Multnomah County government is like plumbing: essential but only noticed when there's a mess.
The most recent pipe break occurred last summer, when the tawdry personal life of then-Multnomah County Chairman Jeff Cogen bubbled into public view. Cogen resigned under pressure in September after admitting to an affair with an underling and lying about the circumstances.
Now, the highest-stakes race facing the region's voters in the May 20 primary is a matchup between two veteran politicians—Jim Francesconi and Deborah Kafoury—competing to fill out Cogen's remaining term and go on to serve four more years in a position that paradoxically combines great power with near obscurity.
Consider: The county employs more than 4,500 people and has a $469 million general-fund budget—virtually as large as that of both the city of Portland and Portland Public Schools, the region's two other big government entities.
Everybody knows what Portland Public Schools does. And many people know city government provides police, firefighters, streets and parks.
But few understand the role of Multnomah County chair. Bev Stein, who served as county chairwoman from 1993 to 2001, describes the work as "serving the needy and the naughty."
In so doing, Multnomah County takes on some of the region's most difficult and expensive challenges.
The county, under the auspices of the sheriff's office, runs 1,200 jail beds at an annual cost of $107 million and spends another $50 million supervising ex-cons. The county also provides health care to one in 10 county residents, including tens of thousands grappling with mental illness. The library and its 18 branches, six Willamette River bridges and even Vector Control—the office that hunts down vermin—fall under the county's control.
The county chair gets paid more than Portland's mayor—$140,000 compared to $128,000 annually—and also wields far more authority over county staff, policy and budget than does the mayor over city staff, policy and budget. Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith reports to an elected board, and Mayor Charlie Hales shares the management of city bureaus with four commissioners who are nearly his equal. County commissioners, by contrast, have little authority. Most of that belongs to the chair.
"County chairs really have two big jobs," Stein says. "They are in charge of the legislative part but also serve as the chief executive with all hiring, firing and budget-writing authority."
(Steven Reynolds, James O. Rowell, Aquiles Montas, Wes Soderback and Patty Burkett are also running for county chair in the primary. Any candidate who wins a majority of the votes is elected outright. Otherwise, the top two finishers move on to a runoff.)
For Kafoury, the race is about strengthening the safety net on which the county's most vulnerable citizens rely. She boasts one of Oregon's most recognizable political names, legislative leadership experience and five years as a county commissioner.
For Francesconi, the race is a comeback from embarrassment. After serving two terms on the City Council, he entered the 2004 mayor's race as a strong front-runner but lost badly. Now, he's seeking to rewrite the final chapter of his political career by running a campaign aimed at addressing poverty.
And for voters, it's a chance to choose between two experienced politicians who both say they want to set county government on a new path.
Veteran lobbyist Len Bergstein says in 40 years of watching county races, this one could be the most competitive he's seen.
"County chair races have rarely been seriously contested," Bergstein says. "This is the best matchup we've had in a long time."
JIM FRANCESCONI: "He's hungry and looking for redemption"
Jim Francesconi, 61, has undergone two hip replacements. He moves gingerly, and his expression often settles somewhere between a wince and a grimace.
"The hips are OK," he says, "but I've got some degeneration in my back."
It's hard not to see something else behind his expression: the memory of a defeat that for any politician would be difficult to shake.
Ten years ago, Francesconi let what many people believed was an easy election as mayor of Portland slip from his grasp.
He was then a two-term city commissioner who raised more than $1 million for the mayor's race, shattering all previous fundraising records and scaring off serious challengers.
It was how Francesconi positioned himself that caused his campaign to unravel. He came to resemble an offshoot of the Portland Business Alliance and its powerful downtown members.
To many people, his corporate fundraising and message were inexplicable, given that he'd come to politics as a community organizer and lawyer for injured workers who often talked of representing the average voter.
In the end, Francesconi lost by 20 percentage points to former Portland Police Chief Tom Potter, who accepted only small campaign donations and proved a populist alternative to Francesconi's big-money identity. The rout was so complete that Francesconi did not bother to vote for himself—the only time in 40 elections he failed to fill out a ballot.
"My greatest weakness?" Francesconi asks. "Wanting to be liked."
He says he regrets the amount of money he raised in 2004 because it gave voters the wrong picture of who he is.
"I wanted to be mayor too badly," Francesconi says. "I was running a corporate campaign. The result I got [losing by 20 points], I can see why that happened."
Allies say a desire to avenge that 2004 defeat are a big part of why Francesconi, after a decade out of politics, is seeking election as Multnomah County chair.
"He's hungry and looking for redemption," says Joe Baessler, political director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents 2,800 county workers and has endorsed Francesconi.
Francesconi insists, however, that his motivation has nothing to do with himself and is all about Multnomah County's neediest citizens.
"The thing I care most about is the people left out and left behind," he says.
Now, instead of running as the candidate of downtown business interests—Portland's 1 percent—he's running to help the other 99.
He's made his campaign about income inequality, talking about his four grandparents who came to the U.S. from Italy penniless.
"There are a lot of vulnerable people who need to be protected," Francesconi says. "If the county doesn't protect people, nobody else will."
Francesconi grew up in Eureka, Calif., the son of a bartender father and bank teller mother. After graduating from Stanford, he served as a Jesuit volunteer in Portland for a year, running the gym at St. Andrew Catholic Church on pre-gentrification Northeast Alberta Street, before earning a law degree at the University of Oregon. He practiced personal injury law in Portland for 18 years and worked on projects such as helping gang kids find jobs.
Francesconi won election to the Portland City Council in 1996, and was best known for his tenure as parks commissioner. Under his leadership, the parks bureau passed a $48 million bond issue in 2002. He also partnered with then-Multnomah County Chairwoman Bev Stein to found the Schools Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) program, which serves low-income kids and has grown to include 70 schools in six Multnomah County districts.
On the City Council, though, he earned a reputation for being indecisive and giving lengthy soliloquies before even the most routine council votes.
He dithered over a long-running dog-park controversy. He wrote to President George W. Bush, asking him not to invade Iraq in 2003, then voted against a council resolution opposing that war. In 2004, when Multnomah County began marrying gay couples, he said he personally opposed gay marriage but thought it was legally defensible.
"He was not very effective," says Dave Lister, who served on the small-business advisory committee that Francesconi created and who ran unsuccessfully for the City Council in 2006. "Whoever had his ear last swayed his opinion.â
Francesconi now says he wishes he'd been more decisive. "I could have taken more risks as a city commissioner," he says.
He cites a City Council vote that stripped work-force programs from the city-owned Portland Development Commission. "I should have done more for working people in that case," he says. "I should have bucked everybody else."
He also pursued a return to politics. In 2011, he talked to more than 100 people about running for mayor but stayed out of the race.
He now says the county chair's job appeals to him because it's where he can do the most good.
"The county's approach is not effective at slowing the growth of poverty—it's doubled here in the past 11 years," he says.
Supporters say Francesconi has remade himself, returning to his social-justice roots.
"Jim Francesconi winces at the experience and the choices he made in the 2004 campaign," says Tim Nesbitt, a former union leader and chief of staff to Gov. Ted Kulongoski, and a Francesconi supporter.
"He's different and he's thinking differently from when he was on the City Council," says Genny Nelson, the retired co-founder of Sisters of the Road, which serves the homeless in Old Town. "He certainly wasn't talking this way when he ran in 2004."
Rather than focusing on the county's core missions of public heath and public safety, however, Francesconi says he'll make "job creation the central priority of my administration."
Positioning a government that runs jails, health care and social services as a job-creating machine seems at odds with the county's mission.
Jewel Lansing, author of books about Portland city government and Multnomah County, says Francesoni's emphasis on economic development is misplaced. "That's not a core function of county government," says Lansing, who supports Kafoury.
Stein, the former county chairwoman, agrees. "The county's role is helping people get healthy—preparing them so they can get jobs—but I'm not sure what it means to create jobs at the county level," she says.
Stein also supports Kafoury, even though she worked closely with Francesconi to create the SUN program.
That snub is a theme in Francesconi's endorsement list: None of the city commissioners or the mayor he served with is endorsing him. Nor are county commissioners from that time.
But records obtained by WW show Francesconi won the SEIU and AFSCME endorsements after making explicit promises that, if elected, he would work to increase union membership under county contractors—something that could violate laws preventing elected officials from actively favoring unions. (See sidebar, below.)
Nesbitt says Francesconi brings a depth of experience and passion to the race that should outweigh any negatives.
"When you go through winning and losing and you bounce back," Nesbitt says, "the resilience and the seasoning you get from that experience is tremendously valuable."
DEBORAH KAFOURY: "She clearly can't run as an outsider"
In the past five years, no one worked more closely with then-Multnomah County Chairman Jeff Cogen than Deborah Kafoury.
As the county commissioner representing parts of Southeast Portland and the west side, Kafoury leveraged the skills she had acquired in legislative leadership a decade ago to help Cogen restore luster to the county board.
They got the long-stalled Sellwood Bridge replacement project moving, opened a new Crisis Assessment and Treatment Center for urgent mental-heath conditions, and worked closely together to strengthen the county's troubled finances.
But that closeness ended last July when Cogen admitted to having an affair with a county staffer. He resigned in September, creating both a burden and an opportunity for Kafoury.
She was his obvious successor but also had to quickly distance herself from him.
She says Cogen let the public—and her–down.
"My colleagues and I wanted to raise the credibility of Multnomah County, work hard, show results and be professional," Kafoury says. "We all kept our end of the bargain. Jeff didn't."
Kafoury's dilemma is that for most of her five years as a county commissioner, she and her colleagues did make significant progress, only to see the county once again wind up as a punch line.
In addition to distancing herself from Cogen, Kafoury has also run on the strength of what she accomplished while working alongside him.
"I can't control what happened to Jeff Cogen, but the rest of us worked hard to maintain services," Kafoury says. "I don't believe one person's actions should define a government."
She resigned her seat in October, giving up the security of incumbency to run against Jim Francesconi, a trial lawyer who throws out subtle reminders of the county's troubles.
"There's been instability in county government," he told the audience at a recent Gateway Area Business Association candidate forum. "It's unsettling."
Pacific University political science professor Jim Moore says Kafoury must walk a tightrope. "She clearly can't run as an outsider," Moore says. "So she's got to show that when she was at the county, she was a change agent and that change was successful."
Kafoury grew up in Portland politics. Her father, lobbyist Stephen Kafoury, served eight years in the Legislature in the 1970s and later on the Portland School Board. Her mother, Gretchen Kafoury, served in the Legislature, the county commission and spent two terms on the City Council. Her stepmother, Marge Kafoury was an elected Metro councilor and is now a lobbyist, and her uncle Greg Kafoury has earned headlines as a top trial lawyer. (She has one sibling, a younger sister, Katharine, who's a personal trainer and apolitical.)
Kafoury says growing up in a political family put her face to face with the people the county serves.
"Many of the reasons I'm running come from my mother," she said at a recent candidate forum. "When I was young, we frequently had guests who were homeless or escaping domestic violence."
Kafoury, 46, has built a lengthy political résumé of her own. She won her first election in fifth grade, defeating future City Commissioner Erik Sten in the race for class president. "It still stings," Sten says.
After graduating from Whitman College, Kafoury worked for U.S. Rep. Les AuCoin, then as a researcher and political consultant. After that, she worked for her father's lobbying firm before winning election to the Oregon House as a Democrat in 1998. In her second term, at age 33, she rose to minority leader at a time when Republicans controlled both legislative chambers.
She remains the youngest woman ever to hold that position, although because Republicans enjoyed a 35-to-25 majority in her final term, Democrats were largely irrelevant.
"We disagreed on policy," says state Sen. Tim Knopp (R-Bend), who was then House Republican leader. "But she always acted with the highest integrity, and I trusted her."
As a caucus leader, Kafoury was more involved in strategy than specific legislation. But she helped pass bills that increased the childcare tax credit for working families and resulted in new funding for domestic violence victims. "Deborah was a strong and highly organized leader," says Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum (D-Portland), who entered the House with Kafoury in 1999.
As the caucus leader, Kafoury was senior to legislative classmate Jeff Merkley, who went on to become a U.S. senator. Had she stayed in the Legislature, Kafoury might be House speaker or hold statewide office. But she walked away from Salem after the 2003 session to concentrate on raising her children, now ages 13, 10 and 8.
She returned to electoral politics in 2008, winning a seat on the county commission over token opposition and just as easily winning re-election in 2012.
Asked to give herself a grade on the five years she spent as a county commissioner, Kafoury initially awards herself a B+. When pressed on what could have gone better, she says she cannot think of anything.
"Maybe I'll give myself an A," she says.
Unlike city commissioners, who are elected at large and have direct authority over assigned city bureaus, the county's four elected commissioners are elected by geographic districts and have no specific policy responsibilities.
Kafoury points to the execution of the Sellwood Bridge replacement project as her top accomplishment at the county. She drew on her relationships in Salem—including with state Sen. Bruce Starr (R-Hillsboro)—to convince lawmakers to provide a total of $35 million for the bridge.
"I came up with a plan where others had not been able to," Kafoury says.
She spent most of her time working on homelessness and housing issues.
The county chair race against Francesconi marks the first time Kafoury has ever faced an opponent with the experience and resources to give her a real challenge.
On the stump, Kafoury is stiffer than Francesconi, whose years as a trial lawyer and experience running for mayor and the City Council (Francesconi beat Sten and Gail Shibley, who is now Mayor Charlie Hales' chief of staff) sharpened his speaking skills.
At a recent candidate forum held by an east county business group, Kafoury gave a tone-deaf response to a question about her top priority for capital spending.
She told the audience she had secured $15 million from the Legislature to do preliminary work for a new Multnomah County courthouse.
Kafoury points to studies that show the current courthouse would collapse in an earthquake and is otherwise obsolete.
She seemed oblivious to the unlikelihood business people east of I-205 would be enthused about a downtown project absorbing scarce county cash.
Francesconi pounced on her answer. "We don't have the money for a courthouse. That will cost $210 million," he said. "For me, the priority is roads and sidewalks for east county." His response drew more smiles and nods from the audience than Kafoury's answer.
Kafoury says she's not very good at selling herself.
"I don't toot my own horn," she says. "I don't go out and give speeches to give myself accolades."
Critics say Kafoury is insular, sticking close to her home in Eastmoreland, one the city's most affluent neighborhoods. The one current county commissioner who has endorsed Francesconi, Diane McKeel, represents east county. The mayors of Fairview, Wood Village and Troutdale have also endorsed Francesconi.
"Deb has not showed up for a major event in east county in the last five years," says Troutdale Mayor Doug Daoust. "I never did see her out here. I think Jim sees us as partners, and Deborah sees us as an interest group at election time."
"There's life beyond 162nd Avenue," adds Fairview Mayor Mike Weatherby. "He just seems to understand that better than she does."
Kafoury says she's been to plenty of east county events, noting that four of Gresham's city councilors support her.
Her central campaign message—strengthening the safety net for the county's most vulnerable citizens—is less sexy than Francesconi's promise to focus on creating jobs. She says it's also more realistic.
"The best way Multnomah County can help with economic development is by doing our job well," Kafoury says. "Nobody else is tasked with providing services that we provide. If we provide them efficiently, that allows more people to do what they are capable of."
Former County Chairwoman Stein echoes many supporters when she says that Kafoury understands the county's mission better and has the long-term commitments to prove it.
"I have nothing against Jim," Stein says. "She's just better prepared to take on the county role. She's got the background, and she's really good at building relationships."
Sten, who served on the City Council with Francesconi for six years, and served as a City Hall aide to Gretchen Kafoury before that, is also endorsing Kafoury.
"She is more experienced, more current and has shown a better track record of bringing her colleagues together," Sten says. "She knows the budget inside and out and is that unusual candidate who can bring new skills to an office that needs it while also providing continuity.â
To win union endorsements, Francesconi made big promises.
Jim Francesconi won key endorsements from two public employee unions after pledging that, if elected Multnomah County chairman, he would use his influence to increase the number of union workers employed by county contractors.
Francesconi also said he would require that the buildings the county owns or rents employ union janitors and security guards.
He made those pledges in writing last month in response to questions from the Service Employees International Union, the state's largest labor union. SEIU and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest county workers union, later endorsed Francesconi.
If he wins and carries out his pledges, Francesconi could run afoul of a state law that prohibits elected officials from using their influence to favor union organizing. The Public Employer Accountability Act, passed by the Legislature in 2013, states, "A public employer may not use public funds to support actions to assist, promote or deter union organizing." The law covers an agency's employees and "employees of its subcontractors."
Another state law prohibits a political candidate from offering an incentive in exchange for an endorsement.
Francesconi made the promises on a questionnaire sent to him and his chief opponent, Deborah Kafoury. Candidates routinely fill out questionnaires for interest groups as part of the endorsement process. Francesconi's campaign provided his answers to WW.
One of the questions that SEIU, which represents custodians, posed was this:
"Many state, local and federal contracting standards take into account things like wages, benefits, training, and labor relations. What standards do you think are important to awarding contracts?"
"I would like to work with SEIU and AFSCME to assist in unionizing nonprofit county contractors that do not pay living wages," Francesconi wrote. "I also want to mention that the county is a major renter and property owner in the county and should require that all buildings are served by union cleaners [and] security guards."
Multnomah County spends more than $100 million a year on outside contracts, each approved and signed by the chair, who has a degree of budget and decision-making authority far greater than that of Portland's mayor.
Francesconi's response carries an implicit promise to the unions: They will get more members, more dues and more clout. The benefits he's seeking are the endorsements, contributions and manpower the unions can bring to his campaign.
When WW asked Francesconi about the SEIU questionnaire, he initially said: "I didn't write this. It's wrong."
In a later phone message, he backtracked. "I overreacted," he said. "I'm standing by that language."
In a subsequent interview that day, Francesconi said "assisting in unionizing" would not create a conflict with state law that prohibits public officials from helping unions in their organizing efforts.
"How you 'assist' is by making sure contractors have neutrality agreements," he says. "The assistance has to be within the confines of the law."
Francesconi acknowledges that his answer about "requiring" buildings that rent space to the county have unionized janitors and security guards went too far.
"The language is too strong," he says. "You can't require that."
However, Francesconi says his answer to SEIU about increasing union membership was not an offer of something of value in exchange for an endorsement.
"It's not a quid pro quo," Francesconi says. "I think the unions view me as somebody who's trying to close the gap between rich and poor. I'm very proud of standing up for working people."
Keith Cunningham-Parmeter, an associate professor at Willamette University College of Law, says no matter how much public officials may like or dislike unions, they must remain neutral. That means not using the public's checkbook to help unions add members.
"The law says employers cannot use public funds to encourage or discourage union membership," he says.
Cunningham-Parmeter says, in his opinion, Francesconi appears to be offering a quid pro quo.
"The candidate is saying that with greater union support for him will come greater rates of unionization for them," he says.
Portland pollster Adam Davis, who has worked in politics for 30 years but is not involved in the county chair race, says he's never heard of a candidate making such a bold proposition.
"Whoa," Davis said when WW shared Francesconi's response. "I haven't heard of anything like that before in Oregon."
SEIU political director Felisa Hagins says Francesconi has done nothing wrong. She believes Francesconi's pledge to "assist in unionizing" and "require all buildings are served" by union cleaners and security guards violates no law and is not a quid pro quo.
"That's absurd," Hagins says. "A quid pro quo has to be very specific, like, 'If you give me $10,000 and an endorsement, I'll guarantee you 30 new union jobs.' That's not even close to what he said."
Hagins says SEIU, which represents about 600 workers employed by county contractors, endorsed Francesconi because he performed better in the candidates' joint interview.
"Our members felt strongly because he came in with a message about income inequality that resonated with their working lives," Hagins says. "Deborah was not as able to articulate the good work she's done."
AFSCME statewide political director Joe Baessler says he was unaware of what Francesconi wrote to SEIU.
Baessler attended AFSCME's interview with Francesconi and says the candidate made no such representations then or in any other communications he's aware of.
"Our members like Deborah," Baessler says. "But as one of them said, 'Jim comes across as more of a fighter.'" NIGEL JAQUISS.