“Amanda Fritz’s efforts to attract more business helped create 6,800 new private-sector jobs in the Portland area in the last year alone,” Fritz writes in a campaign mailer.
That’s a pretty astounding claim for a city still struggling to emerge from recession. It’s a number bigger than the full-time workforce of the City of Portland, or Port of Portland, or Portland Public Schools.
So where does it come from? Fritz says the 6,800 figure is the number of new jobs the Oregon Employment Department recorded in Multnomah County from December 2010 to December 2011.
In other words, Fritz, running for re-election, is taking some credit for every job in the county last year.
City Hall candidates are rushing this year to present themselves as “job creators,” and Fritz isn’t the only one stretching the truth.
All of them may be liberals, but the leading City Hall candidates have seized on the same focus-grouped phrase—“job creators”—that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is using on the campaign trail.
It’s a neat piece of rhetoric widely attributed to Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster and wordsmith. (He’s also the one who coined “death tax” to describe estate taxes.) According to a December 2011 Yahoo! News story, Luntz advised Republicans to use job creators when referring to businesspeople or entrepreneurs, in order to counteract the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The focus on jobs is understandable. Polls consistently show that Portland voters’ No. 1 concern is the economy.
So WW looked at candidates’ records and put their claims of job-creation cred to the test.
Fritz, who’s running for re-election, says she deserves some credit for every job that was created in the county last year—all 6,800 of them.
Asked how she arrived at that number, Fritz says she was “a solid supporter for measures that have streamlined and coordinated economic development strategies,” that she supported funding new sidewalk construction, and that she was “instrumental in pushing the negotiations on fixing the Sellwood Bridge to its successful conclusion.”
But a leading Portland economist whom WW asked to review Fritz’s job-creation claim pans her approach. Joe Cortright of Impressa Consulting says it’s very difficult to ascribe short-term job fluctuations to elected officials’ actions.
“The biggest single factor in what happens to the local job market is the U.S. economy,” says Cortright, who has written extensively about economic development.
He notes that in 2009 the economy was in free fall, losing of tens of thousands of local jobs and the near-doubling of the unemployment rate in Multnomah County. Fritz was also in office that year, but was no more responsible for the loss of those jobs, Cortright says, than she was for last year’s gain.
Cortright says Fritz is merely engaging in the time-honored political tradition of attaching herself to any good news. “In economic development terms, it’s ‘shoot everything that flies and claim everything that falls,’” Cortright says.
“City Council members create the conditions for private businesses to grow and flourish in Portland,” Fritz says. “I will continue to work to keep the cost of government down, and to provide incentives, reduce costs and remove impediments for business growth, to improve wages and incomes.”
Nolan, a Democratic state representative for Southwest Portland, is challenging Fritz’s re-election. Nolan actually has business experience. Yet she’s making fewer job-creator boasts than Fritz.
In 1991, Nolan founded an aviation navigation company, Avrotec Inc. The company has employed as many as 10 people, and Nolan says in the Voters’ Pamphlet she “knows what it takes to grow jobs here in Portland.”
Before that, Nolan worked as a bureau director for the city of Portland. Since 2001, she’s been in the Legislature.
Her legislative record doesn’t include much economic development. Nolan says that as a lawmaker she helped create certainty for businesses in Oregon, helping pass Measure 49, which clarified land-use laws. And as co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Ways and Means Committee, Nolan says, she helped set measurable results for state agencies.
Nolan is less focused on job-creation metrics than the business environment. Her campaign manager, Kristi Jo Lewis, says Nolan will focus on providing businesses with three things: regulatory certainty, a quick permit turnaround and a sense the city wants them to be here.
“Nolan believes City Council doesn’t itself create private-sector jobs,” Lewis told WW via email, “but can foster an environment where locally owned businesses and businesses committed to this community can flourish.”
Nolan’s House colleague, state Rep. Jefferson Smith (D-East Portland), has been more specific when talking about economic development credentials—without claiming he’s created a certain number of jobs.
The two-term lawmaker, who is running for mayor, highlights a couple of laws he helped pass.
“I championed efforts to grow local businesses and retrofit schools for jobs,” Smith writes in his Voters’ Pamphlet statement. He’s referring to Gov. John Kitzhaber’s “Cool Schools” initiative, which Smith co-sponsored and helped shepherd through the Legislature last year.
Kitzhaber pitched a $100 million Cool Schools program that could create 1,000 jobs. But the first phase of the plan Smith helped author is far more modest: $5 million, creating an estimated 75 jobs statewide.
Smith’s other primary claim to job creation—the “economic gardening” law he sponsored in 2011—has yet to bear fruit. Smith has called for the state to help small businesses that already exist here, rather than throw millions of dollars in subsidies at large employers from elsewhere.
The program Smith got passed is a pilot project (not yet started) that will spend about $300,000 to help small businesses with marketing and technical advice. Smith’s Democratic colleagues fought to keep “economic gardening” alive when lawmakers cut the state budget in February.
Businesswoman Eileen Brady, also running for mayor, rests most of her job-creation claims on her association with New Seasons Market. “We created thousands of jobs with health care, even for part-timers and their families, including domestic partners,” a Brady TV commercial says.
The “we” in the ad refers to Brady and her husband, Brian Rohter, who was among three co-founders of New Seasons Market, which had 1,800 employees when the couple sold their minority stake to a Portland-based buyout firm, Endeavour Capital, in 2009.
As WW has reported, Brady’s claim that she deserves credit for founding New Seasons is a stretch at best. Records show Brady was not an original owner of New Seasons, never worked for the company nor served on its board, and personally owned a small percentage of the chain—well after it was already up and running.
“Eileen’s ongoing leadership role was instrumental to the company’s success and growth,” the campaign said in a statement.
Brady had a secondary role at companies that were already growing under the direct leadership of others. Her campaign gives her credit for creating jobs at New Seasons’ predecessor in the organic grocery business, Nature’s Fresh Northwest.
“At the time Eileen joined Nature’s, there were two store locations and approximately 125 employees. When Eileen finished her second stint at Nature’s in 1995, there were six stores and approximately 450 employees,” her campaign said in an emailed statement to WW.
At Nature’s, Brady served on the company’s executive team and worked in human resources and training. Brady declined to answer questions about the role she played in creating jobs at Nature’s. A campaign aide replied with a few lines from her LinkedIn page, which says Brady “managed the hiring process of hundreds of people” at Nature’s.
Brady joined the board of Celilo Group Media, which publishes the Chinook Book coupon guide, in 2002, on behalf of her then-employer, Ecotrust, an environmental nonprofit that had invested in the small publisher.
In 2008, Brady made a personal investment in Celilo Group. “She’s not a major shareholder,” Celilo Group founder Nik Blosser told WW in February, but “she’s been chair of the board and has a major role in the company.” The company now has 27 employees, up from 10 in 2002.
Mayoral candidate and former City Commissioner Charlie Hales could legitimately claim some credit for jobs created through public-sector projects like the Portland Streetcar and Cascade Station he helped champion while in office from 1993 to 2002.
But in his Voters’ Pamphlet statement, Hales makes a different—and more questionable—claim.
“In the private sector, Charlie created good jobs, helping HDR Engineering grow from 2,700 employees to 8,000 employees in 10 years,” Hales’ statement says.
What Hales doesn’t say is that HDR added most of those new jobs outside of his division, and that many came from HDR buying up other firms.
Between 2002, when Hales left the City Council and joined HDR, and this year, the firm acquired 37 other companies, according to a corporate history and archived news releases on HDR’s website.
Hales says 30 percent of HDR’s overall job growth in the past decade came from acquisitions, and that he played a direct role in two. His own division grew from three employees to approximately 150 in his time there. He says he played a direct role in growing HDR’s transportation business and its expansion into Canada.
He also says he can take credit for the job growth outside his own division, because he has served on HDR’s 20-member strategic planning committee.
“There’s a lot of jobs talk in politics, and I’ve tried to make sure I was erring on the side of being conservative,” Hales says. “I was careful to say I ‘helped’ grow the company—and I did. I didn’t do it all myself.”