The regional government Metro is often a sleepy agency unmoored from the most pressing issues of the region. It runs regional parks, operates the zoo, collects trash and ensures that the Portland area has enough land to develop within the urban growth boundary.
But it is increasingly relevant to life in Portland. Metro has recently taken on the political role of tackling regional problems. That's mostly because the agency can use geographic leverage to pass big tax measures: Portland voters who generally support taxes can force the suburban tax base to do its part. A housing bond passed two years ago; homeless services is on the ballot this spring, and transportation is expected to appear on the November ballot.
The new relevance of Metro isn't on display in this race. It's an unexciting slate of candidates. The winner will represent many of Portland's southwest suburbs, including Beaverton, Tigard and Wilsonville.
We were most impressed by Gerritt Rosenthal, 75. He's twice run unsuccessfully for the Legislature, most recently challenging former state Rep. Julie Parrish (R-West Linn) in 2014. He got thumped—winning just 43 percent of the vote in a district now held by a Democrat.
But Rosenthal, a environmental consultant who decades ago worked for Eugene's region planning agency, is a better fit at Metro. He has the planning and environmental background to oversee Metro's efforts to improve commuting in the region, and he knows the small towns of the area, who have needs that must be balanced against Portland's demands.
He faces Tom Anderson, 58, a real estate broker and Tigard city councilor recruited to run by retiring Metro Councilor Craig Dirksen. Anderson's campaign is financed almost entirely by the real estate and homebuilders' political action committees—$7,500 of the just over $8,000 he raised so far this year. We're uncomfortable with one special interest seeking more power at Metro—an agency that has to make decisions about when and where to build housing. A third candidate, arts advocate Alison Balbag, didn't demonstrate she was ready for the job.
What Rosenthal will remember about the COVID-19 pandemic: Artists finding a way to share their music with the aid of new technology.
Smith, 60, is an ideal fit for the Metro Council. But he faces a cadre of talented, credible opponents.
Mary Peveto, executive director of Neighbors for Clean Air, offers a model of a talented advocate creating a vision and widespread coalition for her work. Cameron Whitten, an activist-turned-nonprofit executive, has matured from a radical hunger striker outside City Hall to an advocate for change in the city, though it's not clear why Metro would be a good fit for his ambitions. Karen Spencer, a sharp and talented lawyer, has proven she would be a reasoned voice for a moderate approach.
Smith's most formidable opponent is former state Rep. Mary Nolan—among the most savvy, effective legislators Portland has seen in the past decade. She says she has the policy and management expertise to spur Metro to complete the big projects it's undertaking. Yet it's not clear why she's seeking this office instead of, say, the Portland City Council.
Smith, who has served a decade on the city's planning commission, is clear on what he's after. He's running on a platform of finding regional transportation solutions for climate change by reducing Portland's use of cars and fossil fuels.
He's a founding member of the activist group No More Freeways that opposes the Interstate 5 expansion at the Rose Quarter. As part of his planning commission work, he helped block the Pembina propane terminal on the Columbia River.
By joining the Metro Council, he wants to bring accountability to state agencies run by appointed commissions rather than elected officials. He argues that the Oregon Department of Transportation needs to be held to account by making Metro the public body to plan transportation in the region. That vision could get traction at Metro—though Smith will need to persuade his colleagues to force TriMet's hand to expand bus service with the threat of a takeover, which Metro has the power to do.
Smith has helped lead massive if subtle reforms at the planning commission, promoting dense, low-car transportation and development. He's not a radical and holds reasoned positions on neighborhood associations, balancing design with housing supply and, most relevantly, the transportation ballot measure Metro is now pursuing. That makes his climate advocacy all the more disarming and effective.
It will take a legion of Smith-style leaders to address climate change. But voters should not miss the chance to put an experienced, pleasant, thoughtful leader to work in the job he's perfectly matched for.
What Smith will remember about the COVID-19 pandemic: Walks with his dog while navigating past other pedestrians. He says he is often the one to step into the street to allow others to pass.
Stacey, 68, doesn't make good copy. Just good policy.
He's seeking his third term on the Metro Council, after serving as Congressman Earl Blumenauer's chief of staff, head of the Portland Planning Bureau, and executive director of the environmental group 1000 Friends of Oregon. At Metro, Stacey put his land-use chops to work crafting Metro's plans for a Southwest Corridor light rail line, demanding that the project prioritize affordable housing near MAX stations. He's championed dense development and demonstrated how building more units closer together saves taxpayers money.
His unfinished business, Stacey says, is to push the region to adopt congestion pricing—that is, tolls to keep drivers off Portland highways during rush hour to reduce bottlenecks and carbon emissions from idling cars. He has his work cut out for him: Tolling is a contentious policy, requiring the signoff of state lawmakers and federal officials. It's also the best way, as London and Stockholm have demonstrated, to reduce traffic and improve air quality.
Stacey's opponent is Leigha LaFleur, a Bernie Sanders organizer whose remarkable biography includes a grandfather who invented the square-bottom plastic bag, her own clerical role in the Wiccan church, and radical knitting. Her top issue is reducing landfills by converting Metro's garbage system to plasma gasification—that is, incinerating the trash. We're not convinced this is a good idea.
What Stacey will remember about the COVID-19 pandemic: The incompetence of President Trump.
Multnomah County District Attorney
In the first truly contested Multnomah County district attorney's race in nearly 40 years, two candidates are running to succeed Rod Underhill, who is retiring.
There is national context for the race. For decades, district attorney races across the country followed the pattern we've seen in Multnomah County: Prosecutors kept a tight rein on the office, with little debate. That's all changed. In cities from Philadelphia to San Francisco, criminal justice reformers against incarceration have taken control, shifting priorities toward treatment, community courts and other alternatives to putting people behind bars.
In this race, Mike Schmidt, 39, director of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission and a former Multnomah County prosecutor, is the reform candidate. He's running against Ethan Knight, 45, a former senior Multnomah County prosecutor who, since 2007, has been an assistant U.S. attorney. Knight has significantly more prosecutorial experience than Schmidt and has the support of a who's who of Oregon prosecutors.
Knight's backers include the Multnomah County District Attorneys Association and the Portland Police Association. Together, the two groups have made contributions totaling $45,000 to Knight. Schmidt, on the other hand, has received support from progressives such as Gov. Kate Brown and House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland).
Schmidt has more progressive plans than Knight: If elected, he plans to appoint a hate and bias crimes prosecutor, to prioritize mental health counseling for inmates, to create a unit specifically for a gender-responsive approach to prosecution, and to eliminate the cash bail system in the state. It is unclear where he'll get the money to fund those priorities in a COVID-19 budget.
Knight would maintain the status quo of the criminal justice system (he supports the death penalty, for example) rather than trying to shift the paradigm in the county's jail and court system.
Compared to other Oregon counties and many states, Multnomah County already takes a progressive approach to criminal justice. Underhill's predecessor, Mike Schrunk, decades ago moved away from prosecuting low-level drug offenders, for instance, and Underhill pushed far faster than his colleagues toward wider decriminalization of drug offenses.
If this job were just a question of picking the better prosecutor, Knight would win easily. But the district attorney in the state's largest county is a thought leader and a policy leader. At the CJC, Schmidt has brought data and analysis to policymaking in a way his predecessors did not.
Criminal justice is a messy, expensive and vital undertaking. Schmidt is a thoughtful change agent, and we're convinced he's the man to lead the county's criminal justice system into a new decade.
What Schmidt will remember about the COVID-19 pandemic: Camping outside in his backyard with his 3-year-old beneath the stars: "All six of them that we could see from Portland. We froze our butts off all night."