Many election battles vow an eye for an eye. But this spring's fight is something even fiercer: a tooth for a tooth.
This off-year election—held in a season when voters might be understandably more interested in road-tripping than ballot-marking—has instead been as nasty as any in recent memory.
That's thanks to one issue: fluoride.
It's not the first time the city has been yanked to the ballot box by the question of an enamel-strengthening chemical in the Bull Run water supply. Portland rejected fluoride in 1956, 1962 and 1980.
But this most recent try has touched a nerve in our citizenry, a civic root canal minus the Novocain. The pro- and anti-fluoridation campaigns are drilling down to tender spots: racial inequity in unassailably liberal Portland, a growing cynicism about scientific or any other authority, and the balance between the good of the commonwealth and the petty tyranny of a nanny state.
Maybe the furor over fluoride is just one more quirk in a city full of them—a symptom of the iconoclasm that makes Portland both sincere and infuriating.
But we'd like to think it speaks to something better in the city, a willingness to engage in fierce debate where other places mindlessly check a box.
So we invite you to consider not just fluoride but other issues that call for your attention in the May 21 vote: how the city helps its children, how regional government maintains its open spaces, and who should lead our public education system.
Please read our suggestions, do your civic duty, and don't forget to floss.
City of Portland Measure 26-151
Mandates fluoridation of Portland's water: YES
Who knew that a seemingly humdrum public health issue could provoke so much drama, passion and electoral skulduggery?
Portland is the largest city in the U.S. with an unfluoridated water supply. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 74 percent of Americans now have fluoridated water, fluoridation reduces cavities by about 25 percent over a person's lifetime, and $1 invested in fluoridation saves $38 in future dental costs.
It seems so straightforward. The fact is, the fluoridation of drinking water has been a bugaboo among political extremists for decades. Half a century ago, fluoridation was a communist conspiracy—or so right-wingers claimed. Today, Portland lefties see it as unnecessary and even dangerous.
And in Portland, suspicions about plans to add fluoride to the water supply had reason to give politicians pause: Portlanders said "no" to fluoride in 1956 and 1962. In 1978, voters approved fluoridation only to overturn it two years later.
The debate on both sides has been problematic. The pro side—led by Healthy Kids, Healthy Portland—has tried to rig the vote, elevated self-righteousness to new heights and played the race card.
The anti-fluoride crowd, represented by Clean Water Portland, has erected a tie-dyed political yurt big enough to include the wacky left and the Tea Party while misrepresenting the science.
But supporters have given the anti-fluoride side reason to heat up the conspiracy-tinged tone of their rhetoric.
As a 21st-century issue in Portland, fluoride materialized as if from nowhere last year. And the City Council's unanimous vote in 2012 to add the controversial substance to our water was Machiavellian at best.
A pro-fluoride group made false statements about whether it was quietly pushing the issue within City Hall. (They said "no" while busily doing just that.) The City Council vote looked very much like a cynical grasp at a legacy for outgoing Mayor Sam Adams and Commissioner Randy Leonard, who had previously expressed zero interest in the topic.
The City Council then maneuvered the issue onto the May 2013 ballot as quickly as possible, so as to wrong-foot opponents who had succeeded in forcing a vote on it in 2014.
Proponents' claims that they have widespread support from "communities of color"—when, as reported by WW, the pro-fluoride campaign has paid out $143,000 to eight minority groups that endorsed the measure—raises troubling questions.
But bad behavior and circumstances are not enough to override the basic facts.
Peer-reviewed studies, which have themselves been studied ad nauseam, have shown that fluoride is beneficial to children's teeth.
Data also show that the incidence of untreated tooth decay in Oregon ranks in the top 10 percent of all states while the state's rate of fluoridation is third-lowest.
Fluoridation is not a panacea. People still get cavities despite fluoridated water. And there are medically vulnerable citizens who may have legitimate concerns about how fluoride would affect them.
But most of the critics' objections do not stand up to scrutiny.
Among the hundreds of fluoride studies, there is little evidence that fluoridation is harmful. Here's how the CDC put it: "The weight of peer-reviewed scientific evidence does not support an association between water fluoridation and any adverse health effect or systemic disorders."
The most common side effect—the staining of teeth, called fluorosis—is primarily cosmetic and takes more fluoride than Portland will add. The fluoride injected into water is not, as critics claim, toxic waste but a byproduct of mining other minerals.
Fluoridation critics cannot produce any nefarious explanation for why government scientists, public health officials and dentists all support fluoridation.
The biggest financial support on the "yes" side is coming from the Northwest Health Foundation, which has nothing to gain financially from fluoridation. Other key supporters include the Oregon and Washington dental associations, which are acting against their own economic interests. Dentists make money from cavities. If their professional associations were looking out for their members' wallets, they'd endorse a "no" vote.
Unlike the pharmaceutical industry, which has sometimes pushed drugs that are ineffective or unsafe to bolster profits, nobody's going to get rich from fluoridation.
It's tempting to characterize this campaign as mainstream science versus the lunatic fringe, but that would be unfair.
The fact is, the health benefits of fluoridation would accrue primarily to those who have bad teeth now—disproportionately low-income and minority children.
City of Portland Measure 26-150
Renews Children's Levy: YES
First, the smelly part: The city of Portland is out of its element when it tries to provide social services. That's the job of Multnomah County. This mission creep bothered us in 2002, when City Commissioner Dan Saltzman first proposed a tax of 40 cents on every $1,000 of assessed property value for child-abuse prevention, foster care, early education and hunger prevention.
The measure before us now would extend the levy for five more years, raising about $10 million annually.
But the Children's Levy operates with admirably low administrative costs and provides good oversight of programs that receive its grants.
We think the taxpayers of Portland should be chipping in to offer a safety net to kids in foster care, who come from abusive homes and who aren't getting three square meals a day.
But so should the taxpayers of Multnomah County to a greater extent. It makes zero sense that a levy intended to help the neediest kids doesn't extend into some of the poorest areas in the eastern portion of the county.
Multnomah County needs to step up and take over the mission behind this levy. Instead, the county has pushed a library taxing district—which cut into money for the Children's Levy.
So vote yes, and consider adding a note to city and county officials, telling them to straighten out once and for all who pays for what.
Metro Measure 26-152
Natural Areas, Water Quality Levy: YES
Now, Metro is asking voters for a new property-tax levy that would give it $10 million a year over five years to upgrade and maintain those lands. The levy would cost the owner of a $200,000 house about $20 a year.
But open space fits right into Metro's original charter, which calls for the agency to "preserve and enhance the quality of life and the environment for ourselves and future generations."
About half the new levy's money would go to facilities improvements, education and grants. Metro wants to use the new levy for such things as a new boat ramp for Sauvie Island, new restrooms at Oxbow Park, and a new channel in the Sandy River for fish.
About half would be spent on habitat restoration, including along the 90 miles of stream and riverfront Metro has acquired.
Part of what makes Portland an attractive place to live is the surrounding natural beauty. Voters have given Metro money in the past to protect natural areas from becoming strip malls or subdivisions. This measure helps Metro fulfill its mission as steward of those lands.
Portland Public Schools Zone 4
Martin Gonzalez - Nonpartisan
The district continues to grapple with a persistent achievement gap between white students and a growing minority population, and subpar graduation rates in PPS, where nearly half the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The administration and the Portland Association of Teachers began negotiating the teachers' contract mid-April. Nobody should be surprised if those talks end six months from now in an impasse.
Portland kids need stronger leadership from their School Board. Martin Gonzalez started slowly in his role as a PPS director, after being appointed to the board in this North Portland district in 2008. But he's grown into the role.
A director of multicultural programs for TriMet, Gonzalez has nudged the district into big changes in bilingual education, including dumping ineffective leaders and expanding immersion programs.
Gonzalez, the only Latino on the board, is clearly a strong voice for the district's growing Latino student body (up from 11 percent of students a decade ago to 16 percent today).
We give his opponent, Steve Buel, credit. Buel previously served on the board from 1979 to 1983, when he helped write PPS's desegregation policy.
Buel has since been trying to make a comeback—this is his second try in recent years, both against Gonzalez.
A co-founder of the new group Oregon Save Our Schools, Buel is a critic of the district's leadership, which he says focuses too much on testing and does too little for low-income students. On those points, we think he's right.
But Buel, during our endorsement interview, was short on reasons he would make a better director than Gonzalez, and on specifics about what he would seek to do on the School Board.
It's a close call for us: We gave more weight to the need for attention to the district's diversity, and give the nod to Gonzalez.
Portland Public Schools Zone 6
Tom Koehler - Nonpartisan
If you think the biggest challenge facing Portland Public Schools is how to get Wi-Fi out of district buildings, vote for David Morrison, a bookseller.
Morrison filed a 2011 federal lawsuit, alleging Wi-Fi is a health hazard to students. (As WW has reported, PPS has spent more than $170,000 defending itself against Morrison's claim.) His campaign is based on his Wi-Fi obsession.
But if you'd like a School Board member focused on installing excellent principals in every building and strengthening ties with business, Tom Koehler is your candidate.
Koehler works as an adviser to Pacific Ethanol, which makes a gasoline additive out of corn. He previously worked as a political organizer and aide to former City Commissioners Gretchen Kafoury and Earl Blumenauer.
We'll take Koehler, who has a lot of energy and a desire to shake up a board a tad too fond of consensus.
Portland Community College Zone 2
Kali Thorne Ladd - Nonpartisan
PCC's enrollment of 93,000—spread across three campuses and seven centers—is four times that of the state's urban college, Portland State University. And PCC's region is large: Despite the Portland-centric name, PCC covers portions of five counties (Columbia, Clackamas, Yamhill and Washington in addition to Multnomah).
The demand for PCC's classes continue to grow, even as its enrollment has burst through the limits in what the state (which provides 35 percent of PCC's funding) will pay for. Longtime President Preston Pulliams is set to retire, and the college will need strong guidance in serving its increasingly diverse population.
The incumbent in Zone 2, Kali Thorne Ladd, is seeking election in her own right after being appointed to the PCC Board in 2012, after the death of longtime director Harold Williams Sr., who represented Zone 2 (which now covers North and Northeast Portland, and portions of Columbia County) for more than two decades.
Ladd has a deep and impressive record on school issues: She's been a teacher and Peace Corps volunteer, worked as education services director for then-Mayor Sam Adams, and served as a site manager for Schools Uniting Neighborhoods at King Elementary in Portland. Now she's launching an early learning center in North Portland.
We found her thoughtful, articulate and insightful. Her opponent, Michael Durrow, is a sincere repeat candidate whose background and experience as a real-estate agent and network engineer can't match Ladd's record and considerable promise.
Portland Community College Zone 4
Jim Harper - Nonpartisan
He's a polite Portlander to a nearly crippling degree, but Harper has real successes he can point to from his tenure: The swift creation of a PCC welding program on Swan Island is exactly the kind of nimble technical education the regional economy is clamoring for.
A veteran of Tektronix and Siltronic, Harper is closely attuned to how poorly Oregon's workforce is being prepared for real jobs. His pledges to fix the problem are vague, but he's looking in the right direction—urging the state's K-12 school system to direct students toward the career training PCC provides.
His opponent, business executive Bernardo Tuma, looks good on paper—Harvard credentials, experience with local government—but he didn't show up for our endorsement interview.
Portland Community College Zone 5
Ken Madden - Nonpartisan
Madden—running for the first time to serve a zone that covers Beaverton and Southwest Portland—is co-chairman of Gov. John Kitzhaber's Oregon Workforce Investment Board and chairman of the Beaverton Chamber of Commerce. And he helped establish a scholarship fund at the school and serves on the PCC Foundation board.
He may be a bit of a rubber stamp—"I think the school's perfect at this point," he tells WW—in seeking to replace outgoing board member David Squire. (His opponent, David Solomon, failed to file a Voters' Pamphlet statement.)
Madden's obvious commitment to PCC—coupled with his real-world business experience—makes him the clear choice.
Multnomah Education Service District Position 1
Chris Cochran - Nonpartisan
ESDs are paid for through state education funds, contracts and grants, and property taxes. Lawmakers continue to scrutinize the districts, approving a measure this year allowing school districts to withdraw from their local ESDs if they find them unnecessary.
In the race for this east-county position, voters have two terrible choices: Chris Cochran, a 23-year-old Gresham native and photographer, who has never been to an MESD meeting and couldn't manage to file a Voters' Pamphlet statement on time.
Then there's scandal-stained incumbent Bernie Giusto. His troubled history is familiar to longtime readers of this newspaper: As an Oregon State Police trooper, Giusto failed to tell authorities about his knowledge of ex-Gov. Neil Goldschmidt's sexual relationship with an underage girl. Later, as Multnomah County sheriff, he earned the title of WW's 2007 Rogue of the Year for mismanagement and an ethics investigation that still haunts the sheriff's office.
Cochran's inability to name a single MESD function is almost laughable. But it's not as shameful as the fact that Giusto keeps getting elected to anything.
Multnomah Education Service District Position 2
Nels Johnson - Nonpartisan
Johnson says MESD lacks relationships with the school districts it serves. And he wants what amounts to a giant audit to find where duplication exists and best practices are missing.
His opponent, Patrick Lasswell, a software test engineer and former U.S. Navy sonar technician, also wants to preserve MESD, but he lacks Johnson's focus and experience.
Multnomah Education Service District Position 3
Erica Thatcher - Nonpartisan
Her opponent, retired economist Bob Clark, failed to show up for WW's endorsement interview.