to high school, and became the first in his family to graduate and attend college.
"I realized how few of my peers made it that far," Morales said. "I had a support system, scholarships, Pell Grants, outreach programs like Trio and Gear Up, federally subsidized loans and counselors to help me get to that point."
That support motivates Morales today as an elected official, saying he strives to break down barriers and provide opportunities for community members facing similar difficulties.
He's on the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and is treasurer of the Democratic Party of Oregon. He lived in Washington, D.C., for 13 years, where he was president of the U.S. Student Association and an active supporter in several congressional and state elections.
But he and his partner, Hugh Harris, who Morales has been with for 16 years, wanted to return to Gresham. It was an easy decision for the couple, as Harris had grown up in the community, graduating from Gresham High School, and Morales had two sisters living nearby. They purchased a home in the Persimmon neighborhood in 2010, and have been living locally full-time for the last seven years.
With them are Harris' mother and other family members. Morales keeps his door open to anyone in need, as often he and his mother had to sleep on loved ones' couches.
Embracing the past
As a teenager, one of the jobs Morales worked was as a seasonal employee at Meier & Frank (now Macy's) in Clackamas County.
One afternoon, a friend who was headed to a job interview and needed appropriate clothing came to Morales for help. Morales, as an employee, broke the store rules regarding his employee discount.
"It wasn't as common as it is now, but I extended my discount to my friend — someone who was like a brother," Morales said.
The police were called, and Morales was cited for misdemeanor theft. He later paid restitution, took a diversion class and completed the required volunteer hours.
"Obviously it was a mistake and I regret it," Morales said. "I paid my fines, returned the clothes, and completed courses on the topic. I was trying to help somebody out — someone who is now a very successful business person in Oregon."
Morales said the citation for driving with a suspended license had to do with his increased role in the household.
Between his three jobs, high school and night courses at Portland Community College to catch up from his brief period as a dropout, Morales said he needed better mobility.
"My mom didn't drive, so when I was 16, I got my license," Morales said. "Car insurance for a teenager is expensive and some months I had to choose between paying my car insurance and paying for gas to get to school and work.
"I know people in Gresham are having to make these same decisions every day. One in five people in Gresham live below poverty levels and are making 50 cents on the dollar compared to our neighboring cities to the west," he said.
Other brushes with the law
Another incident involving Morales was an alleged assault — later dropped by a judge's order — dating to his years in college. Morales was serving as vice president of the Associated Students of the University of Oregon when he was accused of assault and criminal mischief relating to an incident in September 2003 outside Taylor's Bar and Grill in Eugene, a popular watering hole for U of O students.
A fellow student, Erica Hass, claimed Morales ran at her screaming, shoved her down, dragged her by her ankle for 15 feet and smashed her cell phone. Morales countered those claims in the original investigation conducted by the Eugene Police Department. He told officers Hass fell because she was drunk, that her cell phone was broken because she threw it at him and he threw it back.
After reviewing an investigation of the incident, a Lane County judge dismissed the accusations against Morales.
"I take allegations seriously and believe they should have a thorough investigation," Morales said. "The judge dismissed the case."
When contacted by The Outlook, Hass, who now lives out of state, said she felt uncomfortable hearing Morales' name and did not wish to speak about the incident from her past.
The most recent incident involving Morales occurred in February 2017 when he was pulled over by a Multnomah County Sheriff's deputy for what court documents described as "speeding, tailgating, weaving, wildly varying speeds and odd braking patterns." The deputy who made the citation noted signs of intoxication.
Morales refused both the field sobriety test and breathalyzer.
According to records sent by Deputy District Attorney Eamon McMahon, the DA was unable to prove — due to a lack of hard physical evidence — that Morales was driving while intoxicated.
A related charge for Morales refusing to take the breathalyzer test was also dismissed, with the judge citing the reason as the officer failed to appear in court.
While Morales has not run from his past, he would rather move forward in his new capacity as a city and civic leader.
During the first week as a city councilor, Morales said he discovered an issue that had gone unnoticed during a Housing Taskforce meeting. The goal of the gathering was to brainstorm ways to support renters and deal with the rising cost of living. Five of those who attended only spoke Spanish, and were unable to understand what was being said or share their concerns.
So Morales spent the meeting translating for them. Since that meeting, the city has translation equipment at every event, and staff who speak other languages are available for assistance as needed.
As a Gresham City Councilor, Morales has been focused on advocating for policies that support vulnerable and ethnic communities. In the last six months, Morales has worked on housing policies, advocated for sidewalks near schools and gathered funding for school health centers and sports facilities.
"I feel like I've had success in bringing outside resources into the city for housing, sidewalks and roads, parks, and our police department," he said. "I plan to continue this progress as I work to solve our city's financial crisis. I think I am one of the more progressive voices on council."
Though he had brought it up during several meetings, the July 2 council meeting caused the most disagreement. Morales and Councilor Mario Palmero wanted to examine the recruitment process for city committees and subcommittees — for which Gresham has at times struggled to find willing volunteers.
Morales said discussions with constituents uncovered a perceived lack of transparency within the city of Gresham and its processes.
Others on the council, though supportive of diversity, were opposed to Morales' attempt to delay appointments.
"It's difficult to not feel targeted, but I remain resolute that we must move forward in Gresham to include all voices, particularly those that have been left out," Morales wrote in a statement.
What continues to motivate Morales as an elected official are the changes he hopes to bring to Gresham.
He said his past helps him understand — better than most — the instability caused by poverty. And he said he uses that empathy and shared experience to craft his policy priorities.
"I represent everyone in Gresham, and bring a lived experience to the council that resonates and represents the diversity of our city," Morales said.
-- The Outlook conducted background checks on all the Gresham City Councilors, including Mayor Shane Bemis. Those searches turned up a mix of driving infractions — including speeding tickets, failing to use seat belts, and parking violations — as well as cases that have previously been reported on.
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