IMAGE: jason walton
Regardless of whether Mayor Tom Potter decides in mid-September to run again, know this: The United States is more likely to elect its first black president next year than Portland is to elect its first black mayor.
The polls may show Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama with only an outsider’s chance of winning the White House. But at least Obama, who’s coming to Portland on Sept. 7, is running.
So far, there is no African-American candidate in the race for Portland mayor, and none on the horizon even if Potter doesn’t run. In fact, the only recognizable African-American contender to surface—businessman Roy Jay—says he’s not a candidate, though he claims other Portlanders are “talking up his name” as a last-minute entry.
Yes, Portland’s black population is 6.6 percent, small in comparison to other U.S. cities. But it’s curious to some that Portland’s progressive reputation doesn’t translate into electing a black mayor.
“It’s a national embarrassment that in 2007 we don’t have one black face to show the world,” says a politically active 35-year-old Arbor Lodge woman who goes by one name, Byrd. “I think people are honestly scared to see a black person in a position of power,” says Byrd, volunteer coordinator for James Posey, who was the only African-American candidate among 23 hopefuls in Portland’s May 2004 mayoral primary.
Posey doesn’t blame his fourth-place finish in 2004 on racism. Yet while he lists his political inexperience and lack of support from other blacks among the factors, Posey says, “You can peg the progressivity of this town based on its acceptance of race…. This city will never be united until it sheds all that racist garbage.”
He says the city is too sophisticated to be overtly racist, and that racism comes in more covert forms, as manifested by the fact that blacks besides himself have not fared well in citywide elections. Portland has had only two African-American commissioners, Charles Jordan and Dick Bogle.
Certainly, other cities with small black populations—such as Iowa City (3.7 percent) and Cambridge, Mass. (11.9 percent)—have elected black mayors.
And it’s not just a black Portlander like Posey who wonders about Portland’s lack of a black mayor. Just ask Nick Fish, a consummate white guy and two-time City Council candidate turned host of a weekly public-affairs program on KRCW-TV.
Fish ascribes Portland’s track record to its system in which the mayor and city commissioners are elected citywide rather than by district. If the five-person City Council were divided into geographic districts, Fish and others contend, then there would be a greater chance of minority voters in North or outer East Portland choosing a minority commissioner, who would then have a base to run for mayor.
Fish points to a 1987 federal court decision that overturned a similar commission form of government in Springfield, Ill., on the grounds that it violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Since 1965, Portland has had seven mayors and 22 commissioners, two of whom were African-Americans, Jordan and Bogle. Neither ran for mayor.
Jordan was the first of the two, appointed, then elected, in 1974. He twice considered running for mayor, but says it wasn’t any fear of voter prejudice that stopped him. The timing wasn’t right in either instance, he says.
“Five at-large people is a recipe for five white guys,” Fish says. “I think there is a Voting Rights Act lawsuit waiting to happen out there.… It matters if there’s a pool in the minority community that cannot compete.”
Asked if he’d be interested in leading that charge, Fish—a lawyer whose clients have included prominent African-American school officials—says he doesn’t know of any planned litigation. But he does say he will raise the issue with Commissioner Randy Leonard. Leonard says he also thinks the issue is ripe for a lawsuit.
Jordan considers citywide elections a hindrance to minority candidates, but opposes any effort to overturn the commission form of government.
“I like the commission form because it’s clean,” Jordan says. “Eventually, it’s going to happen—we’ll have a person of color who’s real serious about winning…. Portland will elect a black mayor.”