Rene Gonzalez Would Return Portland to a Simpler Time: 2019. To Many Voters, That’s an Appealing Offer.

Gonzalez’s ties to parent groups not only provided him a stealth base, they put him in touch with a seething group of voters deeply unhappy with the status quo.

Rene Gonzalez senses this is his moment.

“There’s no doubt I’m a place-and-time candidate,” Gonzalez tells WW. “I don’t think I would’ve been successful in other cycles.”

One of those election cycles: 2018, when Portlanders sent Jo Ann Hardesty to the Portland City Council. That vote felt like an act of resistance—electing a lifelong critic of the Portland Police Bureau at a moment when citizens were defying President Donald Trump and the city seemed relatively peaceful.

Gonzalez, 48, is Hardesty’s polar opposite. With a placid demeanor and a closet full of sweater vests, the lawyer, small-business owner and soccer club founder promises to restore calm to a city that’s been ravaged by the pandemic, record gun violence and civil unrest.

In some ways, Gonzalez’s platform is simple: more police, more homeless camp sweeps, more law and order. He argues Hardesty’s positions have made Portland less safe, both by alienating the police force and indulging camping in parks and on sidewalks.

That’s a strong pitch for residents reaching their breaking point.

Is it also a sign of a city moving backward?

After all, Gonzalez seeks to unseat the first Black woman elected to the City Council—an official whose unrelenting criticism of cops spurred the police union president to leak a report to The Oregonian falsely implicating her in a crime (“Zero Hour,” WW, Dec. 15, 2021).

Gonzalez, who is of Mexican descent, argues he is no less a champion for people of color than Hardesty has been. “I think there’s a group of far-left voters who feel Jo Ann is their champion. I think they’ll feel a loss there,” he says. “But I’m not sure you’re going to hear that from the Black community, the Asian community, the Latino community.”

Berenice Lopez-Dorsey owns three construction businesses in town. She voted for Hardesty in 2018. Now she’s firmly in Camp Rene.

“We used to be more engaged in the diversity of the community without having to worry about whether we were politically correct or hurting people’s feelings,” Lopez-Dorsey says. “It felt like he was really listening to that. Him being a biracial child and me having a biracial family, it’s not about one group or the other, it’s about all of us together.”

Over the past two weeks, WW spoke to 20 associates of Gonzalez. They described a man whose political engagement grew out of a sense that Portland had responded too radically to the pandemic—and that its policies would harm the people they were supposed to help.

Gonzalez says Portlanders in 2018 were willing to experiment with Hardesty: “We thought we could accept things that were a little out there if they don’t fundamentally imperil core livability.”

Gonzalez says he voted for her. Now he argues her policies have, in fact, imperiled core livability. So he’s running on a platform of restoring it.

To understand the base that propelled Gonzalez into politics, just visit Delta Park in North Portland on a Saturday morning. There, you’ll see hundreds of kids in blue-and-white soccer kits—and their parents.

Gonzalez helped build United PDX, the city’s largest youth soccer club. It serves about 3,000 kids a year and has 400 adult volunteers—and it was a logical springboard to his involvement in groups that advocated to reopen public schools.

“A soccer club might seem like a small thing, but it’s really an emotionally loaded organization because people are dealing with their kids,” says supporter Matt Compton, investor and former board vice president of United PDX. “Navigating that gives me a lot of confidence. He’s not going to shy away from what he believes in.”

Soccer was an early passion for Gonzalez, who grew up in a middle-class home in Anchorage, Alaska. His dad, a retired federal prosecutor and judge, is Mexican American and his mom is white.

Childhood friend Mike Hallinan describes Gonzalez as “socially nimble”—along with playing soccer, he took all the honors classes and competed in a mock trial. “He was always confident and prepared,” Hallinan says.

Gonzalez played soccer at Willamette University while he studied history. Two of his former teammates say he was a natural leader. “I really looked up to him,” recalls Bearcat teammate Karl Hochtl. “He was a little quieter, but he didn’t need to be loud to make his presence known.”

Gonzalez earned a law degree from Willamette University College of Law before working as a real estate and corporate lawyer at Stoel Rives and then as a lawyer at Knowledge Universe, an international tutoring service.

In 2012, he started his own firm—with three employees, including his wife and himself—that helps mostly local beverage and food companies with mergers and acquisitions.

He also runs a software resale and implementation company that sells Microsoft services. He says the businesses each bring in about a million dollars a year in gross revenue. (During the pandemic, records show, his two businesses received a total of $219,000 in federal COVID relief dollars.)

He coached youth soccer on and off as his kids grew up (he has three, including twin girls in high school). Danielle Mackey’s daughter grew up playing soccer with Gonzalez’s daughters. He was her kid’s soccer coach in third grade, when the pinnacle of success was kicking the ball in the right general direction.

“He’d send us emails we’d get at 12:30 in the morning, two pages of his thoughts and plans and aspirations. It was a lot,” Mackey recalls. “It’s that piece of him where he has an idea and can see it through to fruition.”

Portland’s youth soccer world was where Gonzalez was best known until the pandemic. He merged two youth soccer clubs in 2018, one on each side of the Willamette River, to create United PDX, the biggest club in the state. And that’s where he entered politics.

Portland Public Schools shut down in early 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. By that fall, Gonzalez wanted the district to reopen. To make his case, he tapped into a powerful force: sports parents.

He started small, with a Facebook group specific to Portland called “Opening PDX Schools.”

He widened his scope, brought in three soccer moms as co-founders, and formed ED300—an advocacy group and later a political action committee—to push state agencies, public officials and elected leaders to reopen schools.

As early as October 2020, ED300 and Gonzalez were writing emails asking that schools reopen, despite COVID vaccinations not yet being available.

Via public records requests, WW obtained the emails Gonzalez sent to the governor’s office, Portland Public Schools and the Oregon Department of Education.

In a lengthy, passionate letter to the Oregon Board of Education, Gonzalez wrote that the state wasn’t listening to enough Latino and male voices in discussions whether to reopen schools. He wrote that it was impacting his business and soccer club and, more importantly, the mental health of children.

Board chair Kimberly Howard was cordial but not receptive: “We cannot ignore this pandemic is still very much a reality,” she wrote back. “COVID-19 infection rates are on the rise again across Oregon. In the first week of October, we experienced our highest daily case count.”

Gonzalez thanked Howard for her response and wrote back: “I truly believe our response to COVID is materially imperiling the quality of life in this beautiful city and state. My worry is that those impacts will last longer than the virus haunts us.”

Some parents of color say ED300 was a predominantly white, middle-class movement that left out communities of color. Rashelle Chase-Miller, a Black parent, joined ED300 only briefly before leaving.

“Their argument was, the kids were missing soccer and kids were missing prom. But the counter is, the kids in our community risk losing their parents and grandparents,” Chase-Miller says. “They were dismissive and downplayed that. There was no effort to hear from the Black community. It was always speaking for or over, never speaking to.”

Gonzalez acknowledges the leadership of ED300 was mostly white. But keeping schools closed, he says, “did immense harm to the kids they purport to be protecting. I think they’re on the wrong side of history as far as the cost-benefit to Black and brown children.”

Last year, ED300 endorsed a slate of school board candidates across the state. More than half were also endorsed by Oregon Right to Life, Oregon Moms Union or Oregon Family Council—groups fundamentally at odds with reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights, progressive sex education in schools, or all three.

Gonzalez says he and other ED300 leaders focused solely on which candidates wanted to reopen schools.

“I wasn’t doing the calculus that I was running for City Council,” Gonzalez says. “I was completely focused on how to get kids back into school safely. We didn’t get caught up in broader things.”

Whether ED300 successfully pressured Portland Public Schools into reopening of classrooms faster is a matter of debate. But it clearly propelled Gonzalez into politics. (He considered running for Multnomah County chair but felt he lacked the requisite experience.)

The passion and organization, including email lists and social media groups, that parents bring to a political race are potent tools. And they may explain why Gonzalez surprised many observers (including this newspaper) when he narrowly bested Vadim Mozyrsky in the primary, despite a nearly $200,000 independent expenditure campaign that Mozyrsky’s supporters—or, more accurately, Hardesty’s critics—funded.

Gonzalez’s ties to parent groups not only provided him a stealth base, they put him in touch with a seething group of voters deeply unhappy with the status quo.

“There was an element of, things were really bad,” he recalls. “And where can you use the ED300 experience to make an impact?”

In some ways, voters this fall have a simple choice between Gonzalez and Hardesty. Their platforms are diametrically opposed on nearly all issues.

Gonzalez wants to enforce city laws against street camping. He thinks unhoused people who refuse shelter should be issued court citations. Hardesty has long fought against sweeps, calling them inhumane.

Gonzalez wants to hire more police officers to quell crime, whereas Hardesty says the number of police in a city does not correlate to the amount of gun violence.

Hardesty championed street protests following the murder of George Floyd. Gonzalez tells WW the civil unrest of 2020 wasn’t worth it: “It did more harm than good because of the scars it left on downtown.”

Perhaps most telling: Gonzalez says the group least represented by City Council right now are parents of school-aged children.

That’s a very different concept of underrepresented groups than that now discussed at City Hall. “The city has little to no impact on education,” says state Rep. Maxine Dexter (D-Portland). “No politician can be all things to all people, and the relative importance of a Black woman’s voice on City Council is the representation that I want to see.”

But Gonzalez’s perspective on citizen participation at least shows a consistency in his thinking: To anyone who says he would erase progress, he replies that what’s happened over the past two years wasn’t progress at all—it was chaos. And what Portland really needs is parenting.

“There was no way,” he says, “I would’ve put my family through this in any other moment.”

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