The Future of Portland Is On the Ballot. How Will We Ever Decide?

It’s officially election season in Oregon, and it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that the future of our city is on the ballot this year. 

With four of the five Portland City Council seats up for grabs, voters have a chance to either give Mayor Wheeler and his colleagues a vote of confidence or send the city in a totally different direction. 

Still making up your mind? So are we. And so are Bridgeliner members Josephine Davis and Alex Gamboa Grand, who joined us last week for a special-edition Slack Chat to break down the four City Council races:

P.S. The transcript below has been lightly edited, and we’re all speaking for ourselves, not our employers, boards, or alter-egos. 

Portland City Council, Mayor

ben_dj (Ben DeJarnette, Bridgeliner co-director): Let’s talk about who should be the next mayor of Portland. I came up with bumper sticker slogans that I’d like to try out with y’all. Here it goes…

  • Ted Wheeler: I’m just getting good at this!
  • Sarah Iannarone: It’s the climate, stupid.
  • Ozzie Gonzalez: Wouldn’t it be cool if we…
  • Teressa Raiford: Fourth-generation Portlander, tired of the same old s—

So first things first, is it fair to treat this as a four-horse race? Or do any of the other 14 candidates need bumper stickers, too?

jo_davis (Josephine Davis, City of Portland, Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, Unite Oregon/Unite Oregon Action board member): I think you rounded out the top four pretty well. I’m a cynical person, so I also look at this through the eyes of electability. And I think Ted’s status as the incumbent plus his decent handling of the Covid-19 response will be enough.

ben_dj: I think you’re right that the city’s Covid-19 response could really make or break this race for Wheeler. What do you think he’s done well or poorly?

jo_davis: Wheeler and other local leaders were more aggressive about imposing social distancing from the start, even as the governor was hesitating at the state level.

I’ve also been able to see how the city is handling things from the inside (the bureau I work for is under Wheeler’s management), and while he hasn’t been perfect (who among us would be considering the circumstances?), from my perspective he’s done a relatively decent job. 

alexg (Alex Gamboa Grand, co-founder of Good Intent): The thing with Wheeler is that he feels like a status quo leader when status quo isn’t cutting it. The two who really stand out to me are Sarah and Ozzie. I’m prioritizing a candidate who puts progressive climate policy front and center, and both of them do. Ted Wheeler seems to have a less urgent approach that might be more appropriate if we didn’t know for a fact that the world is falling apart.

ben_dj: Alex, what sings to you about Ozzie? I look at his policy positions and feel like they’re a bit utopian, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But I haven’t heard him explain how he makes those policies happen, especially in the middle of an economic downturn when funding will be tight. 

alexg: I agree they seem a little utopian, but his resume speaks to the fact that he has practical experience seeing these kinds of visions through in the public and private sector. I’d appreciate more of a plan laying out how he’ll accomplish these things, too, but vision is really important to me. And I’m an optimistic person. 

devin (Devin Hutchings, co-director of Bridgeliner): I’m still undecided, but I see the benefits of electing an incumbent who brought in some programs I think are working well. Wheeler helped launch Portland Means Progress, which pushes local companies to create job and internship opportunities for underrepresented youth. He also has been working with community leaders the last four years on housing issues and has gotten a lot done. 

ben_dj: I agree about the value of stable leadership, all other things being equal. And Ted is really leaning into that argument on the campaign trail. He’s basically saying, “These last four years weren’t everything you (or I) wanted, but I’ve learned the ropes, I’ve built momentum, and if you stick with me for another four years, you’ll get to see the payoff.”

I actually find that stay-the-course argument somewhat persuasive, even if there are other candidates whose vision I find more compelling. 

alexg: Not to oversimplify, but I feel like we have an Obama, Warren, Sanders thing going on with Wheeler, Iannarone, and Gonzalez, respectively. Just without Obama’s charisma and the “Bernie Bro” zeal. 

ben_dj: LOL, I love that comparison: Wheeler as the center-left progressive, Iannarone as the candidate with a plan for everything, and Gonzalez as the broad-strokes vision guy.

Also, Wheeler is going to love reading this. I think it’s probably the first time he’s ever been compared to Obama. Maybe the last?

But looping back to Ozzie why him and not Sarah Iannarone if you’re looking for a more progressive alternative to Wheeler?

alexg: Something that appealed to me about Ozzie’s platform was his focus on waste and sustainable food systems that I think is core to long-term sustainability in our region. Sarah touches on those a little bit, but she doesn’t have plans for it. I’ve never heard a candidate say they want 30% of our food to come from our local farms, and I’m excited about how someone plans to make that happen.

Oh, and phasing out all forms of landfill waste?? Like how? But exciting!

jo_davis: Sarah comes out on top when it comes to following the money. Ted and Ozzie were both called out by Honest Elections for not turning down big-dollar donations until after the Oregon Supreme Court ruling last month. 

Sarah was the only one who qualified for the Open & Accountable Elections program by not taking cash over certain limits.

alexg: Hm that’s interesting. I did appreciate that she seems to be really focused on anti-corruption policies as well. (Hello, Warren!)

ben_dj: I definitely like that about Sarah. You might not agree with all her proposals, but you’re gonna have no question who she’s fighting for as mayor.

devin: Let’s also not forget Teressa Raiford. She’s a proven advocate and founded Don’t Shoot Portland. If we’re talking about “you’re gonna have no question who she’s fighting for as mayor” she’s a candidate to highlight. 

jo_davis: Honestly, she’s not been on my radar at all. 

alexg: I like her, but she seems like a one-issue candidate. Her issue being racial justice, which is critical, but I wish she would address some of the other issues that are also critical.

ben_dj: Before we move on, I do want to point out the central challenge of Portland elections, which is that any policy differences between candidates are often so small. They all agree on the fundamental issues and the broad approaches to fixing them. So I feel like it turns into a bit of a personality contest with a focus on style, trustworthiness, and personal biography.

devin: The question for me is who has the best mix of vision and experience to best solve the problems we face as a city.

jo_davis: I was totally thinking that, Ben. We end up choosing on personality and/or our risk-tolerances.

alexg: True. I’m grateful to have multiple strong candidates to choose from. I won’t be heartbroken either way.

Portland City Council, Position 1

ben_dj: Let’s talk about the race to replace Amanda Fritz, who’s stepping down after 12 years on City Council. 

Carmen Rubio seems like the hands-down favorite. Is there any reason she shouldn’t be? And what stands out about her resume?

jo_davis: Latino Network executive director! She worked with Nick Fish, which gives her great insight and experience into the job she’d be stepping into.

alexg: Yeah, she was his Senior Policy Advisor. And she seems to have every single major endorsement: Ron Wyden, Earl Blumenauer, Jo Ann Hardesty, etc.

jo_davis: I went to a house party for Carmen in the fall. She’s got overwhelmingly broad support. But I have been really impressed by Candace Avalos and will likely vote for her.

alexg: Tell me more about Candace and Carmen! What are your thoughts?

jo_davis: Don’t get me wrong, Carmen is awesome, but I think Candace would push the envelope more.

alexg: My default is to vote for the person with the best and usually most relevant experience AND vision, but I’d like to seriously consider a fresh new face.

devin: Carmen Rubio was also the Director of Community Affairs for Portland Mayor Tom Potter, and she’s a community builder with experience. This is an easy one for me. 

jo_davis: I think this is a stepping stone for Carmen. I see her climbing the political ladder for sure.

devin: Absolutely.

ben_dj: Yeah, that doesn’t bother me. Even if she only sticks around for one term, that’ll be four years with a smart, thoughtful leader who knows City Hall and has strong relationships in the community. I’m not going to make myself think too hard about this one.

jo_davis: I’m voting for Candace as a show of support for her running. Clearly Carmen’s got this one.

ben_dj: What if you create a Brexit scenario where so many people cast a symbolic vote that the symbolism becomes reality?

jo_davis: What a strategy!! In this case, the outcome would be far less damaging.

alexg: Good point. What’s the worst case scenario with Candace?

jo_davis: Probably lack of experience, but I think we give too much weight to that.

alexg: I imagine a person without much experience getting overwhelmed and not knowing how to go about solving problems, but haven’t we all applied for a job we knew we could do even though we didn’t technically have all the qualifications.

ben_dj:Lol very true. For me, it’s really about the opportunity cost of not having someone like Carmen Rubio. Sure, Candace could grow into the role, but Carmen will be ready on Day 1 and in the middle of a pandemic, I want someone with that level of experience.

jo_davis: For sure, the stakes are pretty high, but it makes me sad because it perpetuates the status quo (again, nothing against Carmen she’s an excellent leader and candidate).

alexg: That’s what I’m struggling with as I go through these candidates. When to choose the status quo and when to shake it up. Because those options exist in every race.

Portland City Council, Position 2

ben_dj: OK, onward to the other open seat on City Council — the one formerly held by Nick Fish.

Fish died in January one year into his term so this race will decide who gets to fill his seat through 2022. And I honestly don’t know where to start. It’s so wide open. Any takers?

jo_davis: My top four that I am considering: Julia DeGraw, Sam Chase, Loretta Smith, and Dan Ryan.

ben_dj: In that order?

jo_davis: Actually, yes! Well, maybe Loretta and Dan tied at third.

ben_dj: Can you talk us through your top two or three?

jo_davis: I had the chance to interview all four of them as part of a board I’m on, so I am largely basing my opinions on how they did with that process.

devin: Oooo, dish!

jo_davis: The interviews went well. These are all deeply committed professionals with long histories of community building and advocacy work. They share a lot of the same values and goals, as we’ve already pointed out

In the end, we held off on endorsing in this race until after the primary because of the complexities that come with community-based organizations like Unite making endorsements. It’s our first year as a c(4) and we’re being cautious. 

alexg: What about Tera Hurst? I like Tera.

ben_dj: So many choices! Alex, let’s hear the case for Tera.

alexg: I mean, to be honest, I have no idea who I’ll vote for because we’re swimming in options. But I’m definitely considering Tera because she says Portland needs its own Green New Deal and has the endorsement of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters. Not many other candidates have environmental organization endorsements.

jo_davis: I also like Tera. Holler for Reproductive Rights!!!! She’s got NARAL’s endorsement which means a lot to me.

ben_dj: Just to add one more candidate into the mix, I thought it was interesting that Willamette Week name dropped Margot Black as someone who might benefit from Sam Adams choosing to run against Eudaly, instead of going for the Position 2 seat. Anyone in Margot’s camp?

jo_davis: Oh Margot. I have no experience personally with her, but from what I hear, her style can be very polarizing. 

alexg: That’s the vibe I’m getting from her photo in the voters’ pamphlet.

ben_dj: Yeah, it might say something that she only has one endorsement listed in the Voter’s Pamphlet. But that one endorsement is from Our Revolution (the Bernie Sanders-aligned organizing group), and that must count for something, right?

jo_davis: My prediction is a runoff between Julia DeGraw and Sam Chase.

ben_dj: (For anyone new to Portland elections, a runoff happens when no candidate gets at least 50 percent of the vote in the May primary. In that scenario, the top-two vote winners advance to a head-to-head runoff election later in the year.)

devin: Julia led the fight against Nestlé from bottling our public water in the Columbia. She’s proven that she can get things done, and I’d like to have her at the table.

alexg: Yeah, I was very impressed by that.

jo_davis: Julia has strong support including extensive labor union endorsements, Sunrise PDX and Commissioner Hardesty. She’s earnest and super smart and has experience building broad coalitions and listening to impacted communities. And that’s what we need.

ben_dj: Side note: Is there a more universally popular position than being anti-Nestlé-water-heist?

alexg: Not in Portland!

jo_davis: I like to buy bottled water to water my house plants. I’m also a stockholder at Nestlé. Oh wait, is that just me?

ben_dj: 😂

devin: One more thing before we move on: Julia also lives past 82nd. We need some more representation at the table for those Portlanders.

alexg: So does Sarah Iannarone! Or 82nd and Powell technically.

ben_dj: Fun fact: If Sarah and Julia both win, East Portland would have a majority on City Council (with Commissioner Hardesty as the third East Portlander). Pretty crazy considering people were talking about an all-westside City Council only four years ago. 

devin: OK OK, I’ve had my peace with the one race I feel strongly about. Let’s move on.

Portland City Council, Position 4

ben_dj: Alrighty then, I think we saved the best for last: Commissioner Chloe Eudaly vs. former mayor Sam Adams vs. everyone else.

And first, full disclosure: I used my Oregon Political Tax Credit to donate to Chloe Eudaly’s campaign this year, so I’m not exactly an undecided voter in this one. 

But I’m also not a total Eudaly cheerleader. I can admit that walking out of meetings with constituents and blasting colleagues in emails are… not good looks. And unforced errors like those can make it harder to move things forward (see: the code change debacle).  

But hey, you can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs, right? And when the omelet includes tenant protections, bus-only lanes, and a reliable ‘yes’ vote for policies that help improve housing affordability, I’m here for it. 

So anyway, I’d like to give her another term. But before we get too deep in that debate, let’s talk about her main challengers….

Sam Adams  who wants to make the case for or against our former mayor?

alexg: I liked that he was mayor during the Great Recession. I think there’s an appeal to having that experience during another crisis.

ben_dj: I generally value City Hall experience at a moment like this, but his interview on Think Out Loud really turned me off.

alexg: Oo tell me more.

ben_dj: He went out of his way to knock the Residential Infill Project for not involving enough community input, particularly from public schools, which is such a dubious claim. 

I mean, this policy has been getting community input for six years, and more than 1,900 Portlanders submitted written testimony on the final proposal. And now Sam Adams wants to fly back into Portland after 5 years in D.C. and say that it needs more community input? Give me a break.

jo_davis: Wow, that’s an interesting position for him to take.

ben_dj: Dave Miller also asked a really good question about how Sam Adams can pitch himself as a change agent when he’s already served four years as mayor. 

Sam pointed to his record as mayor, but TBH, that doesn’t feel like a huge feather in his cap. He made some progress on transportation issues and he was a big champion of the arts. But he also designed an Arts Tax that even arts organizations say isn’t working. That alone should be disqualifying (not to mention the grooming-an-underage-intern thing and the allegations of harassment). 

jo_davis: Why do you hate art, Ben?

ben_dj: LOL. I hate inefficiency, and I hate regressive taxes. Why are Nike execs and school custodians paying the same amount for the Arts Tax? Doesn’t make sense to me.

jo_davis: Maybe if those custodians would just manage their money better…

ben_dj: That’s the perfect way to end the Sam Adams thread. 🤣

But before I move on to my pro-Eudaly pitch, let’s talk about two other candidates who are getting some attention: Mingus Mapps and Keith Wilson.

The best case I’ve seen made for Keith Wilson is that he’d bring a business perspective to City Hall (where have I heard that before?) and he’s not named Chloe Eudaly or Sam Adams. Decide for yourself, but I wasn’t sold. 

As for Mingus Mapps, I’m having trouble figuring out where he fits into this race. He’s not really running to the left or right of Adams and Eudaly, and his talking points about listening to more Portlanders and finding a fix for homelessness are pretty boilerplate for a Portland politician.

Anyone want to make a case for Keith Wilson or Mingus Mapps?

alexg: I mean, they seem nice.

jo_davis: Yeah, I like Mingus a lot on a personality level. And I love the color scheme for his campaign logo.

devin: hahahaha maybe his graphic designer benefited from the arts tax.

alexg: You’re right. It’s probably the best logo.

ben_dj: Agreed about the logo, hands down. On the political front, I feel like the argument Mingus should be making is that he’s worked inside City Hall, he’s seen the bureaucracy up close, he knows how to trim fat, etc. But he hasn’t made that case in any specific way, even when given the chance.

For me, if you want to unseat an incumbent, you need to make a crystal clear argument for why you’re a better choice. The tie goes to the incumbent, especially in our crazy form of  government where City Council members oversee bureaus. There’s value in continuity.

jo_davis: You’re right, he hasn’t been necessarily clear or bold. But I’m really struggling with Chloe Eudaly. Her style is…intense.

alexg: Yeah, while Chloe does come off as a little harsh to me (coming from someone who’s never actually met her), you can’t deny she’s been working her ass off for the people. Her work has been some of the most progressive action I’ve seen in Portland in years, and she deserves some major props for that.

ben_dj: That’s a great segue to my pro-Eudaly case.

jo_davis: Bring it, DeJarnette.

ben_dj: So the biggest thing for me is her advocacy on the Rose Lane Project. That was a huge political risk, but it’s great policy if you want to move the city away from gridlocked traffic and single-passenger driving and toward a more sustainable transportation system.

And then let’s talk about the Residential Infill Project. Unlike Sam Adams with his half-baked process argument, Eudaly has been specific: She supports residential infill, but she won’t commit to voting yes until her fellow commissioners commit to passing an anti-displacement plan. She’s using her vote to make a good policy even better. That’s leadership in my book. 

jo_davis: The Rose Lane Project is a huge win and she should get a lot of credit for the tangible success that’s come out of it. And given our shitty ass history in this town with displacing communities of color/economically disadvantaged communities, it’s spot on.

alexg: (I wish there was a snaps emoji.)

ben_dj: Her style definitely frustrates me sometimes, but I’d prefer to have a couple rabble-rousers on City Council than have all “consensus builders” who will get sucked into groupthink all the time and never challenge big assumptions.

alexg: I mean, I think I’m leaning Eudaly now, Ben. Good work!

ben_dj: Success! Let’s leave it there then. 😉

Any final big-picture thoughts before we sign off?

alexg: In 2020, I’m voting for Portland to step up our game as a city of progressive leadership. I want to try things that haven’t been done before. Why should California have all the fun?

devin: Even though a lot of Portlanders’ favorite presidential candidates (Bernie and Elizabeth) are out of the race, it’s still so important to vote. There is so much opportunity to move forward the issues their campaigns represented.

jo_davis: We’re lucky in so many ways as Portlanders the vote-by-mail system, automatic voter registration, etc. so first and foremost we need to GET OUT THE VOTE. 

alexg: Amen. SO grateful we don’t have to risk our lives to vote. (Thanks, postal service, for making that possible!)

ben_dj: I’m voting for the climate. The coronavirus outbreak has shown us what happens when we ignore a clear threat despite the warning of scientists. We can’t afford a response to the climate threat that’s any less comprehensive than what we’re doing to address the coronavirus.