The trials of Robert R. Parker, Jr.: Steve Duin column

More than 30 years later, nothing about Robert R. Parker, Jr., is as clear and convincing as his endurance.

He survived what the Oregon Legislature would eventually describe as an “improper and unjustifiable decision” by Oregon’s Supreme Court, preventing him from practicing law for three decades.

He was the headliner in inquiries by the Department of Justice, the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, and three grand juries that, Parker argues now, came down to one brusque assumption:

“Bob Parker must have some issues: He’s black … and living in Oregon.”

And Parker stubbornly fought to clear his name and exorcise his demons when no one thought he had a prayer.

“I’ve searched my conscience for 34 years, trying to figure out what I did in another life to justify what happened to me,” the 67-year-old Parker told me last week.

“It was nothing I did. It was something I had to learn: Patience. Perseverance.”

Let the record show: He persevered. He surrendered nothing to those who accused him in 1987 of using his position – as committee administrator for Oregon Sen. Jim Hill, D-Salem – for financial gain.

From this distance, and the hellscape of modern politics, the charges are otherworldly: He asked a lobbyist for a loan to help start a national insurance company for African-Americans? He accepted free basketball tickets? He impersonated his boss – who eventually served two terms as state treasurer – when a bank called Hill’s office to confirm Parker’s employment during a credit check?

In 1989, The Oregonian reported that the Ethics Commission pushed for a negotiated settlement in the case, waiving all fines if Parker agreed that his conduct was “improper.”

He refused. “What did Bob Parker do that’s different from what goes on here every day of the week during the legislative session?” he asked.

Parker and his pro bono attorney, Stephen Scott, have long claimed he got in the way of the major oil companies and monied interests who didn’t want to see a bill benefiting local gasoline dealers move through Hill’s committee.

“It was a perfect storm,” Parker says, “of the willingness to believe someone you know against someone you didn’t know, and thought you didn’t like because his skin was a little darker. I was too articulate to be real, so I had to be a ‘scam artist.’”

Few members of the Capitol fraternity, to be sure, could relate to Parker’s background. He was born in Flint, Mich. His father – the “numbers banker,” or bookie, in the neighborhood, Parker says – died when Parker was 13, and he was promptly shipped to W.J. Maxey Boys Training School, the local MacLaren.

“My mother couldn’t handle all six of us (kids),” Parker says. “I was horrible at that stage of my life. Incorrigible. A bad attitude and a big mouth. I always had a problem with authority figures.”

He stayed 16 months. “What saved me when I was on the inside was that I read, ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X.’ I latched on to the Nation (of Islam), and it saved me. I needed the discipline and structure the Nation provided.”

Parker earned his GED, then hit community college and the University of Michigan. He was a junior, he says, when the general counsel for the Nation told him, “If you really want to be a thorn in the side of the devil, you need a law degree.” Parker followed that advice to North Carolina Central University School of Law in Durham, then followed his wife to the Pacific Northwest.

He took the job with Hill, even as he worked on rolling out that insurance company. “I questioned authority every chance I got,” Parker says. He passed the bar exam. And in the wake of those myriad, flawed investigations, he spent years in the wilderness of bankruptcy, unemployment and despair.

“He ended up not practicing law because a group of people decided he stepped over a line,” state Sen. Lew Frederick says. “They were able to do that because he was a Black guy, and he had nowhere to turn.”

In May 2021, Frederick was the driving force behind Senate Concurrent Resolution 22, which passed the Legislature, with Governor-elect Tina Kotek voting aye, and Christine Drazan and Betsy Johnson voting against it.

That resolution argued that Parker was investigated “without legal authority,” and the Ethics Commission’s report marred by “references on Robert Parker’s race and Muslim faith.” It urged the Oregon Supreme Court to vacate its 1992 decision and order Parker’s admission to the Oregon State Bar.

The Court did just that last December, even as the State Bar made the audacious demand that Parker undergo 18 months of therapy.

“I’m glad they required me to take therapy,” Parker says. “I’ve been angry for 30 years. I was defamed and marginalized. I’m like the guy in prison who gets released by DNA. What do you do after that?”

For Parker, that meant setting up a law office on the 31st floor of Big Pink. Taking his first client in a child-support case. Catching lunch at the riverside McCormick & Schmick’s when his schedule permits and trying to make sense of things.

“I had no idea it would take 30 years to get through this (expletive),” Parker says. “How come I didn’t change my name and go to the islands? Because your word is all you have. If people can’t believe what comes out of your mouth, you have no credibility.

“Perseverance on principle is something we’ve gotten away from. My adversaries were deeply entrenched in the power structure. When I didn’t roll over and play dead like most Black people do in Oregon, they got pissed. I couldn’t let their lies become my truth.

“I kept my family together without benefit of welfare, food stamps or scam,” Parker says. “I stood up for 34 years and fought within the confines of the system. I fought by the rules. If we are going to be a colorblind society, I hope my story will lead the way.”

— Steve Duin

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