THREE'S A CROWD: Bob Stacey (photo by Tom Martinez), Rex Burkholder (photo by WW Staff) and Tom Hughes (photo by Leslie Montgomery)—candidates for Metro Council prez, or a Kenny Rogers look-alike contest?

Rex Burkholder is surrounded.

The third-term Metro councilor from Northeast Portland wants to succeed David Bragdon, in the regionwide race for the powerful job of Metro Council president.

But Burkholder, perhaps best known for founding the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in 1990, now finds himself in an unusual situation in the Metro race, which rarely attracts more than two credible candidates.

Burkholder faces stiff competition in the May 18 contest for the nonpartisan $114,000-a-year post from the left in Bob Stacey, former executive director of 1000 Friends of Oregon, and from the right in former Hillsboro Mayor Tom Hughes.

And while Oregon politicos are focused now on the fate Jan. 26 of statewide Measures 66 and 67 (see "Class Warfare?" WW, Jan. 6, 2010), this race is getting attention already because it carries important long-term consequences for the Metro region of Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties.

"All three candidates are well-qualified," says Burton Weast, a former Metro lobbyist for 20 years who is now executive director of the Clackamas County Business Alliance. "This is also the first time that I can remember we have strong suburban and Portland candidates. It kind of means Metro has finally arrived."

The nation's only elected regional government, Metro began in 1979 and has operated in obscurity for much of the time since, even though its $460 million annual budget rivals such higher-profile entities as the City of Portland and Portland Public Schools.

Likewise, the Metro president is a much lower-profile job than mayor of Portland or chairman of Multnomah County. But the position presides over a seven-member council and 762-employee agency that sets solid waste, land-use and transportation policies for Oregon's three largest counties and also operates the Oregon Convention Center, the Oregon Zoo and a string of regional parks.

Metro's leadership role in transportation and land-use planning often puts it at the intersection of jobs and the environment. That conflict is most obvious in two hot-button issues recently dominating the council's agenda, and they will be key issues in the campaign for president.

Metro will decide next month which land in the tri-county area will be available for development over the next 50 years and which land will be permanently protected for agricultural or recreational use. Metro also is—and will continue to be—a key player in the debate over the proposed $3.6 billion Columbia River Crossing between Portland and Vancouver.

A couple of years ago, Burkholder might have seemed Bragdon's logical successor to lead Metro in dealing with those difficult issues. Unlike other councilors who hold part-time jobs to supplement their $38,000 annual Metro salaries, Burkholder has devoted all his time to Metro, including sitting on the regional transportation advisory council for nine years, four as chairman.

But Burkholder, who was Metro's representative in multi-agency, bi-state planning for the CRC project—drifted away from his BTA roots and from the Coalition for a Livable Future, an environmental group he also helped found in 1994.

"Rex has been a willing and indispensable accomplice to the effort to intentionally ignore and block lower-cost options," says Portland economist Joe Cortright, who calls himself a longtime friend and former supporter of Burkholder's. "Most disappointingly, Rex still parrots the CRC's Orwellian disinformation about the true nature of the project, claiming that it only calls for three 'through lanes' in each direction. In reality, the CRC is a five-mile-long, 12-lane freeway project."

Burkholder says he entered the CRC process uninterested in building a big new bridge. But he says the data changed his mind. He says critics are driven by emotion and ideology rather than the best solution. "You have to look at the facts," he says.

The bridge ruckus created vulnerability on Burkholder's left. Stacey, a land-use lawyer who formerly held high-level posts at the City of Portland and TriMet before heading 1000 Friends, is now staking out that turf.

"My ideas are more progressive than Rex's," says Stacey. Last week, Stacey posted a critique of the CRC project on his campaign website, saying, "The project has taken a form that would be ecologically and fiscally catastrophic to the region."

Meanwhile, the dismal economy and Metro's historical reputation as a Portland-centric agency has created space to Burkholder's right for ex-Hillsboro Mayor Tom Hughes, now a lobbyist at the Tonkon Torp law firm.

Although he's a retired public schoolteacher, Hughes' economic success as part-time mayor of the state's fifth-largest city qualifies him as the "business candidate" in a race to lead an agency that has been criticized for slighting business concerns. Also worth noting is that Hughes could appeal to suburban voters in Washington and Clackamas counties, which combined have 182,305 more people than Multnomah County.

As Hillsboro mayor from 2001 to 2008, Hughes says he presided over the addition of 32,000 jobs there, many of them high-wage tech positions.

Hughes, a lifelong Democrat like the two other candidates, says he does not differ greatly from Burkholder and Stacey in terms of his approach to controlling growth. But he says he brings two qualities that set him apart: a consensus-building, regional approach to issues and a focus on economic development.

"Metro has been indifferent about how their policies affect job creation," Hughes says. "Their own polling shows that jobs are the region's No. 1 concern."

If Hughes can raise money—which he has not done yet—some observers think he ought to be able to finish at least second in the May primary, forcing a November runoff between the top two candidates in the race.

"It's likely to be Rex and Bob battling for the green vote," says longtime Metro watcher Kelly Ross, a Washington County lobbyist, "and Tom talking about the need for somebody to be a true regional leader who can bring the three counties together."


Burkholder currently has $74,000 in his campaign account, Stacey has $58,000 and Hughes, just $3,000.