Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty Ceded Some Leverage at City Hall With Tactical Electoral Missteps

Hardesty seemed to recognize that an opportunity had slipped from her grasp.

City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty was not on the ballot last week. But the night of Nov. 3 was in some important ways a defeat for her.

To be sure, Hardesty can take credit for the biggest local win of election night—the 82% to 18% approval of Measure 26-217, which creates a new oversight board for the Portland Police Bureau.

But the two City Council candidates Hardesty endorsed, mayoral hopeful Sarah Iannarone and incumbent Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, both lost.

Two days later, Hardesty insisted on a vote on her proposal to cut $18 million from the PPB budget.

Her colleagues, including Commissioner Dan Ryan, who won his seat in August with a ringing endorsement from Hardesty, voted against her 3-2.

Hardesty seemed to recognize that an opportunity had slipped from her grasp.

"Just for a second, Black lives mattered in Portland," Hardesty said on the dais. "We will continue to talk about Black lives, but we won't do anything to make them better."

The string of setbacks puzzled observers, who had watched Hardesty skillfully transition from an outside advocate to a skilled City Hall power broker. Since winning election in 2018, she used her decades of experience to advance an aggressive agenda on the Portland Clean Energy Fund, a new alternative to policing called Portland Street Response, and historic cuts to the police budget in June.

Hardesty carried unmatched moral authority as the longtime champion of police reform and the only Black member of the City Council, and she wasn't afraid to use it. For two years, she has often set the agenda at City Hall, particularly on public safety—and most other officials, including Mayor Ted Wheeler, have deferred to her.

Her recent moves came in pursuit of the same agenda: greater equity for people of color and a diminution of power for the Portland Police Bureau. But this time, her decisions looked rash—and they produced different results.

"She pulled back from the mayor, endorsed Chloe and put Ryan on the spot," says lobbyist Len Bergstein. "I think her choices really isolated her."

Hardesty says police reform is more important than playing it safe and the nearly six months of protests have created a rare window of opportunity.

"I'm frustrated with the pace of change," she says.

Hardesty is an experienced politician and advocate: She served three terms in the Oregon House from 1995 to 2001 representing Northeast Portland and later led Oregon Action and the NAACP of Portland.

Since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd on May 25, Hardesty's decades of advocacy for police reform gave her the authority to lead the conversation about how to remake the city's largest general fund bureau.

In June, she convinced Wheeler and Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who had been resistant to making additional cuts to the police budget, to join her in lopping off another $15 million.

With Wheeler's reelection bid looking shaky, and a largely peaceful Black Lives Matter movement dominating the political conversation, Hardesty appeared set to be in the driver's seat as policing dominated the election agenda.

In June, Hardesty publicly rebuked Eudaly for being a "performative ally," pushing for $50 million in police budget cuts rather than the $15 million cut Hardesty had crafted. She said the larger number was unrealistic and untethered to any analysis or policy decisions.

But at the end of September, Hardesty abruptly reversed course and endorsed Eudaly. At the time, Eudaly trailed challenger Mingus Mapps by double digits in polls.

Hardesty also decided to let her primary election endorsement of Wheeler lapse. But she did not endorse Iannarone until very late: Oct. 29, when most ballots had already been returned.

"We would have preferred to have it as soon as possible," says Iannarone's campaign manager, Greg McKelvey.

Hardesty acknowledges struggling with that decision. Most incumbents don't endorse in contested races because they may have to work with somebody they rejected. Hardesty ignored that tradition—twice.

"I could not in good conscience endorse the mayor," she says. "I was going to stay out because of potential fallout. But I could not stay out."

Iannarone came very close to winning. She narrowed a 25% gap behind Wheeler in the May primary to 5 points in November. An unusually large number of voters—just over 13%—chose, however, to write in a candidate. (Elections officials do not release data on write-ins, but supporters of Don't Shoot Portland founder Teressa Raiford ran an organized write-in campaign for her.)

"Clearly, there was a disconnect on the left about what was good enough," Hardesty says. "The left is consistent at pulling defeat out of the jaws of victory. There's a purity test on the far left just as there is on the right."

Eudaly also lost badly to Mapps. Hardesty's attempt to play kingmaker left progressives like Margot Black, a founder of Portland Tenants United, demoralized.

"The Portland left struggles with its long game: defining it and organizing toward it in a cohesive and strategic way," Black says. "In this case, instead of a strong progressive majority on council, one that would represent workers, renters and disenfranchised communities, we essentially decided to cut off our nose to spite our face. Renters and police accountability will pay the price."

Hardesty's decision making looked more reactive than strategic: She endorsed Eudaly after Mapps questioned the elimination of the Police Bureau's gun violence reduction team, a move Hardesty championed, and threw her support to Iannarone after Wheeler declined on Oct. 28 to support police cuts.

Hardesty is at peace with the decisions she made, including calling her colleagues "cowardly" when they failed to support her push to slash police spending.
"Whether I had a third vote [on PPB cuts] or not, it's an important vote to have," Hardesty says. "After 75,000 emails and hundreds of people writing letters and hundreds more testifying, it's clear to me that the public wants a fundamental shift—and it's clear the Police Bureau is out of control."

She says, despite the election results, she expects to have a productive relationship with Wheeler.

"He and I agree on so many of the crises we are responding to," Hardesty says. "I expect to get back to the relationship we had."

Wheeler, too, thinks he and Hardesty can resume their effective partnership.

"Our relationship is solid," he says.

But Wheeler says that wanting change and actually implementing it are different. He points to Portland Street Response, which the council approved a year ago but, under Hardesty's supervision, is still months from going live.

"When people say I'm slow or methodical, that's not the case," Wheeler says. "I'm just being realistic. You can't make new programs work on day one, and I'm always going to want to know how any changes affect public safety."

Wheeler's goal, he says, is to pull together the newly elected council, which will also include Commissioner-elect Carmen Rubio, who succeeds Fritz in January. "People are tired of the divisiveness," he says. "It's exhausting and that's not what we're about here in Portland."

Hardesty's not so sure. She says with soaring overtime costs and city revenues being crunched by COVID-19, she intends to renew her attack on PPB's budget in January, when the new council is sworn in. "I'm not here," she says, "to sing 'Kumbaya.'"

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