IMAGE: martin thiel
Charles Jordan, Portland parks director and former city commissioner, is going to run for Multnomah County chair next May. He'll trounce current chair Diane Linn and become the highest-ranking African-American politician in Portland.
It's all in the trial-balloon stage at this point. Jordan, 65, isn't brimming with enthusiasm about taking a stab at elected office--but neither does he rule it out.
"I'm not saying no," he says, "but there's a 95 percent chance I would not run. In my heart, there's no desire whatsoever."
Whether or not Jordan really means to run is a moot point. Even by raising the possibility of a campaign, he's giving voice to a strong current of discontent in the African-American community.
It has nothing to do with the police and everything to do with the trend of influential African-Americans losing their charge on Portland's power grid.
Most recently, Lolenzo Poe was defrocked as director of the county's Department of Community and Family Services. Poe is popular--even beloved--in the African-American community and, for many, watching Linn kick him around confirmed their worst fears about white Portland.
"It's an abuse of power," says state Sen. Avel Gordly, who calls the environment Linn created "paternalistic and racist."
Only a decade ago, Gladys McCoy was Multnomah County chair and Dick Bogle was a city commissioner. Both were living proof that Portland's leadership didn't need to be all white, all the time.
The last two years, however, have seen a tide of bleak news for African-American influence in Portland.
Urban League of Portland president Lawrence Dark: gone. Portland Public Schools Superintendent Ben Canada: gone. State Rep. JoAnn Bowman: gone. The Rev. Ron Williams: gone. Metro Councilor Ed Washington: gone. The local chapter of the NAACP: in disarray.
The reasons for these high-profile departures are all over the map: Lawrence Dark resigned amid financial scandal; Metro Councilor Washington simply lost an election to a determined opponent. But there's no avoiding the uncomfortable fact that a trend is afoot.
Most troubling to Baruti Artharee, chairman of the Urban League of Portland, is that pointing out this trend creates a strange backlash, especially in the recent case of Poe.
"It's appropriate that someone ask the question, 'What happened here?'" Artharee says. "But I've been surprised at the number of folks who've said, 'Why are you even asking the question?' If you ask the question, you're stirring the waters, you're a troublemaker. But I see other groups in the community unabashedly speaking for their special interests, and they do it without any hesitation." Artharee, who's also deputy director of the Portland Development Commission, cites Portland's gay and lesbian community as an example.
The larger question is what to do.
Artharee thinks the city's African-American community has lost its cohesiveness. He wants the community to focus its political clout on issues like economic development.
Gordly looks at the situation through the other end of the kaleidoscope. "White people need to be doing some real work examining their attitude and behaviors around race and racism and buzzwords like inclusion and diversity and all of that," she says.
And Jordan? Trying to encourage other African Americans to step into the on-deck circle while he pinch hits. "It helps some people of color if it's perceived that I might run, if people feel I'm a threat."