Anyone who’s visited Vadim Mozyrsky’s three-bedroom Colonial in Goose Hollow says it doesn’t have a speck of dust, one unfolded blanket or a single crooked photo hanging on the wall. “It matches his personality perfectly,” says his friend Lisa Sparks.
It’s perhaps a preview of Mozyrsky’s vision for Portland.
The 49-year-old Social Security judge wants to bring back dissolved neighborhood watch programs and speed up trash cleanup and graffiti removal. He supports constructing large emergency homeless shelters, “whether that be temporary shelters in open spaces or garages,” and sees Bybee Lakes Hope Center as a successful model. He thinks Portland has lost its way: tolerating vandalism of small businesses while dismissing reservations voiced in corporate boardrooms and neighborhood association meetings.
In short, Mozyrsky is the ideal foil to Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty.
Mozyrsky defends the Social Security Administration’s coffers from applicants with hard-luck tales; Hardesty is a fierce advocate for the downtrodden. She wears her heart on her sleeve; Mozyrsky’s personality is nearly impossible to gauge in public settings. Hardesty is critical of the Portland Police Bureau; Mozyrsky wants accountability but thinks the city should applaud the cops for what they’ve done right (see “Apples to Apples,” page 11).
And in this political environment, that means Mozyrsky has a healthy chance of unseating Hardesty, whose criticism of police has alienated Portlanders moving to the political center during the past four years as homeless camps grew and shootings soared.
“At some point in time, you have to listen to the people,” Mozyrsky tells WW. “And if they’re saying, ‘I would like to have more police out there so I feel safe,’ do I know enough to tell them no?”
Critics of Mozyrsky say he’s pandering to wealthy, white Portlanders.
Taji Chesimet, who served on a police accountability board with Mozyrsky for two years, is one of those critics. “He’ll lean into the wealthier, whiter Portland who want a safer community,” Chesimet says, “people who want to act as if we’re progressive but want the status quo.”
After four years, few Portlanders haven’t formed an opinion of Hardesty, one of the city’s most polarizing figures. Her two leading challengers are less well known. Rene Gonzalez is a lawyer with hardline views on increasing police in Portland and not tolerating what he calls the “anything goes” attitude regarding Portland’s unhoused population.
And Mozyrsky, who has stolen many of the endorsements Hardesty would most like to have—including that of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 189, which represents more than 1,000 city workers—remains largely an enigma.
WW interviewed more than two dozen people who have worked alongside and across from Mozyrsky. They describe a pragmatic and reserved man whose insistence on bringing more voices to the table can be seen one of two ways: as a betrayal of Portlanders who have historically been silenced by the more affluent or as a unifying force that Portland is hungry for.
Mozyrsky’s family fled to America from Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, when he was 7 years old. He learned English by watching television sitcoms like Bewitched and Three’s Company.
His family bounced around the U.S. As an adult, he lived in Washington, D.C., New Orleans, California and then Texas before moving to Portland in 2014. He came here for a vacation, solo, and remembers walking out of his hotel downtown and coming across live music at Pioneer Courthouse Square. That was the moment, he says, when he decided Portland would be his home.
Two of his closest friends describe him as an adventurous, warm friend who hosts carefully thought out holiday dinners where he cooks ethnic food and tells the stories behind each dish. Mozyrsky listens to wellness podcasts and intermittently fasts, takes cold showers, and follows the Wim Hof breathing method. He snowboards and hikes on weekends.
Everyone WW spoke to, whether they like or dislike Mozyrsky, say he’s a stickler for details.
“He did his homework. He always read every word of every proposal by one of our colleagues,” says Andrew Kalloch, who once served with Mozyrsky on the volunteer Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing. “When you’re trying to rebuild trust in something as challenging as public safety, he has no interest in cutting corners.”
For 10 years, Mozyrsky has served as a federal administrative law judge—first in San Bernardino, Calif., then Houston, and then in Portland. Applicants seeking Social Security benefits end up in Mozyrsky’s courtroom after they’ve been denied benefits twice. If they appeal the second denial, the case goes to Mozyrsky.
Some administrative law judges in Portland award benefits in up to 80% of those appeals, while other judges deny awards in up to 70% of them. Records show Mozyrsky routinely denies more awards than he approves.
Three lawyers who have brought clients seeking disability insurance in front of him for years say he’s a tough judge who asks prying questions of their clients. They asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation against future clients.
“He runs a tight ship, and you got the feeling that he was looking for ways to deny people,” one lawyer tells WW.
Mozyrsky maintains he’s fair: “I take pride in knowing what’s in the case file and asking specific questions in respect to that. This is taxpayer money, and this is also people who are having difficulties in their lives, and you need to reconcile those two.”
In 2017, Mozyrsky began volunteering on the now-dissolved Portland Commission on Disability. He would go on to join six other boards and committees in the next seven years, including two police advisory committees, neighborhood groups, and an immigrant and refugee organization.
He’s advocated for more unarmed Police Bureau employees to patrol neighborhoods and body-worn cameras for officers.
That’s made him unpopular on some of the left-leaning boards and commissions he’s served on, like the Citizen Review Committee and the Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing.
A dozen colleagues on boards and commissions who mostly aligned with Mozyrsky’s stances characterize him to WW as even-keeled, considerate and respectful.
“As far as I can determine, he’s someone who’s genuinely sincere,” says Matthew Baron, who served alongside Mozyrsky at the Portland Public Safety Action Coalition, which primarily advocates for livability issues. “He almost carries himself as the encyclopedia in the room.”
But half a dozen others who have served on boards with him and largely disagreed with him ideologically on policy matters tell WW he’s cold and sometimes petulant; two even describe his behavior at times as bullying.
“Vadim could get pretty aggressive when someone challenged him or his ideas,” says former PCCEP co-chair Elliott Young, who did not describe his behavior as bullying, “and it often made other members and the public feel uncomfortable.”
That alleged behavior became more public this spring, when Shaina Pomerantz, a Black woman who serves on the Citizen Review Committee alongside Mozyrsky, accused him during a public meeting of using an “anti-Black” tone in emails directed toward the committee’s chair, Candace Avalos, regarding a forum on body-worn cameras.
While no one accused Mozyrsky of using racial slurs—or of making any reference to race at all—the controversy quickly turned into an election-year donnybrook. And the obvious backdrop was that Mozyrsky had dared to challenge the reelection of Hardesty, the first Black woman to serve on the Portland City Council.
Mozyrsky called the accusation a “political smear campaign” and filed twin elections complaints against Avalos and Pomerantz on both the city and state levels, alleging they broke city employee guidelines and state elections rules by talking about Mozyrsky’s campaign during a sanctioned meeting.
The City Attorney’s Office is outsourcing the investigation to an independent firm, which will also look at the racial bias allegations. (During the meeting in question, a number of other CRC members, some of them white, also expressed concern with Mozyrsky’s tone in the emails. Mozyrsky did not mention those members in his complaints.)
Mozyrsky and his accusers have gone through two mediation sessions, which don’t appear to have resolved much. The elections complaints remain outstanding, and Mozyrsky won’t say if he still thinks the allegation was a smear campaign.
Mozyrsky tells WW he knows his positions have sometimes alienated him from his colleagues, but he disputes that he was ever unkind. “In no way do I think anything I’ve ever done could be considered bullying,” he says. “I’m fighting for what I think is a voice that’s not heard or represented in those halls.”
That search for balance could appeal to many frustrated Portlanders.
He thinks the citizens not being listened to most at City Hall are neighborhood associations, whose cries about crime and homelessness he says are going ignored. He supports bringing back neighborhood watches, a program weakened by then-Commissioner Chloe Eudaly in 2019 due to concerns that it encouraged vigilantism.
Business leaders and neighborhood association leaders spoke highly of Mozyrsky, calling him pragmatic, sensible and focused on the right issues: cracking down on crime, homelessness and trash.
He’s received the endorsement of the Portland Business Alliance, the powerful chamber of commerce that backed Mayor Wheeler’s reelection in 2020. He declined to take a position on the business-backed advocacy group People for Portland or its plan to compel local governments to move houseless people into shelters: “I’m agnostic about it. If the majority of Portland voters support it, that’ll be the new law.”
Mozyrsky can be stiff and guarded in public settings, lacking the charisma of a successful politician.
But in a city whose form of government means that strong personalities are often blamed for bureaucratic stalemates and lack of progress, a plain personality and a penchant for rules might be exactly what Portland voters crave.
Stan Penkin, who led the Portland Public Safety Action Coalition for a time, says Mozyrsky’s sometimes aloof public persona shouldn’t matter.
“How important is that, really?” Penkin asks. “Everyone wants to feel that someone is jovial, friendly, and homey. But is that really important for someone in office who’s doing a job?”