Mayor of Portland
Maybe it's The New Yorker story about the massive Cascadian earthquake striking off the Oregon Coast. But the specter of Portland sliding into the ocean replays in our heads.
That seems an apt image for what's at stake in the Portland mayor's race.
Home prices are rising at levels not seen since the pre-Great Recession bubble. Vacancies plummet. Rents climb. Wages are stagnant, and families who used to be able to afford charming fixers in close-in neighborhoods are being pushed to the edge, stretching commutes and budgets.
Portland risks losing more than its affordability (to the extent it still exists). It risks surrendering its character as a place where good citizens are its riches, to borrow a saying etched on the Skidmore Fountain.
We don't fear following the path of San Francisco just because it's expensive. It's because of what that city turned its back on: the artists, the dreamers, the people whose existence challenged the constraints of the rest of the country's norms but still found a home there.
Portland is not yet the Bay Area. But we face other dangers. Our most vulnerable residents—the homeless, the drug-addicted, the mentally ill—live even closer to the margins. Their growing presence on street corners and in camps demands a humane and effective response.
Four years ago, Portland voters sent a Mr. Fix-It to City Hall as mayor. In Charlie Hales, Portland got a seasoned politician—a former city commissioner who knew how to navigate Portland's tricky, commission form of government and who pledged to return fiscal sanity and common sense to City Hall.
Hales set about balancing Portland's budget and addressing the city's monumental maintenance backlog. But along the way, he got lost. Hales alienated key allies with his brusque, go-it-alone style and failed to pursue a coherent agenda that could inspire Portland's government-loving hordes. He shrugged off a lobbying code violation tied to a key decision of his—the welcoming of ride-hailing app Uber to town—while bristling at citizen questions about his hopelessly confusing "street fee."
Only when he decided Oct. 26 not to run for re-election did Hales seem to return to his values—compact, walkable neighborhoods for all and compassion for people living on the margins. By then, it was too late to give Charlie another chance.
Of those running for this seat, Ted Wheeler, Oregon's treasurer and a former Multnomah County chairman, is easily the best candidate.
When he launched his campaign in September, Wheeler identified the key issues of homelessness and income inequality as ones he would tackle. It is, at times, difficult to conceive that a man who once reported annual income of $2.2 million would be the person to lead on these issues, but Wheeler—a descendant of timber industry giants—seems genuine.
Wheeler has obvious weaknesses. As treasurer and, before that, county chairman, he has often stumbled when he needed to persuade others.
Yet throughout his campaign, Wheeler has shown he's done his homework on city issues, and his openness and readiness to engage with voters on the campaign trail suggest he may succeed in making Portland government more transparent and accessible.
Hardly a forum passes where Wheeler doesn't poke fun at his own nerdiness. That's an endearing quality and probably also a lifesaver. In the circular firing squad known as City Hall, a sense of humor is crucial.
Wheeler's ambition—it's hardly a secret he wants to be governor one day—is another reason to put our trust in him. If he wants to return to statewide office, he knows he can't screw up.
Wheeler has offered a consistent message throughout the campaign. That's even more important because his opponents have been so erratic—and disappointing.
Jules Bailey—a Multnomah County commissioner and three-time state legislator—at first seemed to position himself as the more progressive candidate in the race. Hailing from House District 42 in the heart of liberal Southeast Portland, Bailey brought with him to the race an impressive list of accomplishments, including the creation of a state energy-retrofit program, the sunsetting of various tax credits and a push toward new approaches to retirement security.
On the campaign trail, Bailey has underwhelmed. At forums he has appeared wooden and exceedingly scripted—as if reading his remarks from Google Glass.
For a guy who entered the race to serve as an alternative to Wheeler, Bailey too often offers no contrast to his opponent. On the issues of transportation funding, affordable housing and air pollution, they sound more like running mates than rivals.
On one issue that allowed him the opportunity to demonstrate his core values, Bailey positioned himself as more conservative than Wheeler. The issue? Ending the 48-hour rule in the Portland police contract. Today, Bailey insists he wants to end the provision that gives cops two days before they have to answer questions about their involvement in a deadly shooting. But he waffled for weeks before reaching that answer. His indecision suggested he was kowtowing to the police union that had endorsed him. That's poor judgment of the city's values, and a lousy display of independence—two strikes on one pitch.
Sarah Iannarone was also a latecomer to the mayor's race, joining in January after Bailey. A program director at Portland State University, where she reports to Hales' wife, Nancy, Iannarone brings urban planning experience to the race. Her answers at forums have been novel and refreshing, although often unrealistic. A carless downtown? Sounds great. But how would it work? In this case, Iannarone's lack of any elected experience is a serious detriment. And her strong connection to the Hales family, after Wheeler pushed Charlie out of the race, still seems odd.
We're glad Sean Davis, 43, is running for mayor. The Army vet, volunteer and community college instructor brings passion and serious dedication to the race. It's clear he's been reading city budget documents and poring over policies.
Also in the race are 56-year-old Steven Entwisle, whose job history appears to have ended in the 1980s; perennial candidate Lew Humble; Oregon Department of Justice lawyer David Schor; Trevor Manning; David "The Ack" Ackerman; activist Jessie Sponberg; drummer and jewelry maker Bim Ditson; state employee Deborah Harris; "self-indulgent student of multiple disciplines" Patty Burkett; Eric Alexander Calhoun; and Bruce Broussard.
Portland in 2016 is shaky. Ted Wheeler is firm ground.
Wheeler's favorite food cart:
City Council, Seat 1
Amanda Fritz had planned for her second term to be her last. But she's running for a third term following the 2014 death of her husband in a car crash.
After eight years at City Hall, the former neighborhood activist and psychiatric nurse says she wants to stay so she can continue to oversee two priorities: parks improvements in underserved parts of Portland funded by the 2014 levy renewal, and police reforms guided by the city's 2014 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over the bureau's poor treatment of the mentally ill.
We think voters should keep her around.
That's not just because Fritz's opponents make a poor case for why they'd be better fits. (More on that in a bit.)
Fritz enjoys popularity in Portland, and for good reason. She watches the city's budget like a mama bear guards her cubs, and in her current term helped establish an independent budget office, freeing it from layers of bureaucracy that obscured its decision-making. She has insisted that City Hall fund priorities such as street maintenance before pet projects. But on initiatives that speak to Portland voters' liberal values, she's willing to make new financial commitments. She pushed paid parental leave for city workers in 2015 as a follow-up to her successful 2013 initiative mandating paid sick leave at private businesses.
We remain frustrated by Fritz's obstructionist approach to new housing—she often serves as the City Council's voice for neighborhood associations who would rather see 10 families displaced than lose an old bungalow or a tall tree.
On other issues, Fritz serves as a useful if eccentric dissenting voice. Her insistence that she would never ride in an Uber probably struck some observers as out of touch. But her unyielding insistence that Uber be held to a higher standard in Portland on issues of passenger safety showed integrity and commitment to the public against Silicon Valley muscle.
Fritz drew five opponents in the primary, but only one of them is credible.
Ann Sanderson, president of the Woodstock Community Business Association, entered Portland's political fray in 2014 when Commissioner Steve Novick proposed a byzantine street fee to pay for needed road repairs. Sanderson shows promise, and we hope she stays engaged and runs again. She brings into focus the frustrations of small-business owners who feel shut out of City Hall, and does so with unexpected positivity.
But Sanderson doesn't offer a strong enough critique of Fritz. She says the dynamic at City Hall is wrong and that "people aren't being heard." That may be true. But Sanderson's real complaint is with Novick; Fritz is the least guilty on the council of those sins. This term, Fritz professes to having answered 25,000 emails from constituents, down from 50,000 in her previous term but still remarkable.
Also on the ballot are David Morrison, a single-issue candidate running to stop cellphone towers; Lanita Duke, a community journalist; activist Sara Long; and Tabitha Ivan, a 2015 Rose Festival princess who attended Lincoln High School.
Fritz's favorite food cart: Honkin' Huge Burritos
City Council, Seat 4
It's an indication of how badly Steve Novick has disappointed in this job that nine candidates are challenging him in his bid to return to the Portland City Council.
Novick entered his first elected office as a darling of the left—a policy wonk with a sense of humor and an endearing weakness for quoting Casablanca in policy fights. He had big ideas about reducing health care costs and charging for parking.
But Novick has worn badly. In part, that's because he was the public face of the "street fee," a tax-collecting scheme that often seemed piloted by a drunk driver. Novick spent the better part of a year defensive and antagonistic, dragging the city through a series of ill-conceived proposals to raise money for street safety and repairs. Residents and business owners were angry—rightly so.
To make matters worse, Novick got cozy with ride-hailing giant Uber—a company that hired Novick's campaign consultant, Mark Wiener, to lobby him at a crucial moment. That was a peculiar lapse, and makes it harder for Novick to explain why he abandoned local taxi drivers to Uber.
So how could we possibly endorse this letdown of a city commissioner?
In part, it's because he faces no credible opponents.
Sue Stahl, a representative on the Portland Commission on Disability, makes a forceful critique of Novick's support for Uber, saying the ride-sharing app has flooded Portland with drivers but mostly ignored the needs of disabled passengers like her. We hope Stahl continues her activism at City Hall, just not from a commissioner's office.
We really wanted to root for Chloe Eudaly, owner of independent bookstore Reading Frenzy, who's become a fierce advocate for affordable housing and protections for renters. But she's fizzled on the campaign trail. In our endorsement interview, she showed little knowledge or interest in subjects outside her chosen issue. And these are important subjects: Eudaly professed naiveté on how to negotiate changes in the police union contract that allows officers to keep silent for 48 hours after a shooting.
Fred Stewart is also running. A pro-gentrification real estate agent, Stewart has a share of personal problems that we think reflect poorly on his character. Among other things, he has filed for bankruptcy five times since 1991.
Stuart Emmons, an architect, offers different skills than anyone on the City Council. He's actually built affordable housing in Portland and professes to know how the city could inexpensively add more units. Yet he struggles to describe the basic functions of the City Council, and comes across as a red-faced grouch, huffing and puffing at Novick in spurts of rage. It's not the fact that Emmons faced foreclosure twice and in 2012 declared bankruptcy that makes him unprepared to occupy a seat at City Hall. It's that his basic message seems to be "I'm not Steve," and we think a candidate needs to offer more.
None of the other entrants in the race is running a serious campaign. Jim Lee wants Portland to build a small Italian opera house in the Pearl District. Shannon Estabrook is a semi-retired college instructor of at-risk students. Michael Durrow, Leah Dumas and Joseph Puckett haven't shown any signs of life on the campaign trail.
That leaves Novick.
There's reason to believe he's learned from his humbling first term. He is willing to admit his failings, something we wouldn't have predicted two years ago.
And Novick can point to significant achievements in office. His decision to reform the city's disabled-parking permit program has freed up additional parking downtown. He's done more than any politician in memory to prepare the city for the impending Cascadian earthquake. And he's placed a common-sense gas tax on the ballot—if the measure passes, it will be the first concrete step Portland has taken to reducing its revenue backlog for paving roads.
Most importantly, we believe that Novick offers the most eloquent and reasoned voice on the City Council for fighting rising rents by building housing—dense housing, and lots of it. He's a progressive who will acknowledge the existence of supply and demand.
Portland needs him to make that case in the next four years. Novick needs a second chance. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Novick's favorite restaurant: Taqueria Nueve
Think of incumbent Craig Dirksen as the John the Baptist for Portland's next MAX line. In his first term on the Metro Council, he's been the evangelist who preaches the virtues of a public transit corridor to Bridgeport Village.
Although TriMet operates light-rail lines, the planning phase of that project is the responsibility of Metro, and it's a treacherous job: Some suburban residents see trains as carriers of crime, and can vote to block their path. Tigard will hold exactly such a vote this fall. Dirksen, who served as Tigard mayor from 2003 to 2012, is well-suited to diplomacy on behalf of expanding Portland's model light-rail system. He also plays a crucial role as co-chair of the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation, which sounds as fun as a day at the dentist's office but plays the key role of securing federal funds for transit projects.
Dirksen is being challenged from the left by Gerritt Rosenthal, a mostly retired environmental consultant whom we last saw two years ago, losing a bid for the Legislature to Rep. Julie Parrish (R-West Linn). Rosenthal would like Metro to be more aggressive in pushing its Southwest light-rail line. We prefer Dirksen's careful approach.
Dirksen's favorite restaurants: Cafe Allegro and Pacific Breeze, both in Tigard.
It's a good thing incumbent Sam Chase serves on the regional planning agency. The former chief of staff to Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish has developed an alarming case of planner-speak, a condition in which every sentence sounds like a white paper on good governance.
Translated into English, Chase's agenda is simple and praiseworthy: He wants the Portland region to build more housing, and make more of it affordable. Metro plays a crucial part in that task: It sets the requirements for how much housing each city in the area must build—and is legally responsible for seeing those benchmarks are met. Chase has been more engaged in this effort than any other Metro councilor.
We're not entirely wowed by the results, but neither are we excited by Chase's challenger, Colby Clipston, whose chief political experience is as a coordinator for Wolf-PAC, a group trying to overturn the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United by passing state resolutions. (He hasn't succeeded in Oregon.) He has some good ideas—we especially like the notion of Metro forcing TriMet to offer reduced fares for poor people—but he's not ready for this job.
Chase's favorite food cart: Nong's Khao Man Ghai
MULTNOMAH COUNTY COMMISSION
A crowded field of candidates seeks to replace Jules Bailey, who's running for Portland mayor.
Dr. Sharon Meieran stands out.
For the past 10 years, Meieran has worked as an emergency room doctor, most recently for Kaiser hospitals, where she's witnessed firsthand the ravages of our nation's opioid problem and our inadequate mental health care. She practiced law for seven years before medical school.
Meieran has never held elected office—although we endorsed her when she ran unsuccessfully for the state Legislature in 2012 against Jennifer Williamson, who went on to become House majority leader. Meieran has her own track record, though. She was one of the first physicians in Oregon to raise concerns about the opiate drug abuse epidemic, writing op-eds and buttonholing reporters on the topic. She was one of the leaders in the movement to address the warehousing of psychiatric patients in Portland emergency rooms.
It's her training as a physician that best prepares Meieran for service at the county, where there's a renewed focus on improving the lives of the mentally ill. That work requires understanding the complicated world of medical billing and reimbursement—and how to deliver help seamlessly so it actually reaches people.
Eric Zimmerman is Meieran's closest competitor. Chief of staff to Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel, Zimmerman is backed by the unions representing sheriffs' deputies and Portland police officers. He already knows the workings of the county, yet he's failed to make a compelling case for what he would accomplish if elected. One of his goals, he told us, was to better track the outcome of programs to ensure they're helping. Important? Sure. That's also a vague enough promise to make us question the candidate's diligence.
Zimmerman also brings baggage to the race. As McKeel's chief of staff, he interfered with a land-use dispute on behalf of his boss. Last year, with Zimmerman's help, McKeel sought $200,000 in county funding to promote an anti-HIV drug without disclosing her son worked for the manufacturer.
Brian Wilson, making his second bid for this office, brings experience as a community volunteer on groups such as the Multnomah County Charter Review Commission. A retired executive from his family's real estate management business, the Kalberer Co., Wilson seems sincere in his desire to improve services for the county's vulnerable constituents. We agree with him that disparate treatment of inmates in the county's jails needs to be addressed. We just think Meieran is better equipped to tackle the issue.
Mel Rader, executive director of Upstream Public Health, helped lead the unsuccessful fight to bring fluoride to Portland's drinking water. Marisha Childs, a lawyer who helps elderly clients establish conservatorships and juvenile clients deal with dependency cases, also serves on the Reed Neighborhood Association. Both candidates strike us as capable and dedicated, but not yet ready for this office.
Also on the ballot are Ken Stokes, a retired green economist, and perennial candidate Wes Soderback.
Meieran's favorite food cart: Taco City, next to Wilson High School
The race to replace Commissioner Diane McKeel, who is terming out, pits Amanda Schroeder, a veterans' services representative, against Lori Stegmann, an insurance agent and Gresham city councilor.
As gentrification west of I-205 funnels more of Multnomah County's low-income residents east, it's more important than ever that east county residents have a representative at the county table. Judged by that criteria, Stegmann is an easy choice. A lifelong resident of the district, she served on the Gresham planning and redevelopment commissions before moving up to the Gresham City Council—where she drew the nickname "the Rock of Rockwood." She's energetic, smart and focused, and will give east county a stronger voice than it's had under McKeel.
Stegmann's favorite food cart: El Cazador #2. "It is in the heart of Rockwood and has the best asada tacos in town," she says. "This is real Mexican food!"