Dan Saltzman enters 2006 in a rare spot for a sitting City Commissioner: He could actually lose his re-election bid.
Incumbents don't often come up short in city races. In 121 contests since 1970, incumbents have lost only five times, most recently in 1992 when Charlie Hales beat Commissioner Dick Bogle.
But Saltzman—despite his commitment to environmental sustainability, his feel-good Children's Initiative, and a reputation for being independent, honest and business-friendly in his two terms—is vulnerable.
Saltzman, 52, has infuriated neighborhood activists with his logical but ultimately unsuccessful plans to cover city reservoirs in Mount Tabor and his push to make neighborhood groups formally apply for city money they now get as a matter of course.
Neither issue nor Saltzman's lack of charisma would cause much worry if he faced the kind of no-name, no-money opposition he's rolled over before.
But the confluence of a credible opponent—longtime neighborhood activist Amanda Fritz—the City's new publicly financed elections and unhappy unions have put Saltzman on the bubble.
The simple recipe for recent election success has been to run against the City Hall status quo. In 2004, Mayor Tom Potter and Commissioner Sam Adams, despite long records as insiders, convinced voters they would end business as usual.
And Fritz, a 47-year-old Cambridge University-educated psychiatric nurse who has served on the city planning commission and worked on multiple grassroots issues, actually is an outsider
well-known in the city's rabid neighborhood associations.
But more important than her cred as an average Josephine is her access to money, specifically Portland's newly enacted public financing for City Hall candidates. Fritz is the first to qualify for at least $150,000 in public money for the May primary, campaign cash she collects because she generated 1,000 $5 donations from donors.
Saltzman voted for public financing but decided against trying to qualify, explaining the policy was intended to benefit those normally shut out of council races.
"I'm an incumbent, I'm not a woman and I'm not a minority," Saltzman says.
Saltzman also tied his hands by capping individual donations at $500 and limiting his total spending to whatever Fritz spends. Those voluntary limitations could prove costly.
Here's why: Saltzman has ticked off a powerful group—city unions. Easily the least labor-friendly of the five-member council, Saltzman sparred with unionized Parks workers under his supervision and pushed hard to reform runaway costs of the city's Fire and Police Disability and Retirement system.
He's mulling an aggressive ballot fix for that retirement system, which may be appropriate but has firefighter and police unions seeing red. Unions' ability to mobilize is particularly powerful in primaries, when voter turnout is usually light.
To accept public funding, Fritz cannot accept contributions from unions or anybody else—but she cannot prevent independent expenditures by Saltzman's critics. And indications are that unions will be a factor. It's telling that rather than waiting for Fritz to call, the firefighters invited Fritz for an endorsement interview in mid-January.
"There's a very good chance we'll be involved" in the election, says Jack Finders, president of the Portland Firefighters Association.
And if unions open their wallets to go after Saltzman, he's boxed in. Any additional spending he does to counter union criticism will trigger matching public funds for Fritz, up to a ceiling of $300,000. Thus a union hit piece effectively generates matching funds for the challenger—a twofer.
Although as a first-time candidate Fritz lacks name recognition, she points to a lightly funded slate of neighborhood activists who opposed incumbent Commissioner Randy Leonard in 2004. That group, most of whom got into the race late, still got nearly 47 percent of the vote without Fritz's funding or citywide network.
Fritz does confront two major challenges in beating an experienced candidate like Saltzman.
The first: whether she has sharp enough elbows to exploit Saltzman's vulnerabilities. The soft-spoken mother of three teenagers seemingly has little enthusiasm for attack.
"The reason I'm running is not that Dan's done a bad job," Fritz says. "It's because there's nobody on the council who really represents the neighborhoods."
The second: overcoming Saltzman's decided advantage in campaign management. In his corner is Mark Wiener, the strategist who orchestrated successful campaigns for all current council members except Potter. To run her campaign, Fritz has hired Nathaniel Applefield, a relative newcomer who worked on Phil Busse's unsuccessful mayor's campaign in 2004.
Should he fail, Saltzman, the scion of a large property-owning family and former engineer, says he won't be devastated.
"I have a lot of interests," Saltzman says. "I believe life is rich with opportunity. I'll land on my feet if I lose."