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Karen Willey selected as next Douglas County commissioner

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Post updated at 5:50 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 28:

Douglas County Democratic precinct committeepeople voted Sunday for Karen Willey to represent the third Douglas County commission district.

Willey, who had run for the commission in the 2020 Democratic primary, will replace Commissioner Shannon Portillo, who took office in January 2021. 

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Portillo recently accepted a position as the director of Arizona State University’s School of Public Affairs.

Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times Shannon Portillo

“I’ve said many times that if I could put Arizona State in Lawrence, I would,” Portillo joked as she addressed the voters. Portillo’s new position begins on Oct. 1, and she and her family will relocate to Phoenix in the coming weeks. 

Patricia Willer, chair of the Douglas County Democratic Party, opened the county commission election by introducing the candidates, Willey and Cole Browne. 

Each candidate was given five minutes to speak before the Democratic precinct committeepeople in Douglas County’s Third County Commission District cast their ballots. Candidate Cole Browne spoke first. 

Willey said that if elected, she planned to ensure the county commission is working to bring both sides together rather than further divide them. She won 28-3.

“I’m excited to get to work,” Willey said. “That’s where my heart is; I really like the work, even the nitty-gritty that goes into it.”

Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times Audience members clap after candidate speeches.

“Write legibly!” Willer laughed as she invited the committeepeople to write the name of their favored candidate. She retreated from the stage as the ballot box was passed around, and the voters dropped their folded ballots in. 

The votes were counted by hand as the audience waited in anticipation.

Anybody living in Douglas County’s third district who’s a registered Democratic voter could nominate themselves for the open commission seat. There were two other nominations that received a combined total of 15 votes. Ma’Ko’Quah Jones had thrown her hat in the ring for the seat, but she does not live in the third district. 

Willey served six years on the Lawrence-Douglas County Metropolitan Planning Commission, and helped complete two major local policy projects: drafting the new utility scale solar regulations and the new Lawrence-Douglas County comprehensive plan, Plan 2040, according to a news release announcing her candidacy.

“The role of County Commissioner isn’t a passive one that happens by showing up on a Wednesday night. It is an active role of listening, connecting to people with different views, and creating space for new conversations,” Willey said in the release. “This kind of service is my passion. I love finding common ground across factions and using that as a foothold to make progress on issues that impact us all.”

Willy currently works as a consultant and grant writer for urban health, housing, and human services nonprofits, according to the release. She serves on the Legal Redress Committee for the Lawrence NAACP, and she is nearing 10 years as a volunteer firefighter. She expects to target her work on the commission to address immediate needs in affordable housing, economic development, and green energy as well as to continue progress on supportive housing, mental health, and criminal justice work, according to the release.

“My policy work keeps equity at the core and sorts through competing values to lift up our people, our community, and our earth,” she said.

The Douglas County Democratic Party will forward their recommendation on to Gov. Laura Kelly, who will make Willey’s appointment official.

Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times Patricia Willer, chair of the Douglas County Democratic Party, opened the county commission election by introducing the candidates, Aug. 28, 2022 at Theatre Lawrence.
Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times

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Chloe Anderson (she/her), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a senior at the University of Kansas majoring in film and media production and minoring in journalism. She’s a freelance photographer, writer for Climbing magazine and the associate multimedia editor for The University Daily Kansan.

You can view her portfolio, articles and commissioned work here. Read more of her work for the Times here.

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