Portland City Council candidate Mingus Mapps and Margot Black make for an odd pairing.
Black, the housing advocate who co-founded Portland Tenants United, is a staunch supporter of Mapps' opponent, incumbent City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly. Eudaly is running for reelection in November partly on the strength of tenants' rights reforms she pushed through City Hall with Black's help.
But on Sept. 19, Black met Mapps, at his invitation, at the Montavilla Saloon at 8012 NE Glisan St. It was a cool Saturday evening and many Portlanders' first chance to socialize after a week of toxic air.
As Mapps and Black chatted at an outdoor table, a passing car slowed.
"They yelled 'Fucking n—–!' out the window," Black recalls. "Mingus was the only Black person around."
An incident of open bigotry in Portland no longer comes as much of a shock. The protests shaking this city are in part a reckoning with ugly attitudes and racist practices hidden under a progressive sheen.
What was more surprising was Mapps' reaction: He didn't get angry.
"It definitely stings," he says. "Instead of making me mad, though, it makes me sad. Something must have happened in his life that hurt him, and so he wanted to pass the hate forward."
The incident, and Mapps' reaction to it, highlights the tenor of his campaign.
At a time when police treatment of Black men is driving political dialogue in Portland and across the country, Mapps, 52, is seeking to become just the third Black man ever elected to the Portland City Council.
Yet Mapps is not running on a platform of racial justice reforms. Indeed, he seems at times to be hardly campaigning at all. His social media presence is minimal. He hasn't taken a visible role at the nightly protests.
"Twitter is clearly a rage machine that gives you validation and pisses you off," he says. "I want to try to find a different kind of discourse. I could try to get a bunch of 'likes' for getting tear-gassed, but I'd rather figure out a bunch of different ways for Portlanders to come together."
Instead, he is quietly holding meetings with skeptics like Black (who, that night in Montavilla, soon resumed making the case to Mapps that his housing platform was insufficiently progressive). And Black's decision to sit down with him on a Saturday night in the midst of a pandemic points to an increasingly likely outcome: a Mapps victory in November.
All candidates try to define themselves. Mapps' approach is to make himself the anti-Eudaly.
"I like Commissioner Eudaly a lot," Mapps says. "We share many core values, but her brand is to burn bridges. I don't know anybody who comes away from her and feels like they've been heard."
In a year of extraordinary polarization and rancor in Portland, Mapps is running a campaign that appeals to people who feel they aren't radical enough to get a hearing from City Hall. In particular, he has the backing of neighborhood association activists who feel snubbed by Eudaly.
So he's sought to meet with people, like Black, who aren't sure they agree with him.
The question that remains unanswered: Is Mapps engaging in a constructive dialogue with all comers, or is he coyly seeking to co-opt interest groups and voters frustrated with the status quo?
Eudaly says Mapps is a smooth talker who excels at platitudinous generalities and telling people what they want to hear. "Why should renters believe you are an advocate for them when some of your biggest supporters oppose everything I've done?" she asked Mapps during a WW endorsement interview.
Whatever Mapps is doing, it's working.
A poll conducted in late September by Portland's DHM Research for the Portland Business Alliance shows Mapps ahead of Eudaly 41% to 25%.
In 2016, Eudaly, then a little-known bookstore owner, built a strong following based on a Facebook page devoted to the city's housing crisis. She got just 15% of the vote in the primary, squeaking out a second-place finish, but then knocked off incumbent Commissioner Steve Novick in the general election.
Why? Because Novick had alienated voters who perceived him as arrogant and unwilling to listen to them.
The insurgent candidate who took Novick's seat now seems to have emulated his mistakes.
Eudaly, 50, finished first in a tight three-way May primary with Mapps and former Mayor Sam Adams (who finished less than a percentage point behind Mapps). But since then, she has run a lackluster campaign for the general election.
Although both she and Mapps are taking advantage of the city's new public campaign financing program, which matches contributions up to $50 by 6 to 1, Mapps has attracted about 60% more donors than Eudaly. And once a prolific social media presence, she hasn't updated her campaign blog since April 23.
Eudaly says trying to run for reelection during COVID-19 while also serving on the council and taking care of her disabled son is nearly impossible.
"It's hard to figure out how to effectively campaign," she says.
Mapps, a former political science professor, is in some ways an unlikely challenger.
After leaving academia, he worked at Historic Parkrose, a community organization in outer Northeast Portland, and later in crime prevention at the Office of Community & Civic Life, the city bureau through which Eudaly tried to revamp Portland's neighborhood associations. He says he was fired from the bureau for refusing an order to discipline a subordinate. (Records only show his supervisor was unhappy with his performance before he was let go.)
More than any other issue, Eudaly's failed effort to remake the way the city deals with its 95 neighborhood associations provided Mapps an opening.
The bureau she inherited—then known as the Office of Neighborhood Involvement—was deeply troubled, according to a damning 2016 city audit.
Eudaly renamed it the Office of Community & Civic Life and set out to reshape the neighborhood system. Eudaly wanted to expand involvement by including younger, more diverse Portlanders, which some homeowners saw as a diminution of their power.
The neighborhood associations revolted and found their candidate in Mapps, who was fresh from getting canned by the bureau they now despised.
Meanwhile, bureau employees flocked en masse to City Ombudsman Margie Sollinger, registering what Sollinger called an "unprecedented" number and variety of complaints against their managers.
Eudaly acknowledges mistakes but says they were made in service of a more equitable, inclusive city.
"I don't want to tear the system down," she says. "I want to make it bigger and better."
But the unrest in Eudaly's bureau gave Mapps a weakness to exploit, and he's capitalized on it.
Mapps' approach has convinced institutions as different from each other as the Portland Business Alliance and its ideological opposite, Service Employees International Union Local 49, to endorse him.
It also won him the nod from Adams. "Portland is as polarized as it has been in a generation," the former mayor says. "Mingus has a passion and an ability to bring a wide diversity of stakeholders to the city's decision-making table."
But others wonder who Mapps is cultivating.
In May, he accepted both the endorsement and a $15,000 in-kind contribution from the Portland Police Association.
Mapps says he wouldn't take the union's money again because the criticism that came with it "has been too much of a distraction."
Eudaly highlighted that distraction in her Voters' Pamphlet statement, noting, "I am the only candidate in this race who hasn't taken contributions from the Portland Police Association."
The police union's support has raised questions about Mapps in activist circles. At a Sept. 25 debate sponsored by the Democratic Party of Oregon Black Caucus,
Mapps said in response to a question about the City Council's decision to eliminate the Portland Police Bureau's gun violence reduction team that a spike in shootings following that decision had given him pause.
Eudaly pushed back. "It's incredibly irresponsible to link the increase in gun violence with the elimination of the GVRT," she said.
Mapps' unwillingness to condemn the team, which stood accused of racially profiling Portlanders suspected of gang involvement, played a part in the Police Bureau's leading critic, City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, endorsing Eudaly last week after earlier rescinding her support.
Mapps says he's aware of racial profiling accusations against the GVRT, but he's also aware that the upsurge in shootings has disproportionately harmed Black men. His position is that analysis, rather than gut feelings, ought to drive policy.
"Let's look at the data and figure out what's really going on," Mapps tells WW. "It may be that getting rid of GVRT and funding the youth violence task force instead is the answer."
He rejects the idea that he's the police union's man.
"The concern that they bought me with $15,000 donation, that's frickin' ridiculous," he adds. "It's ridiculous to assume that, as a Black man, I will forget about the stakes here."
Mapps says voters should understand a distinction: The Portland Police Association endorsed him, not the other way around.
"I pretty much don't agree with PPA on anything," he says. "But if you want to see them evolve, you have to be able to sit down with them. Currently, there's no one on City Council for them to have a discussion with."
Mapps says he's glad he got a chance to exchange views with Black—despite getting tagged with a racial slur in the middle of their meeting.
"One of the interesting things I find is, when you sit down and talk to people," Mapps says, "there's more room for consensus."