About 25 people have gathered for a candidates’ forum at the June Key Delta Community Center in North Portland. Everyone else is at ease moving around the room, shaking hands, chatting up voters. Not Nolan. She stands to the side, as if out of her element, with pursed lips and forced smiles.
Only when it’s her turn to speak does Nolan relax. She introduces herself as a candidate for Portland City Council, and she’s running “because Portland is at a critical point and we need important results.”
People who have worked with Nolan, 57, over the decades in business and government say she’s smart, honest and driven.
“She keeps her nose to the grindstone, and she gets impressive results,” says Geoff Sugerman, who worked for House Speaker Dave Hunt when Nolan was majority leader in 2009. “But she’s not warm and fuzzy.”
Nolan is challenging Commissioner Amanda Fritz, the City Council’s lone iconoclast.
“[Fritz] says she wants to be watchdog, and that’s an OK thing to do,” Nolan says. “I don’t think that’s all a City Council member should do. We also need to produce results.”
Yet Nolan is also the anti-Fritz in a way that also reminds voters why they like Fritz, who is proudly unconventional, loves to attend community events and personally responds to thousands of emails.
Nolan—blunt, direct and minimalistic—acknowledges she often counts on an aide for the little touches a politician often needs.
“I am not always the one who thinks about sending a birthday card or making a call on those kinds of personal parts of people’s lives,” Nolan says. “But I’m smart enough to make sure somebody’s paying attention to that human piece of it.”
Nolan has raised serious cash for her campaign—$217,000 since announcing her candidacy last summer. She’s shown an ability to draw contributions from business, unions and other interests that often disagree.
Her biggest donation: $20,000 from the city’s firefighters union. (Fritz limits herself to contributions from individuals, of no more than $50 a year. She’s raised about $30,000—plus a $50,000 loan to herself.)
Yet with less than seven weeks before Election Day, Nolan has yet to punch through and gain the name identification she’ll need to take out the better-known Fritz. Fritz’s campaign released a poll last week that purports to show her leading Nolan, 44 percent to 10 percent.
Nolan says other polls show them closer and that two-thirds of voters are still undecided.
“This is why we hold elections,” Nolan says, “to talk about the record and accomplishments that people can count on.”
Nolan grew up with five sisters in a Catholic family that lived in Chicago and Stamford, Conn. She was on the high-school debate team, excelled in math and, in 1972, was part of the first class of women admitted to Dartmouth College.
Interested in environmental work, Nolan moved to Portland in 1976 with a boyfriend and landed at the City of Portland’s Planning Bureau.
She oversaw street lighting, public works maintenance and environmental services in the 1980s and early ’90s. She later worked for a PacifiCorp subsidiary and moved to New York to work for an international bank.
U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, then a city commissioner, hired Nolan to run the Bureau of Maintenance, and later the Bureau of Environmental Services.
“It was not the easiest environment for a woman manager who was about the size of some of the jackhammers people used,” Blumenauer says. “But she really impressed the workforce.”
Nolan earned her pilot’s license in the 1990s after watching her husband, Mark Gardiner, fly. (Gardiner is the former city economist and chief financial officer.) Her experience led her to co-found a business, AvroTec, that makes GPS technologies for airplanes. She stepped down from an executive role when she was first elected to the Legislature in 2000.
As a representative from Southwest Portland, Nolan focused on health care and environmental issues. She has been the Democratic caucus’s majority leader, served on the Joint Ways and Means Committee and co-chaired the budget subcommittee on public safety.
Nolan has a reputation as a party-line Democrat, consistently scoring high with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Oregon League of Conservation Voters and Planned Parenthood.
Nolan’s work on Ways and Means led to some of the work she says best defines her success in Salem.
Her biggest legislative accomplishments, she says, include establishing a mechanism for funding the state’s Healthy Kids program, giving part-time students access to college scholarships, and pushing through the largest-ever school funding appropriation in 2007.
WW, in its biennial ratings of legislators, last year called her “sharp—and sharp-tongued.” Nolan says her direct style means people know exactly where she stands. “Those who count her out do so at their peril,” one lobbyist said.
Few doubt Nolan’s skills in the Capitol, including members of the other party.
“She’s an inside fighter in the sense that she understood how the Legislature worked,” says Rep. Vicki Berger (R-Salem). “Often things get done if the groundwork is done with a series of phone calls first. She’d make the call.”
One of her best-known votes in Salem, however, created friction within her own caucus.
In 2009, Democrats pushed through a 6-cent-per-gallon increase in the state’s gasoline tax—the first in 16 years. The $300 million transportation package also included higher vehicle fees—also unpopular.
A lot of Democrats didn’t want to vote for the bill, especially those in swing districts who might face attack from Republicans in the next election for supporting a tax hike.
Nolan, as House majority leader, lined up reluctant Democrats and persuaded them to vote for the package anyway.
But when the bill came to the floor, Nolan herself voted no. She was one of only five Democrats who voted against it.
Berger, the Salem Republican, joined Democrats to vote for the bill. She says her “jaw dropped” when Nolan defected.
The vote left many people who had taken a risky vote feeling bitter. (One anonymous commenter in WW’s legislative ratings called Nolan’s vote “incredibly selfish.”)
Nolan says she understood the importance of the bill to the state, but she personally disliked the way it favored certain pet transportation projects.
“I had two responsibilities,” she says. “One to my constituents, and the other to my caucus. I am straightforward. I was really clear with the people who were counting the votes what I was going to do.”
Nolan was also one of the leaders who fought for Measures 66 and 67, the divisive increases in corporate and personal income-tax rates on the wealthy that voters approved in January 2010.
Some Democrats were accused of trying to extract payback from business lobbyists who had fought the measures. One was Jon Chandler, a lobbyist for the Oregon Home Builders Association.
The Bend Bulletin reported that Chandler, after writing a July 2009 op-ed for The Oregonian critical of Democratic leaders, got a voice-mail message from Nolan that suggested he might pay a price in Salem for his opposition to the measures.
“Hey, Chandler…I somehow managed to miss your retirement announcement,” the newspaper quoted Nolan as saying on the lobbyist’s voice mail. “When did you decide you were going to drop out of the lobbying business? Let me know if there’s a farewell party; I certainly wouldn’t want to miss it. Stay in touch. Thanks.”
Nolan said it was a joke. Chandler wasn’t laughing.
“Mary can rub folks the wrong way,” he says. “Obviously, she rubbed me the wrong way at one point.”
But he argues the Portland City Council could use some “adult supervision.” In December, Chandler donated $250 to Nolan’s City Council campaign.
“I don’t think a little doggedness would hurt that group at all,” he says. “If she thinks something is good, she’ll try to get done. If she thinks it’s stupid, I’m guessing she won’t. And if she pisses off one of her colleagues, I don’t think she’ll care.”
Nolan says she’s confident her legislative strategies will translate to success on the council. Her priorities if she’s elected to City Hall will be investment in East Portland, better managing public utilities, and improving coordination between city police and the county sheriff.
More than just issues, though, she promises she can change the way the council works.
“I might very well find a disagreement with some of my future colleagues about where to prioritize this service or that service and disagree with them and vote differently than they did, but that doesn’t prevent us from working together,” she says. “The council as a whole doesn’t now demonstrate a capacity to do that.”