Teressa Raiford Isn’t on the November Ballot. Many Portland Activists Want Her to Be Mayor Anyway.

For most of the decade, she has shepherded demonstrators who decry the actions of police.

Teressa Raiford is doing little campaigning, but a group of volunteers is propelling her write-in candidacy. (Miss Lopez Media)

Back in May, Teressa Raiford's yearslong bid to be Portland mayor appeared over.

Raiford, 50, announced her challenge of Mayor Ted Wheeler in late 2017, the year he first took office. In the primary this May, in a field of 19 candidates, she got 8.5% of the vote, finishing a distant third behind Wheeler and Sarah Iannarone.

Then Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. Starting May 28, Portlanders took to the streets by the thousands to protest the police killings of Black people. With six weeks remaining until Election Day, those protests continue.

For Raiford, such protest is nothing new. For most of the decade, she has shepherded demonstrators who decry the actions of police. She has confronted elected officials in City Council chambers and consoled the families of people shot by officers. This summer, her nonprofit organization, Don't Shoot Portland, successfully went to court to limit the cops' use of tear gas.

The issue she has spent much of her life championing—police accountability—has never been more prominent. So in July, her campaign volunteers asked a question: Why shouldn't she be mayor?

"She has been doing the work that a mayor should have been doing," says Jacinda Padilla, Raiford's campaign manager. "After so much turmoil, people didn't know that she was running for two years, and we didn't want that work to go to waste. People who didn't even vote for Teressa in the primaries started to turn back to Teressa."

So increasingly, the city is plastered with posters featuring an illustrated portrait and a demand: "Write in Teressa Raiford."

Raiford declined to be interviewed for this story, saying her campaign staff could speak for her. Those volunteers say Raiford's experience as a Black woman whose family has endured racism and violence as well as her activism and outreach make her the right candidate for the times.

Susan Anglada Bartley, an educator, writer and activist, is among the supporters of the write-in campaign.

"Teressa Raiford has so much talent and expertise," Anglada Bartley says. "She is a multidimensional person and frankly a superior candidate, especially for this political moment."

That's frustrating for Iannarone, who is trying to position herself to Wheeler's left and whose campaign has repeatedly scuffled with Raiford's backers online. But it also displays the divergent views among Portland progressives over what result should come from four months of protests.

If the mayoral election is a referendum on the future of the Portland Police Bureau, the three candidates offer competing visions. Wheeler calls for balance: He celebrates the promotion of a Black man, Chuck Lovell, to police chief and the cutting of $15 million from the bureau's budget but says the police force is needed to ensure public safety. Iannarone seeks wholesale reform and says Wheeler's changes don't go far enough.

Raiford? She wants to dismantle the bureau and replace it with something better.

"If you know anything about Teressa, she's not a traditional candidate," says Token Rose, a community organizer who is volunteering for Raiford. "She's for [police] abolition. She's calling for defunding of police. She's calling for radical ideas. That's always been Teressa, that's always been her niche in Portland, and after May 19 people started to listen."

Teressa Raiford. (Miss Lopez Media)

Raiford grew up in Portland. Her family owned the Burger Barn, a Northeast Portland restaurant that in 1981 was the target of a notorious incident: Two Portland police officers tossed four dead opossums on its doorstep. In her 20s, she moved with her two children to Dallas, Texas, where she worked as a manager at Bank of America. In 2010, she returned to Portland, shortly before her nephew was killed in an unsolved shooting.

That death propelled her into activism. The group she founded, Don't Shoot Portland, seeks to comfort and organize the survivors of gun violence—particularly shootings by police. In 2016, she formed a nonprofit. (Don't Shoot Portland's most recent filing with the state, in 2019, reported an annual revenue of $36,407; Raiford, the executive director, received no salary.)

Raiford has sought office before. She challenged City Commissioner Amanda Fritz in 2012, receiving 3.2% of the vote. She sought to unseat former Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith in 2014 (she got 6.6%) and ran a write-in campaign for Multnomah County sheriff in 2016 (3.2%).

Meanwhile, she drew a fiercely loyal following of Black activists for her organizing, especially during protests of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. She was arrested marching in Brown's memory hours before a Bernie Sanders presidential rally in 2015. A jury acquitted her on all charges, and she sued the police for allegedly targeting her for her statements. A judge dismissed the case last year. She is appealing.

Destiny Houston, an activist, doula, and organizer with the Kid-Centered March for Black Lives, says that history is part of Raiford's appeal. "Going through being harassed by the police and all the trials, she's somebody who can represent the Black experience in a police state," Houston says. "Her whole mission is to create a society where people aren't losing people to police violence."

Raiford took Don't Shoot Portland back to court this summer, joining a class action lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order against Portland police use of tear gas at protests. (A judge ruled partly in favor of demonstrators.) The group is currently suing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security over President Trump's deployment of federal police to guard the downtown courthouse.

Under Raiford's leadership, Don't Shoot Portland in July took organizational leadership of the most prominent display of resistance to Trump: the "Wall of Moms," a group of yellow-clad women who faced off in gas masks each night with federal officers. When that group dissolved amid internal rancor, Raiford founded another: Moms United for Black Lives. Don't Shoot Portland also briefly agreed to run an all-you-can-eat, donations-only barbecue for protesters called Riot Ribs, until that operation also ended after organizers said an outsider hijacked it.

Raiford's volunteers say she isn't spending much time campaigning. Instead, she's focused on mutual aid efforts—that is, projects where citizens help each other through difficult times. This month, during massive wildfires, Don't Shoot Portland organized a donations drive to send air filters, personal protective equipment, and menstrual hygiene products to smoke-clogged neighborhoods on the edge of the city and the Warms Springs Reservation, where the Lionshead Fire raged.

Not everyone is impressed. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, the most vocal critic of police on the City Council, quarreled with Raiford in 2016 during debate over a new police contract.

"Last time I had a conversation with her, we were in City Council chambers," Hardesty recalls. "She started attacking me. She said, 'The NAACP is just sucking up the all the money; you're going to jail.' I said, 'The only way I'm going to jail is if I kick your butt.'"

Hardesty hasn't endorsed in the mayor's race. But she doesn't support Raiford. "I don't find her someone that I would want to deal with," Hardesty says.

Some members of Raiford's coalition raise eyebrows. She has the backing of key members of Stop Demolishing Portland, a group of homeowners who oppose infill development.

Few people could find Raiford's write-in campaign as frustrating as Iannarone, whose campaign is trying to unite the left against Wheeler, only to find that some activists prefer Raiford, whom Iannarone thought she had already defeated.

"I respect her work," Iannarone says, "and we just had an election in May after she campaigned for several years, and she didn't break 10% of the vote. My singular focus this whole time has been on unseating Wheeler. And that's what I intend to stay focused on."

Anglada Bartley, the Raiford supporter, says Iannarone's candidacy is ill-timed.

"Given that she is, like myself, a white woman, she can't say she really understands all forms of marginalization Black and Indiginous people feel," she says. "That is knowledge Teressa Raiford walks in the door with."

Rose is more blunt. "People think that we owe something to Sarah," they say. "And we don't. She will never be the face of our revolution. We didn't ask for a white savior, and we didn't show up to protest for a hundred days now, risking all of our lives, for another white savior. We asked for Black lives to matter.

"Teressa had been talking about police brutality," Rose adds. "People are actually starting to see it. And so people are asking for ways to show up for Black lives. So now we're providing those answers. People noticing us is a win. Of course we're going to win. We anticipate winning, 1,000%."

Nigel Jaquiss contributed reporting to this story. 

Correction: This story inaccurately described the circumstances and legal status of Raiford's 2015 arrest. It has been updated with the correct information. It incorrectly stated that Don't Shoot Portland briefly ran Riot Ribs, when in fact the nonprofit only agreed to take leadership before the barbecue shut down.

The story incorrectly said two Portland police officers were off duty when they tossed opossums at the Burger Barn in 1981. The officers were on duty. WW regrets the errors.

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