Chloe Eudaly’s Neighborhood War: The Populist Commissioner Hits Back Against Critics Who Say She’s Strangling Portland Democracy

"We have to serve all Portlanders. Neighborhood associations are not serving all Portlanders."

Chloe Eudaly rarely shies from a fight. But on a pleasant July evening, she cried.

The first-term city commissioner had been invited to address a Pearl District art gallery fundraiser called "Neighborhood Associations Rock." Her topic? A new proposal for how City Hall interacts with average citizens.

Eudaly, 49, is a former small-business owner who's lived her entire adult life in Portland. One might think she would be in sync with the scrappy neighborhood groups responsible for this city's national reputation for civic engagement.

But that night, Eudaly was as welcome as Steve Bannon. Audience members interrupted her speech and shouted her down.

"What are you afraid of?" Eudaly asked at one point, as part of her prepared remarks.

"You are dividing us," came a reply.

Eudaly argued that she only wanted to expand the kinds of voices that City Hall listens to. Grumbling filled the room.

"I did not come here to burn down your neighborhood network," she concluded. "We are not dismantling the neighborhood system. That is patently false."

After concluding, Eudaly declined to take questions. One heckler called after her: "You're not getting re-elected."

Eudaly says she then went to dinner—and broke down in tears.

"Dear God," she recalls, "I was interrupted, insulted, mocked, yelled at. It's just incredibly stressful to be standing in front of a room of people emanating hate towards you."

Eudaly ran for the City Council in 2016 as a take-no-prisoners populist.

She was a long shot, a penniless zine shop owner challenging the well-connected, better-financed incumbent Steve Novick, a darling of the media and labor unions.

Yet she upset Novick handily, in part by appealing to an untapped power bloc: renters furious at the rising cost of apartments.

Eudaly immediately challenged the city's most powerful interests: landlords. In her first month in office, she passed a relocation ordinance requiring them to pay the moving costs of displaced renters. It was unique in the U.S.

Eudaly then spent two years forcing landlords to loosen their tenant screening criteria and reforming their handling of security deposits. She won again.

Now, however, she's challenging a more diffuse power base: the volunteer boards that represent Portland's 94 neighborhood associations.

She's touched off a grassroots revolt that threatens her hold on office (she's already drawn four challengers for next year) and energized a seething army of some of the city's most engaged residents.

"She's trying to cut the legs out from under neighborhood associations," says Libby Deal, 33, a member of the King Neighborhood Association board. Deal attended the Pearl District event.

"We were eager to hear what the commissioner had to say," Deal says, "but she insulted everybody in the room. She was hostile and unprofessional and  basically said everybody in neighborhood associations is an old, rich white person." (Deal says she's none of the above.)

Reforming Portland's form of civic engagement isn't a new idea. Former Mayor Tom Potter spent considerable energy on it a decade ago, and much of what Eudaly wants to do builds on Potter's efforts.

A scathing 2016 audit of the city's Office of Neighborhood Involvement, which oversees neighborhood associations, prompted Mayor Ted Wheeler to target the bureau for an overhaul. The audit found ONI was failing to engage a broad swath of Portlanders and that they felt a growing sense of alienation. "Residents are increasingly pessimistic about their ability to influence city decisions," the audit said.

Wheeler assigned the task to Eudaly. She fired the bureau director and rebranded ONI the Office of Community and Civic Life.

This year, Eudaly set out to fundamentally remake who gets a say in city policy. The goal, she says, is to increase equity.

Her proposed ordinance could start to expand the pool of groups that receive city funding and are designated to participate in official budget, land use and development discussions.

Right now, such recognition goes only to geographically based neighborhood groups. Currently, six identity-based groups—including the Urban League, the Latino Network, and the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization—receive funding, but they and other groups could be among those invited to participate in those formal discussions—or the city could use a completely new process for getting feedback from citizens. (The City Council is slated to hear the issue in November, but the proposal is not yet final.)

Eudaly says neighborhood associations too often represent white homeowners and exclude renters, people of color and immigrants. And, she says, they serve as gatekeepers who stand in the way of denser development and the construction of more affordable housing.

Eudaly is challenging an institution central to city policymaking since 1974. Neighborhood associations played a key role in blocking construction of the Mount Hood Freeway, a proposed interstate highway that would have bulldozed much of Southeast Portland.

Now Eudaly is seeking to outflank those neighborhood associations from the left.

She has been met with intense criticism, called a "demagogue," and caricatured as an evil queen atop an enormous throne by the NW Examiner newspaper.

Critics within the neighborhood associations say they are eager for increased participation but think Eudaly's proposed changes—such as the office director's new authority to unilaterally choose new groups for recognition; the elimination of requirements that groups adhere to open records and meetings laws; and spreading $3 million in annual city funding across more organizations—will decrease accountability and effectiveness. (The updated version of the ordinance from Sept. 3. removed the authority for the director to change the officially recognized list of organizations, giving it to City Council.)

"Neighborhood associations are messy and not always perfect," Deal says. "But in the council form of government, where there's no representation by district, they are a form of true democracy."

It didn't help Eudaly's efforts when The Oregonian last month published text messages between one of her staff and a member of the mayor's staff. "We need our neighborhood associations in their place. They get too much power and voice," Eudaly's policy director, Jamey Duhamel, wrote to Wheeler operations manager Mustafa Washington. "So. Much. Privilege."

Mingus Mapps, a former employee of the Office of Community and Civic Life, is one of those now challenging Eudaly for her City Council seat. He says she misunderstands what neighborhood associations do.

"These are the people who organize our street fairs, our neighborhood cleanups, our anti-graffiti programs," Mapps says. "They are not the enemy. They're part of the solution. The fact that city leadership doesn't know that is deeply disturbing."

To her opponents, Eudaly is seeking to demolish an institution as central to Portland's identity as the city's 13 bridges. She says she's merely trying to make Portland responsive to everyone, not just those fortunate enough to own property. And she points out that at least one neighborhood association and several community groups support her.

In the two months since the bruising event in the Pearl, Eudaly has remained unusually quiet. She's mostly operated behind the scenes, allowing the dispute to play out in committee hearings run by bureaucrats.

This month, that changed.

She came to WW to defend her plan, assess how she and her colleagues are performing, and justify a personal style that has been the subject of relentless criticism since she took office.

WW: Commissioner, what is the public's greatest misconception of you?

Chloe Eudaly: Of me? Maybe that I don't listen.

Why do you think people have that?

Because I don't agree with them.

I mean, I've learned a lot of lessons in this role. One is, most people say they want change but most people really don't want to have to make change. It's my job to advance change.

Why do you want to change the neighborhood association system in Portland?

It's not just me. I inherited a bureau that had been audited shortly before I came to office. The audit really highlighted the fact we were not serving all Portlanders equitably. While it may not be evident, because we've heard so much from critics and opponents, there is a considerable amount of demand and support for this change. [But] this process has been really challenging.

Are you surprised by the intensity of opposition to your plan?

How this has unfolded is an illustration of what's wrong with the system. Because we have a handful of very vocal opponents spreading misinformation and rumors and theories about what we're doing well in advance of it ever having been finalized.

It's frustrating and disappointing that so much time is being taken up just trying to dispel myths and misunderstandings. We really haven't gotten to the heart of the matter, which is that we have to serve all Portlanders. Neighborhood associations are not serving all Portlanders.

So what's the misunderstanding?

Oh, that I'm dismantling the neighborhood system and destroying democracy.

But you are, in effect, trying to weaken the influence of neighborhood associations.

I'm not saying they don't deserve the privilege. I'm saying everyone deserves the privilege. I'm not taking it away from them. I want to give it to other people.

What are the harms to groups that are currently excluded from the neighborhood association process?

I think neighborhood associations are very well intentioned. But I challenge this notion that some people have asserted, which is that this group is open to anyone. And if they're not coming, it's a failure on their part.

That's a real lack of understanding of how marginalized and excluded certain communities feel. If you're a renter and you sense a prevailing attitude in a neighborhood association that renters are a scourge of the neighborhood,…these are attitudes that exist.

The NW Examiner has run a cartoon showing you running people down with tanks, like in Tiananmen Square. What about this policy change threatens people so much?

I have the same question: What are they afraid of? How do they think their neighborhoods are going to suffer by giving equal voice to communities of color, immigrants and refugees, renters, people with disabilities, young people? They feel attacked. They feel criticized. If I got a little taste of what it's like to be a member of a marginalized, underrepresented group: good.

Is this the most controversy you've encountered in office?

[I've gotten] vile responses [for] supporting a sanctuary city, speaking out in defense of immigrant and refugee communities. But even that was not as controversial as code change.

Let's turn to the Aug. 17 visit from the Proud Boys. Did the mayor and the Police Bureau handle the visit better than previous exercises in protest?

Yes. I see people I know on social media—smart, engaged people—asking why the mayor keeps letting these people come to Portland, and I just wonder how they think we can stop them. I have wished that those interstate bridges were under Portland Bureau of Transportation control and I'd just pull a Chris Christie and they couldn't come across. But I would never do that, and they don't belong to PBOT.

Speaking of national politics, do you have a presidential candidate you're supporting?

Damn it, you guys. I'm a big fan of Elizabeth Warren. And I was a Bernie supporter last time around. I would wholeheartedly support him if he were the nominee. I'm just, at this point, more impressed with Warren.

You're aware the mayor has pretty high negatives in this town right now. Is it simply because nobody, no mayor, could make this city happy? Or is there something about his performance?

Well, I mean, the fact that we've had a run of one-term mayors, I think, answers your first question, that it is a really hard job.

And are you endorsing him in his run for re-election?

I'm not endorsing any seats that aren't open, and that's been a rule since I've been there. He hasn't asked. I mean, no one has asked.

But it sounds like you'd give him a good grade.

I have to work with the mayor. I'm assuming he's going to get re-elected. Of course, there are things I disagree with him on that I would do differently. We are extraordinarily different people. He is much more fiscally conservative than I am. He's a nerd. Sorry, mayor. You know you're a nerd. And I don't think he necessarily understands or appreciates some of the issues that I think are really important. But he has come along on a lot of them, and I have to give him credit for that.

How are your relations with Commissioner Hardesty? We've heard there is discord. Not true?

There have been a couple instances where I've been really taken aback by some of her comments on the dais. And she knows that and we've talked about it. But I'd say disagreeing about an issue or policy or a project doesn't mean we have a contentious relationship. It means we disagree.

One issue you've openly disagreed about: policing drunken drivers. Does Portland need more DUII enforcement from the Police Bureau?

There's just no denying we need more enforcement, period. I've lived and driven in the city for over 30 years, and I cannot believe the flagrant disregard for laws and human life that I see almost every day. There's a lot of factors other than enforcement. But people are dying and drivers are seeing people breaking the law, so why shouldn't they? There are no consequences.

Can you talk about key successes you've had in delivering on your vision for what you want Portland to be?

For at least a couple years before I came to City Hall, any conversation about rent control, or really any meaningful tenant protections at the state level, was just dismissed out of hand. No one was interested in it. No one recognized it as really an urgent issue. And because of changes we've made, for better or for worse, our state Legislature has been inspired to make their own. Sometimes it feels like a good thing. And sometimes it feels like they're trying to beat us to the punch.

How about efforts to make housing more affordable by increasing infill development, by allowing duplexes and fourplexes on lots now designated for single homes? It looks like the city is slow-walking this.

[Laughs] Maybe just a little. The biggest issue I see with it is that it's not going to deliver a benefit to average Portlanders, average homeowners. We can change the zoning and let you do an internal division or build an accessory dwelling unit or two, but the average homeowner doesn't have the capital to do that. So I'm really concerned that the only benefit an average or low-income homeowner can reap is by selling their property to a developer who's going to tear the house down and build something unaffordable.

I have multiple friends that would love to build ADUs. They have higher-than-average income, and unless you have access to $150,000 or $200,000, you're not going to be able to build one. Maybe lots of rich people build yoga studios in their backyards or hobby Airbnbs. But the people who really need it won't have access.

So I've been hell-bent on coming up with some kind of loan product an average homeowner could access. We want homeowners to be able to take into account the revenue they would get from building one or two ADUs, which will allow more people access to adequate funding to build ADUs. It's taken me a really long time to sell the mayor on it because he thought I was proposing this subprime loan product, which I'm not.

Can you talk about your social media presence and the whole issue of what the public should have access to and what they shouldn't?

It's really changed a lot in the two-and-a-half years I've been in there. I mean, I was, Facebook was really, kind of, a lifeline for me as a single parent raising a medically involved kid. I was often housebound with a sick kid, and that's how I stayed in touch with friends. That's how I got support when I needed it. It's also where I started the Shed [a housing affordability group], which ultimately led to me running for City Council. I'm hesitant to admit how many hours a day I put into moderating that group. But it was a really healthy, mostly positive, engaged group of people learning together.

And social media was absolutely essential in my first campaign, so I continued doing my own social media with very vague guidance from the city attorneys. At some point, I posted something about "a day without immigrants." Seems pretty harmless. I got trolled by right-wing lunatics from all over the country saying terrible stuff. Off-topic, personal attacks. I felt perfectly justified in blocking these people. They were not my constituents. They weren't even Oregonians. Come to find out that I'm not allowed to block anyone on the city page, and so we unblocked everyone.

The upshot is, I rarely do my own social media posts and I rarely read the comments and I even more rarely respond because it's just such a toxic environment.

Would you agree with the statement that "Commissioner Eudaly has a more contentious relationship with the press than anybody else on the City Council"?

I was a bookseller for 22 years, and one of the reasons I opened my store was my commitment to independent media and to journalism and a deep concern with the consolidation of media into a handful of multinational corporations. So I take journalism really seriously. I also take it pretty personally when I feel misrepresented in the media.

Do you think I have a more contentious relationship with the press?

Yes. Do you think there's anything about your style that has created issues with the media and maybe the very same issues with the neighborhood associations?

You seem to be skating dangerously close to what many women hear from men, which is: "It's not what you're saying, it's how you say it."

If you think that's the case, then you should say that.

I have experimented with this theory, and I have realized that no matter how I say it, if you don't like the message, you're not going to receive it well.

Correction: In a cover story on efforts to remake the Office of Community and Civic Life, WW mischaracterized the mechanism of the changes. Six-identity based groups are not being funded for the first time, but could see their formal recognition increase in land use and development decisions.
The story also referred to one change—giving the office director unilateral authority to choose new groups for recognition—which had already been removed from the ordinance. WW regrets the errors.

Watch the full interview.

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