As Portland Voters Sour on City Hall, Incumbent Commissioner Dan Ryan Is Linking Arms With the Backlash

“I was an outsider when I ran two years ago,” he says. “And I remain an outsider.”

Dan Ryan (Motoya Nakamura)

In 2020, Dan Ryan won a seat on the Portland City Council with a pledge to disrupt business as usual.

“I’m a status quo buster and a reformer,” Ryan told WW in his endorsement interview. “So people in power are sometimes irritated with people like me.”

As protests swelled against the Portland Police Bureau that year, Ryan pledged to make substantial cuts to the police budget and invest in alternatives to cops. He promised to accelerate the pace at which affordable housing units were being built and get people off the streets with new programs.

Eighteen months later, Portland voters are apoplectic at the state of the city—and local government’s response to it. In recent polling, 76% say Portland is headed in the wrong direction.

Meanwhile, Ryan can’t point to a policy achievement of note—his flagship project, the creation of six “safe rest villages” for unhoused people, hasn’t yet sheltered a single person.

That should spell political death for an incumbent. Yet Ryan, who won election in August 2020 to complete the term of late Commissioner Nick Fish and is now running for his first full term, faces thin opposition in the May primary.

Perhaps that’s because Ryan has shifted away from his progressive agenda and instead taken up positions that more closely resemble those of a law-and-order candidate. His flexibility appears to be paying dividends in what many observers expect to be a brutal year for incumbents: He faces only light opposition for reelection.

The man who ran as a reformer in 2020 now pledges to make public rights of way accessible again by getting people sleeping on sidewalks into shelters. He supports hiring more police officers and opposes cutting the police budget.

In fact, Ryan was one of two candidates at a town hall Feb. 24 hosted by People for Portland, the business-backed advocacy group pushing for urgent action to clean up the city’s streets.

The shift accelerated after Ryan’s early polling numbers were dismal and the majority of Portlanders signaled they wanted a stronger approach to getting tents off the streets.

Former City Commissioner Mike Lindberg says Ryan has adapted to the will of Portlanders.

“People for Portland has demonstrated how the public feels about the [homeless] state of the emergency,” Lindberg says. “Dan has responded to that.…[He] feels like more of the money ought to go to getting people off the street right now into safe shelters.”

Ryan contends he hasn’t changed his values or turned his back on his pledges. “I was an outsider when I ran two years ago,” he says. “And I remain an outsider.”

Ryan’s most publicized project has been trying to find locations for safe rest villages: clusters of sleeping pods that he says will act as an onramp to eventual permanent housing.

Last week, in the latest in a series of press conferences announcing potential village locations, he described his philosophy as a break with orthodoxy: “For too long we have taken a housing-first, housing-only approach.”

Katrina Holland, executive director of JOIN, a housing nonprofit, is critical of Ryan’s new focus on shelter rather than housing first. “He’s stated very clearly that he wants to focus on immediate options that solve the humanitarian crisis. To him, that’s shelters,” Holland says. “To say housing first doesn’t work, that’s just not true.”

Ryan claims he still wants to shake up the status quo: “I’m a disruptor, so I’ve been disrupting internal systems to be a champion for services on the ground.…It wasn’t in the plans of the county to do something like this.”

But he hasn’t always been so laser-focused on temporary shelter.

In 2020, Ryan pledged to speed the pace and reduce the price of affordable housing: “We have to make sure existing housing money is being used and units are getting built,” Ryan said then. The number of units built from two housing bonds passed in 2016 and 2018 remains low—350 total. Ryan’s campaign points to a higher number of affordable housing units built since he was elected, totaling 1,200 units.

Ryan’s office also says he helped secure two zoning code changes last year that “will facilitate affordable housing development” in historic districts and certain areas of the city.

As the commissioner in charge of the Bureau of Development Services, Ryan has launched a task force to streamline the city’s permitting process. He says his reforms should reach the City Council for preliminary discussion in the next several weeks.

Maurice Rahming, president of O’Neill Construction Group and a member of Ryan’s permit task force, says the commissioner is poised to reduce bottlenecks that slow construction of new housing. “I honestly feel like it’s going to be a net positive for our city,” he says.

If homeless advocates feel perplexed by Ryan, police critics think he’s abandoned his pledges.

In November 2020, he voted alongside then-commissioner Amanda Fritz and Mayor Wheeler against cutting the Police Bureau’s budget by $18 million.

That night, some 50 protesters stormed his property, smashing a window and throwing objects at his North Portland home. The attack was widely condemned.

But some police reformers say Ryan voted against the very budget cuts he campaigned on. “It was easier for Ryan to say he was going to be a part of that [budget cut] wave when he was running, but he gets in office and it’s a different tune,” says Juan Chavez, a lawyer with the Oregon Justice Resource Center. “I think this tracks with the rightward shift of the council.”

The best evidence of what’s changed: City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty endorsed Ryan enthusiastically in 2020 and was his first supporter named in the Voters’ Pamphlet.

One leader he hasn’t asked for an endorsement this year? Hardesty.

“If Dan Ryan is interested in our endorsement, I would certainly talk with him about it,” she says.

Ryan voted last spring against expanding Portland Street Response, an alternative to armed police officers that Hardesty championed. He said the program lacked enough data, and he has since voted to expand the program citywide. Ryan also voted with the rest of the City Council to invest more than $4 million in organizations that combat gun violence.

Ryan says he has taken a consistent position: better police officers, not fewer of them. “It includes getting the right people in uniforms to protect all of us,” he says, “and to have the community investments as part of that relationship.”

That emphasis matches the public mood.

February poll results released by the Portland Business Alliance showed enthusiasm for robust policing and fewer tents and trash.

Ryan says the poll validated his positions rather than creating them: “If you look at how I was behaving prior to that poll, it was in touch with the voter sentiment.”

The PBA poll showed low support for Ryan and Hardesty: 10% and 18%, respectively. But John Horvick, president of DHM Research, the firm that conducted the poll, says that’s not the critical number.

Fifty-four percent of those surveyed said they would vote for a generic challenger to Hardesty. Ryan’s number was 34%.

Ryan faces only one significant challenger: AJ McCreary, who runs the Equitable Giving Circle, a social justice nonprofit focused on economic equity. McCreary has raised $56,000 so far compared to Ryan’s $196,000.

“Dan’s focus has been hiding visible houslessness rather than housing people or creating long-term solutions,” McCreary tells WW. “His focus on opening safe rest villages instead of permanent supportive housing fails to address the root cause of houselessness.”

Hardesty, by contrast, faces competition from two more moderate candidates: Rene Gonzalez and Vadim Mozyrsky. They’re likely to take away a chunk of each other’s support. But neither wants to challenge Ryan instead.

One reason Gonzalez might have chosen to go after Hardesty: Ryan and Gonzalez have retained the same political consulting firm, CN4 Partners. Another: Ryan has room to maneuver closer to where voters are.

“Hardesty’s challengers have positioned themselves rhetorically and on the issues closer to the median voter in Portland,” Horvick says. “Ryan’s challengers are further to his left…and they aren’t representing where the voters are right now.”

Ryan says he’s been watching and learning in his brief time on the City Council, and if voters reelect him, they’ll get a Dan in full.

“I tend to like to hear all perspectives, and then how can we actually move work forward to get something done?” Ryan says. “In my probationary period, I played well with others and was finding my own voice.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Commissioner Mingus Mapps voted against police budget cuts in 2020. That is incorrect; that was then-commissioner Amanda Fritz. WW regrets the error.

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