CHARLIE HALES (Nonpartisan)
Look, we get it. When the cupboards are bare, the landlord is pounding on the door, the car is out of gas and a pink slip may be waiting at work, politics seem irrelevant.
But in reality, those sort of urgent needs—shared by people living all over the city, and by thousands more who are likely to move here in coming years—raise the stakes in the most important local election of the past decade.
In many ways, Portland is a more mature and vibrant city than it was in 2005, when Mayor Vera Katz left office. And thanks to the hard work of many starving artists and struggling entrepreneurs, the city is enjoying a moment on the global stage.
That’s the good news. The bad news? The $3.5 billion, 26-bureau, 6,200-employee enterprise that is Portland city government has devolved into a directionless PowerPoint factory. City Hall now has all the charm of a snake pit inside a funeral parlor.
Tom Potter, a former police chief, arrived as the people’s mayor in 2005, eschewing big campaign donations and promising a down-to-earth approach. He quickly came to hate the mayor’s job once he realized he couldn’t simply order people around.
Sam Adams followed. He was a talented insider who emerged from Katz’s office to serve first as a city commissioner. He still has savvy and a smart take on most issues. He’s even a little bit hip. He could have been—should have been—an important mayor in the city’s history.
But Adams never recovered from the public exposure of his own lies and bad judgment. The damage from the Beau Breedlove scandal was so extensive, Adams wisely concluded last year that he could not win re-election.
Adams’ exit has created the most competitive mayoral race since 1992, when Katz defeated then-City Commissioner Earl Blumenauer.
Voters will find 23 names on the ballot. Only three deserve your serious attention.
Businesswoman Eileen Brady is bright, charismatic and energetic. Her association with New Seasons Market, Ecotrust and the Chinook Book lends her candidacy an air of eco-friendly localism. Brady is also one of the most impressive fundraisers in city politics in a long time, giving her an edge her opponents cannot match.
Brady has been planning to run for mayor since 2009. One would think she would have bothered to learn the fundamentals of city government and articulate a vision and plan.
But Brady is one of the most breathtakingly unprepared mayoral candidates we have seen in years. When we first interviewed Brady last summer, we were struck by how little she had to say about why she was running or what she hoped to accomplish as mayor. As the election draws near, we see little improvement.
Brady is not without ideas, most of which involve handouts to various constituencies. To food processors and the tech industry, she wants to give tax breaks. To the enviros, she (alone among the major candidates) wants to build the sustainability center. For the building trades, she has offered up a $3.4 billion fiasco-in-waiting called the Columbia River Crossing.
But bear down on the details, and she is without a basic grasp of how city government works, filling in the gaps in her knowledge with jargon and buzzwords.
Her fondness for remarks like, “We are in a new era and we need new ideas” is no substitute for knowing what you’re talking about. She often doesn’t.
Of all the candidates in this race, WW finds itself agreeing on issues most often with state Rep. Jefferson Smith (D-East Portland). He came relatively late to this race and is counting on his skills as a political organizer honed as co-founder and leader of the Bus Project.
He rarely fails to impress with his independence (his early and courageous opposition to the Columbia River Crossing), his thoughtfulness about the democratic process and his ability to excite others. The sense of fun he brings to public life should not be dismissed.
Smith is right to focus on providing services to small businesses and startups, rather than recruiting large corporations by offering unsustainable incentives. He’s got a real handle on how the urban planning process went awry in East Portland, and we believe his commitment to equity and social justice is genuine.
But his talents do not include those of a manager. As WW has reported, he had serious trouble managing the Bus Project and details of his own life. Were Portland a city-manager form of government, we might feel differently about Smith in this position. But the mayor of Portland has to manage budgets, help negotiate with unions and provide basic services. Smith has shown little skill in those areas.
He offers the promise of good things but also the potential to fail spectacularly. The city cannot afford more calamities in the mayor’s office.
That leaves former City Commissioner Charlie Hales, who among the candidates is easily the best-tested, most experienced and clearest thinker about city government.
Before we embrace Hales, a caveat.
Hales quit midway through his third term as a city commissioner and, shortly after, moved across the Columbia River. He declared himself a resident of Washington state from 2004 to 2009. In doing so, he avoided paying tens of thousands of dollars in Oregon taxes—a privilege he got only by swearing to Oregon tax officials he considered Washington his home.
Meanwhile, Hales was telling elections officials he was actually an Oregon resident and kept voting here.
This isn’t an issue to dismiss as frivolous. Hales kept a Portland address (while escaping Oregon taxes) so he could come back to run for mayor someday.
When WW broke this story in June 2011, Hales said he’d never given up his Oregon residency for tax purposes. When WW showed that wasn’t true, Hales claimed he’d simply forgotten in which state he’d been paying taxes.
Misdirection like this from a candidate would usually be a killer for us, and it has made this choice more difficult.
The fact is, when it comes to the substance of the mayor’s job, no one comes close to Hales. He’s ready to do the job, and do it well.
Hales knows the scene and the players. He served on the City Council from 1993 to 2002. He passed a big parks bond, built community centers, killed a misguided freeway expansion and championed airport light rail and the Portland Streetcar.
To a degree that’s actually remarkable for a politician, Hales listens. He isn’t always ready to start blathering the minute someone else takes a breath. Presented with compelling new information, he even changes his mind.
Hales has surprised critics by demonstrating his independence from the developers and contractors who have paid his salary (he spent the past 10 years working on streetcar projects around the country for HDR Inc.) and filled his campaign coffers.
And while Hales has flipped-flopped on issues over 30 years in public life, he usually flops in the right direction for Portland. The former Republican homebuilders’ lobbyist became a New Urbanist bent on buffering the city against Peak Oil with government investments in public transit.
As mayor, he will have to manage a shrinking budget and set a new, optimistic tone in a soured bureaucratic culture. He’ll have to tangle with an unaccountable police union, bat down some half-baked money grabs like the sustainability center, and focus the city’s attention on worthwhile projects like his community credit proposal, which would leverage the city’s revenue to increase access to bank loans for small businesses.
We trust him to examine the evidence and make a smart, well-considered decision on most any issue likely to face the city.
What of the 20 other candidates on the ballot? Voters may recognize hapless activist and publicity hound Tre Arrow, but they might have missed the stories about his recent domestic-violence arrest. Scratch him off the list. The Occupy Portland movement produced an enthusiastic young candidate, Cameron Whitten. We think Whitten stands to accomplish more as an activist than as a politician. Young Max Brumm has more enthusiasm than most, and we encourage him to stay involved.
Forget the rest. For mayor of Portland, it’s Charlie Hales.
Worst thing Hales has done for money: Ask his friends for campaign donations.