35 Innovators Under 35: Meet Ben Cannon

Teacher and community activist, State Representative Ben Cannon’s House District 46 includes the Portland neighborhoods of Laurelhurst, Lents, and Montavilla, as well as North Tabor, the place of Cannon’s upbringing and current home.

“The neighborhood offered urban living and easy access to shops, parks, and my piano lessons—while also being within walking distance of Mt. Tabor’s crater, reservoir, and green spaces,” the 34-year-old legislator said. “Looking around the world, I realized that this place truly helped shape who I am. I was committed to returning home to Portland.”

Raised in a family of teachers, Representative Cannon attended Washington University and received a Rhodes scholarship in recognition of his service, scholarship, and leadership. After subsequently earning degrees in Philosophy, Politics, Economics (PPE) and Comparative and International Education at Oxford University in England, he returned to work at Tualatin’s Arbor School of Arts and Sciences, where he has taught middle school students for the past eight years.

After his first few years of teaching, Cannon began holding a series of conversations around his district to explore a candidacy in the Oregon state legislature.

“To be honest, I had been bitten by the political bug,” he says of his interest in public service. “Canvassing the neighborhoods in my district, I found a lot of support, especially toward my unconventional approach to fundraising. It was one of the best experiences of my life.”

Cannon knocked on doors with a coffee tin in his hand, garnering many small donations from neighborhood donors--an approach that proved appealing to him and his constituency. To develop that concept even further, he partnered with District 47 Representative Jefferson Smith to create the ‘1000 Twenties’ project, an attempt to ease the influence of interest groups by seeking hundreds of smaller dollar donations. Cannon refuses to take contributions from political action committees for his campaign.

Now seeking a third term in the legislature, Cannon continues to teach the roughly sixty students in his class, though he respectfully takes a leave of absence whenever the months-long session takes place in Salem.

Cannon is the only legislator to earn a 100% pro-environment rating from the Oregon League of Conservation Voters from the 2009 session. “One of the heaviest lifts--a real close vote, and one that I am proud of—was the low carbon fuel standard the legislature adopted in 2009.”

With the news that he is expecting a child early next year, Cannon has not made any commitments to seek a higher office in the near term, though he is open to having the conversation.

For now, Ben Cannon is focused on fixing the state budget and further engaging the electorate—both in seeking small donations, and in bringing the next generation into the political realm. Additionally, Cannon is an active board member of the Oregon Bus Project, an organization that mobilizes students and young adults across the state by engaging them in the political process.

“I believe the only way to really change Oregon is through engagement--we have a lot of untapped potential that I really want to help uncork,” Cannon said.

 “Getting involved in neighborhood initiatives, community gardens, public transportation, food policy—these are some of the best and most creative experiences that can serve as a launching pad,” he said. “It’s exciting! From there, you will start to engage successfully, whether that be on your block, in your neighborhood, around your local businesses--and beyond.”