To Lead or Not to Lead

Commissioner Deborah Kafoury wants Jeff Cogen off the Multnomah county board. Is she willing to go for his job as well?

Deborah Kafoury won election as fifth-grade class president of Irvington Elementary School in 1977 by deploying a secret weapon: a political button-making machine.

"Her mom was an elected official," recalls Erik Sten, who lost that race to Kafoury (but who later recovered from early defeat to serve on the Portland City Council). "Button machines were hard to come by in those days."

In many ways, her family's business—politics—has made her ascent relatively easy. Her mother, Gretchen Miller Kafoury, was a state representative and a city and county commissioner, while her father, Stephen Kafoury, is a four-term Oregon legislator-turned-lobbyist.

Deborah Kafoury, 45, has paired that name recognition with a reputation as a compassionate policy wonk. She has never faced a serious race in her bids for office, first as a state representative and then as a Multnomah County commissioner.

But Kafoury now faces her first test of political power.

She's the most likely person to fill the vacuum created by the self-immolation of County Chairman Jeff Cogen, who's under criminal investigation after revelations he may have abused his office while having an affair with a county employee.

Kafoury has stepped up to calm county staffers and maintain relations with the Portland and Metro governments.

But Kafoury faces a risky choice. She took part in what amounted to mutiny, pushing a resolution that called for Cogen's resignation (he was the only one of five commissioners to vote against it).

At the same time, Kafoury has hesitated to grab control of power in Multnomah County government, with its $469 million annual budget. It's not clear whether she wants to avoid appearing too eager to step into Cogen's role or is simply frozen by uncertainty about how to proceed.

And thanks to a quirk in county rules, she'd have to resign her seat (after being re-elected last November) if she declares herself a candidate for county chair, regardless of whether the wounded Cogen seeks re-election.

"It's just not in her nature to be opportunistic," says state Sen. Mark Hass (D-Portland), who served in the Legislature with Kafoury for six years.

Kafoury says she hasn't decided whether she wants Cogen's job. She says she just wants Cogen to quit.

"People are shocked and disappointed," Kafoury says. "I would think that losing the trust and support of your colleagues and the hard-working Multnomah County employees would be enough."

Born in Walla Walla, Wash., while her mother was visiting family, Kafoury says she wanted to be a TV reporter but grew up surrounded by politics. "The Legislature was my day care," she told The Oregonian in 1998 as she launched her first bid for public office.

She worked as a Washington, D.C., staffer for then-U.S. Rep. Les AuCoin (D-Ore.) before joining her father in Salem in 1997 to work as a lobbyist. Her roster of clients included the Oregon Acupuncture Association, the Wildlife Society's Oregon chapter and the University of Phoenix.

Kafoury co-founded X-PAC, which supported young candidates, then she ran for the Oregon House in 1998.

Her primary opponent, Martin Gonzalez, was disqualified because he hadn't registered to vote as a Democrat. Since then, Kafoury has won office with little more than token opposition. She served three terms in Salem, including a two-year stint as House minority leader, and is now in her second term on the county commission.

She served alongside Cogen, then a county commissioner, and backed him for the county chair's job when Ted Wheeler vacated it in 2010 to become state treasurer.

All the while, Kafoury distinguished herself behind the scenes, including in her work on homelessness and cutting a deal that finally got the Sellwood Bridge rebuilding project approved. Often she allowed Cogen to stand in the spotlight.

City Commissioner Amanda Fritz says Kafoury has not received the credit she deserves. "When there is an opening for county chair, Deborah Kafoury will make an excellent candidate," Fritz says.

But Kafoury will have to decide soon whether she wants the top county job. Running a credible campaign takes plenty of lead time before the May 2014 election.

Even if Cogen bows out, the race could be crowded. Kafoury's fellow commissioners Diane McKeel and Judy Shiprack are rumored to be looking at the race.

Political consultant Liz Kaufman says Kafoury and the other commissioners face an uphill battle, thanks to Cogen. The scandal he created has angered voters about county government and its officials.

"Running as an outsider is what you want to do now," Kaufman says, noting the long list of potential candidates. "It's not just the all-Deborah show."

Sten, however, says he considers Kafoury the leading contender for county chair.

"The big question would be if she wants the job bad enough to get into a knife fight with a bunch of other folks,” Sten says. “If she does, I think she’ll win it.”