Last month, state Sen. Rod Monroe (D-East Portland) did something unusual: He sued a renter living in one of his apartments.
For two years, Monroe has been locked in a battle over building maintenance with tenants living in his apartment complex in the Glenfair neighborhood of East Portland. This summer, a tenant sued him over a neglected roof. On Oct. 17, Monroe countersued her boyfriend, alleging the damage was actually his fault.
That isn't just an unusual legal action. It's also the latest shot fired during an uprising by tenants that could threaten Monroe's re-election to a sixth term in the Oregon Senate.
The lawsuit is part of a far larger dispute over tenants' rights that split Salem last session. Tenant advocates see Monroe, 75, who first won election to public office in 1976, as a roadblock—and they're determined to bulldoze him out of the way.
No Oregon politician has a target on his back like Monroe does. Advocates say he has been a crucial vote blocking housing reforms in the Senate. And he's also a landlord, owning the 51 units of Red Rose Manor along Northeast Glisan Street at the eastern edge of Portland.
In the seven months since WW first reported on Monroe's ownership of Red Rose, he has been sued by a tenant, seen the city's most aggressive tenants union organize on his property, and gained two serious challengers in the 2018 Democratic primary. Most Democratic incumbents never see one.
All this ill fortune is not a coincidence.
Portland Tenants United, a growing force in local politics, acknowledges to WW that it has made Monroe a target, by offering his tenants a megaphone for their grievances, asking them to campaign against his re-election, and connecting one of them to a lawyer willing to sue Monroe.
"We don't see any real renters' rights legislation passing until we replace Monroe with someone who supports working families," says Hannah Howell, a Portland Tenants United organizer. "The makeup of the Senate hasn't changed in the past five months—votes will be coming from the same anti-tenant lawmakers taking money from the same anti-tenant lobbyists."
Primary scuffles among Portland Democrats are uncommon. For the battle to be centered on an incumbent's apartment complex is unheard of.
Monroe says he's been unfairly singled out for opposing a ban on no-cause evictions and the loosening of rules on rent control.
"I felt like it was bad public policy," he says. "[Portland Tenants United] are generally regarded as one of the more radical of the tenants' rights groups—and that's fine. But I think it's so much better for good legislation if landlord groups and tenant groups work together."
Monroe's allies decry the focus on Red Rose Manor.
"These are the types of pressure tactics that I have grown to expect from [PTU]," says landlord lobbyist John DiLorenzo. "It's disappointing that anyone would seek to impose economic pressure on a member of the Legislature because they disagree with his voting record."
But Monroe is fighting back—and not just with his countersuit.
Tenant organizers say that after he and his wife, Billie, visited their property in August, tenants abruptly stopped coming to the door when canvassers knocked. (Billie Monroe says they both visited the property but did not speak to any tenants while they were there.)
Monroe has also brought in $58,760 in campaign donations this year, collecting all but $250 in the past three months after two challengers filed to run against him: former state Rep. Shemia Fagan (D-East Portland) and Unite Oregon director Kayse Jama.
Neither opponent has yet given Monroe as much negative attention as his own tenants.
In August, Areli Lopez sued Monroe and the property management company he hires to run the complex, C&R Real Estate Services, alleging that in December 2015 a neglected leaky roof caused her to slip and fall, injuring her back, knee and shoulder.
"Because he's a senator, he can get away with it," Lopez says. "He's taking his power and getting away with not fixing this apartment."
Monroe believes the lawsuit is politically motivated.
"There's no doubt about it," he says. "If I were not running for re-election, this would not have happened."
PTU connected Lopez with her attorney, Michael Fuller. But Fuller denies the lawsuit is part of a coordinated effort to unseat Monroe.
"This is not a political case at all," he says. "This is a case against a bad landlord with a leaky roof."
In late October, Monroe and his insurance company filed a countersuit against Lopez's longtime boyfriend, with whom she shares an apartment. The suit against Jose Ramirez blames him for the puddle that formed on the apartment's floor, saying he should have mopped it up. It also calls Lopez a "trespasser" because her name was not on the lease.
Since PTU started door knocking and Lopez filed her suit, Red Rose Manor has seen some new maintenance. Moldy boards shielding stairs from rain have been replaced and mold has been removed or painted over throughout the complex.
Rotted balconies were recently repaired. Still, mildew grows on window sills and door frames and in corners where moisture has collected in Lopez's apartment.
For nearly two years, Lopez asked the property manager to move her to a downstairs unit because of her disabilities. She amended her lawsuit Oct. 10 to include an allegation that Monroe and C&R had violated the Americans With Disabilities Act for refusing to grant her request.
Lopez and Ramirez will move into a first-floor unit Friday, which will make it much easier for Lopez to get into her home with her bad knee and back.
But the couple is not done fighting Monroe.
"He is somebody who can push anybody around," Lopez says. "He's just representing the people who have the money, the landlords. What about everyone else? What about us?"