When Carolina Mejia swore her oath of office on Dec. 30, it marked a few significant firsts.
She is the first woman of color — the first Latina specifically — to serve on the Thurston County Board of Commissioners. This is also her first time in elected office.
Throughout her campaign, Mejia said she was nervous about the outcome yet determined to do her best. When she finally won the general election for the District 1 seat, she said she felt excited yet humbled.
"Even after that, I still couldn't believe it," Mejia said. "When people would be like 'Commissioner-elect (Mejia),' I would be like 'Am I really? Is it a dream?'"
In many ways, Mejia's story could be held up as an example of the American dream. She started in the United States as an immigrant and propelled herself to elected office where she now hopes to represent her community in a way no previous commissioner could before.
From Honduras to Washington
Mejia emigrated from Honduras with her parents and two siblings when she was 11 years old. They followed her grandmother, who already had moved to the U.S., and fled an increasingly unstable political situation in Honduras.
"My dad was waiting for a visa, there was a transition of power in Honduras and the economy got really bad," Mejia said. "My mom started to get concerned about the political climate but also cartels. The war on drugs started to get really bad in Honduras."
They settled in rural Shelbyville, Tennessee, the one place where her father managed to get his work visa.
"My parents were always able to provide a bilingual education for me, but we moved to Shelbyville, Tennessee, a very small town and it was definitely a culture shock for me, for my mom, for all of our family," Mejia said.
She said her family, and her father especially, pushed her into volunteer and advocacy work throughout her education. However, she said she really found her footing as an activist during her time at Christian Brothers University, a Catholic college in Memphis, Tennessee.
She recalls skipping a sorority party in favor taking a bus to Washington, D.C., to take part in the March for America, a pro-immigration reform protest, in 2010.
"For me, it was the first time I was part of a march like that," Mejia said. "The bedding was quite uncomfortable, but the experience was wonderful. ... You're surrounded by people who have the same goal and are fighting for something that you believe in. ... It fills you up."
She said her mother only caught wind of her actions when someone posted pictures of her on Facebook.
Mejia moved to Washington state after graduating from college in 2013 with a bachelor's degree in business administration and a minor in pre-law.
She said she followed her family which had sold their bakery during the Great Recession and moved to Washington in 2009.
She was admitted to law school at the University of Washington and attended for 1-1/2 years before deciding to withdraw. As a single mother at the time, she said she felt she had to focus on providing for her daughter. She also was discouraged to see many of her peers graduate and struggle to find jobs as attorneys.
"I had to make a tough decision whether, you know, I was going to be able to provide for me and my family," Mejia said. "So, I decided to make the hard decision to withdraw with the intention that if I had the possibility, I would go back and finish."
Mejia found work at as a law clerk and later an office manager at Bean Porter Hawkins LLC, a Seattle law firm focused on immigration and personal injury cases.
However, the commute from Olympia to Seattle grew too tiresome, she said, prompting her to look for local work.
Thurston County Superior Court
Mejia started work as a judicial assistant with Thurston County Superior Court in 2015. She said the job prepared her for her role as county commissioner because it allowed her to familiarize herself with county government.
"When I first started, if you would have asked me what a county commissioner does, I would have been very confused," Mejia said. "I got to learn the inner workings of the county. ... I got to know how the decisions taken by the county commissioners affect each department individually."
Those who worked with Mejia at the court described her as a kind, intelligent and detail-oriented woman who often volunteered in the community.
Tonya Moore, court operations manager, said she managed Mejia in her time as a judicial assistant. She said Mejia would often take the initiative to improve workflows and connect with the community.
Moore said Mejia volunteered to help her organize and manage the first Color of Justice event in 2019, which encouraged marginalized youth to seek careers in the judiciary.
"Even before I asked for volunteers, she was the first one to step up and say, 'I will help you with that,'" Moore said.
Mejia also would often translate for Spanish-speakers who entered the building and explain the court system to those who were unfamiliar with it.
"She really wanted the court system to work for everybody," Moore said. "And for people to feel comfortable coming to the court system and not feel they're threatened."
As a judicial assistant, Mejia supported two judges at a time, fielding inquiries, preparing paperwork and managing their calendars.
One of the judges she worked with was Judge James Dixon, who described Mejia as a passionate, hardworking citizen with an inspirational personal history.
"There were several instances where she would share with me during just general conversations about how proud she was to be a citizen of this country and a resident of Thurston County," Dixon said.
"It was pretty clear to me that she wanted to have a career path, whatever that might be, that would allow her to serve the community."
Challenges on the campaign
Mejia said she wrestled with the decision to run for county commissioner for about two years, but ultimately took the leap because she wanted to bring better representation to the board.
"I felt we needed more representation of the community that actually lived in Thurston County," Mejia said. "There are parents of young children, renters struggling to buy a home here. It's just situations that I felt I could relate to much more because I was in that situation."
She said she gathered a group of passionate, working women who had never run a campaign before. Gabriela Hyre, her campaign manager, said Mejia invited her to join her campaign after meeting in the Washington Latino Caucus.
"We were a group of moms, Latinas, all of us came from left field," Hyre said. "There were times when we were on fumes, we were tired, but it's like, Si se puede, we are going to keep pushing so hopefully the next person will be willing to put themselves out there, la proxima Latina."
During the campaign, Mejia said she felt she had to work harder to meet several challenges. For one, she was an unknown candidate with no political background.
"I felt like we had to do way more outreach," Mejia said. "We had to work three times harder just to make sure people knew who I was."
She also had to run a campaign amid the pandemic, which derailed typical outreach activities.
To adapt, her campaign focused on online events and content including Coffee with Carolina, a podcast where Carolina would talk with community members and organizations.
"We saw that the engagement was really high, we just didn't know where the engagement was coming from," Mejia said. "We didn't know if it was making a difference or an impact. It wasn't until we started our text banking that we realized a lot of people recognized me from that."
To add to the campaign difficulties, Mejia also was the target of baseless allegations questioning her citizenship.
Amid the allegations, Commissioner Gary Edwards, who represents District 2, asked the county's human resources department for at least part of Mejia's social security number. The department declined Edwards request. He later said he did so to put the issue to rest, the Olympian previously reported.
With that issue behind her, Mejia said being the target of those allegations was unpleasant, but she is thankful for how the community rallied to support her.
"It wasn't surprising, but it was definitely nice to have that community backing through it all," Mejia said.
She said she met with Edwards in December to clear the air so they could start the new term on the right foot.
"My goal starting off was to make sure that I have a good relationship with both commissioners and that we're able to do what's best for Thurston County," Mejia said.
The weight of victory
For her first year, Mejia said her focus will be on what county government can do to support economic recovery, COVID-19 vaccine distribution, and eviction protections.
Hyre said she is proud to see a Latina sit on the Board of County Commissioners and expects Mejia to bring a unique perspective to county government.
"It's not just me, my children are seeing this, my girls," Hyre said. "The children of other members of her campaign, others in our community.... It's encouraging to know that there's somebody who's going to be looking at their work through a different lens, a lens that maybe others are not thinking about."
The significance of her victory is not lost on Mejia. Though she is proud to have checked off several firsts, she doesn't think it should have taken this long to see this kind of representation.
"It's kind of like a bittersweet feeling," Mejia said. "For me it, just shows we have way more work to do. ... I'm going to do the best I can."
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