It was there that the Northwest Labor Council, an umbrella group for city unions, on Nov. 15 hosted the first mayoral candidate forum in the 2012 campaign.
In a revealing moment, Eileen Brady, who styles herself as the bike-commuting sustainable business candidate, told the trade-union audience exactly what their members wanted to hear.
“I am very supportive of the Columbia River Crossing project,” Brady said. “We are going to take the opportunity—you guys, we cannot miss this opportunity—we have a public works project the likes of what we may not see for a decade. We need to move forward on it.”
Only a couple of months earlier, Brady expressed a very different view of the CRC, a proposed $3.5 billion freeway project between Portland and Vancouver that critics deride as unnecessary and unaffordable.
“This project will not go forward in its current form,” Brady told WW in August. “I don’t see the business plan that works.” (Brady says she had not fully studied the issue when she spoke to WW.)
Candidates tailor their messages for specific audiences all the time. But Brady’s wavering is an example of how difficult it can be for a politician in Portland to put together a winning coalition.
“Running for office in Portland is a really difficult balancing act,” says Mike Lindberg, a former four-term city commissioner. “What you say to one group may kill you with another. And the level of civic engagement is so high that people in all the different groups are really knowledgeable.”
Candidates can’t appear too business-friendly (and alienate unions and progressives) or not sustainable enough (fatal to any Portland candidate).
They must be liberal enough to attract the three-quarters of major party voters who are Democrats. They must be green but frugal. They’ll need to court unions without enraging big business. And they need to support education without making impossible promises—such as Adams’ 2008 campaign pledge to slash the dropout rate—when the mayor has no authority over the school district.
The influence of these groups is greater than it has been in decades. Mayor Sam Adams won’t seek a second term and the City Council’s real power, Commissioner Randy Leonard, is also leaving office after next year.
The last epic battle for the mayor’s job came in 1992, when Vera Katz whipped Earl Blumenauer. But you’d have to go much further back to find a more competitive field of candidates than Brady, former City Commissioner Charlie Hales and state Rep. Jefferson Smith (D-East Portland). Police Chief Mike Reese, who strongly considered a campaign, announced Nov. 21 that he won’t run after all.
Voters have reason to be cranky. Unemployment is high (about 9 percent), storefronts are empty and the city seems adrift. In May, normally tax-loving Portlanders spiked a $548 million school-bond measure.
Remarkably, though, a Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall poll conducted for the Portland Business Alliance in early October found 43 percent of respondents said the city is headed in the right direction.
That’s nearly three times the rate of satisfaction found in a national Rasmussen poll taken the same week.
Even with the election a year off, the city’s most powerful groups have already begun using their clout to shape the choices voters will have in 2012.
What follows is WW’s field guide to the election. When candidates say they know what’s really important to the future of our city, who, exactly, are they trying to convince?
You’ll hear candidates use the terms “living wage” and “revenue,” and when you do, know they are talking about union jobs and making sure the city can pay for them.
In a town run by liberals, union support is a big prize. Getting that support means talking up concerns about what union members worry about most: compensation, pensions and keeping their jobs.
“Job security is the top concern right now,” says Rob Wheaton of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees Local 189, which represents about 900 City of Portland employees.In turn, labor unions offer candidates two things: money and volunteers. In 2008, organized labor was Adams’ second-biggest funder, with AFSCME and the Service Employees International Union giving him a combined $26,000.
The police and firefighters unions give less but sometimes matter more. Each union has a hero complex—protecting the safety and property of citizens.
It’s easier to figure out who labor does not like than who it does. As a city commissioner from 1993 to 2002, Hales aimed at saving money by taking on outdated fire bureau policies; he made lifelong enemies out of fire union leaders.
Brady, 50, also has a union problem. New Seasons Market, the 12-store grocery chain she and her husband helped found in 1999, is nonunion. And she was invisible on Measures 66 and 67, income-tax increases approved by voters after heavy supportive spending by public-employee unions.
Union power has already influenced the race in meaningful ways.
A union-funded poll in August helped convince Adams he could not win re-election. And a union drumbeat for a more progressive candidate enticed Smith, with a strong pro-labor voting record in Salem, into the race long after Hales and Brady announced their candidacies.
Public-employee union members at local schools, Multnomah County, Portland State University, OHSU and state agencies and union retirees will all pay attention to what the city unions decide. And here’s a connection that can make a big difference: The Oregon AFL-CIO is run by former Portland fire union boss Tom Chamberlain, who can leverage a lot of other labor support.
The Power Lunchers
The Portland Business Alliance fancies itself as the center of Portland’s corporate power.
Its 1,400 members include utilities, banks and big law firms, and land-rich families like the Goodmans, whose parking empire owns 25 downtown blocks. The PBA also includes retailers like Macy’s.
PBA leaders lunch at the Heathman Hotel and exercise at the Multnomah Athletic Club. They still wear ties and enjoy corner-office views of Mount Hood. The PBA wants Occupy Portland and gutter punks off the streets so Lake Oswegans and Camas tax exiles feel comfortable in the city center.
When you hear candidates talk about lower business taxes and less red tape at City Hall, they’re wooing the PBA.
Still, the PBA’s interests don’t fit with those of most voters: “Conditions in downtown Portland” ranked seventh out of eight concerns among city residents, according to a poll the business group financed in October.
The PBA’s sense of power is greater than its actual clout, and its anointed candidates rarely win.
“What hurt me in the mayor race [was] the perception that I was beholden to big business,” says former City Commissioner Jim Francesconi, who was widely favored to win the 2004 mayor’s race but lost to Tom Potter, who had far less money and no support from big business.
“That’s why you see campaigns emphasizing that they are running ‘grassroots campaigns.’ Candidates want to label themselves progressive before they reach out to business for support.”
In 2006, the PBA recruited State Sen. Ginny Burdick (D-Southwest Portland) to challenge then-commissioner Erik Sten. Like Francesconi, she got clobbered.
For some PBA members, the Columbia River Crossing is a litmus test.
It’s an example of how agendas of two otherwise different groups—labor and business—overlap.
Brady has been on both sides of the bridge issue. Hales says he favors a new bridge but says the current project will not get funded. Smith, whose corporate law career was almost as brief as Reese’s candidacy, founded the Bus Project, which has sometimes overpromised its ability to engage young voters. Smith has no shot at PBA support, in any case, because he opposes the CRC, cutting taxes and relaxing environmental restrictions on the Willamette.
Earlier this month, the PBA delayed its endorsement process to seek another candidate.
Some of its leaders thought they had found one in Reese.
The fact that Reese, 54, considered a run is directly connected to backstage maneuvering by PBA leaders; the organization financed the October poll that showed the race was wide open, and PBA leaders nudged the chief to run.
Reese came out of the Occupy Portland showdown in Lownsdale and Chapman squares with strong marks for taking command and influencing the city’s message.
But he stumbled badly elsewhere. He misled The Oregonian twice when the newspaper asked him about the mayor’s race before and after WW broke the story of his potential candidacy Nov. 1.
And on Nov. 17, as Occupy protests heated up around the city, Reese told two TV stations police efforts to deal with the movement meant they had to leave a rape victim waiting for three hours before they could help her.
That wasn’t true—and the bureau had to retreat from the chief’s statement. Reese apologized Nov. 19.
He announced two days later that he wouldn’t run.