This is part of a weekly series introducing readers to individuals who are passionate about our Mid-Valley community.
When Angelica Ceja first moved from Stayton to Aumsville in 2009, she tried to volunteer for every group she could find. None of them responded to her entreaties.
“I signed up to help the Corn Festival every single year. I signed up to help as much as I could and never got called, never got called,” she said.
She didn’t accept the rejection. Now after four years as a city councilor, Ceja, 43, will be sworn in Jan. 9 as Aumsville’s mayor.
Ceja will be the second female mayor in Aumsville history and the first in nearly 100 years, the previous being Stella Seely, who was mayor from 1925 through 1929. Ceja is believed to be the first person of color to hold the position in Aumsville.
“Like when I make a commitment, I really make a commitment,” she said. “I stayed at the (state) hospital for 15 years.”
As mayor, Ceja will oversee city council meetings and help determine policy. The mayor and councilors in Aumsville receive stipends of a few thousand dollars.
Aumsville, located 10 miles east of Salem, was incorporated in 1911. Its current population is estimated at 4,212 by Portland State University. The city is best known for the annual Corn Festival and being hit by a tornado in 2010.
The daughter of farm laborers
Ceja was born in Albany and lived for a time in a migrant labor camp in Jefferson. She later lived in a house in Brooks that she said was so dilapidated that her mother put newspapers in the walls for insulation. The well water was bad, so the family saved milk jugs to fill with water for drinking. She remembers being so hungry that she would eat raw corn she picked out of a field.
“I remember my uncle digging an outhouse for us,” she said. “And that was an improvement.”
She attended Cummings Elementary School, Whiteaker Middle School and dropped out of McNary High School and within a month earned a GED at Chemeketa Community College. After having children, she also enrolled at Corban University.
She went to work at the Oregon State Hospital as a mental health therapy technician and was in that job for 15 years.
But in 2018 Ceja became ill and was off work for four months. Sitting on the couch day after day, she grew bored while doctors figured out what was wrong and she recovered.
At that time, some people in Aumsville voiced their displeasure about the city council’s decision to enact a $12 monthly public safety fee on every resident’s water bill to pay for round-the-clock police. She joined with a group on social media that successfully recalled three city councilors.
While most people were asking why the money was being charged, Ceja asked why the city didn’t have a bilingual police officer. She asked why the city newsletter wasn’t printed in Spanish.
She applied to be appointed to fill one of the council openings, but was not selected. Then in 2018, she was elected to a four-year term as a city councilor.
When Mayor Derek Clevenger decided to run for state representative this year (he later withdrew from that race) in the November election, it opened the door for Ceja to run for mayor.
Ceja was the only candidate who filed for mayor, and won the election.
Aumsville as the city from ‘Footloose’
Now an organizer for SEIU Local 503 representing workers at the state hospital, Ceja said she has learned a lot from working for the state, and some of that will transfer to the mayoral position.
“I really had to think about the work I love doing for social justice work, and community organization vs. am I happy working the floor at the state hospital,” she said.
She jokes that Aumsville has the feel of the city from “Footloose.”
When Ceja was trying to put on a quinceanera for her daughter a few years ago, she said she had to call city administrator Ron Harding to get a determination. She wanted to have dancing lessons for the 26 children involved and wanted to hold them in the covered area at Porter-Boone Park in Aumsville.
When the property was deeded over to the city decades ago, one of the two stipulations was that a dance hall couldn’t be built there (the other is alcohol can’t be consumed there).
The answer came back that it was fine to have the dance lessons.
That’s the kind of town she will be mayor of.
Ceja said her priorities as mayor including growth in the industrial area along Highway 22 and developing Main Street.
“Those are more the motivators to me than the title,” Ceja said.
If you have an idea for someone we should profile for this series, email Statesman Journal senior news editor Alia Beard Rau at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bill Poehler covers Marion County for the Statesman Journal. Contact him at bpoehler@StatesmanJournal.com