Gary Hansen may be among the most politically experienced candidates for county commissioner, but that doesn’t prevent him from speaking his mind. For example: He thinks a county preemption on tobacco taxes is an “elitist idea,” and he wishes people would stop dragging issues like the carbon footprint into county races when that’s really a more "international issue." At the same time, he’s got some pretty innovative ideas for issues over which the county does have jurisdiction: Opening Wapato jail as a reduced-sentence treatment option for drug and alcohol addicted felony property offenders; Using bonded state tobacco dollars to fund mental health; Giving hotels lodging tax breaks if they supply an electric car charging station. Dude seems to be a policy volcano, waiting to erupt all over Multnomah County. It'll be interesting to see if some of his competitors start borrowing some of these ideas over the coming weeks.


Read the Mercury’s interview with Gary Hansen after the jump.

Mercury:Tell our readers about your experience.
“I was a Metro councilor for eight years, a state representative for eight years, and a county commissioner for eight years. I was also elected president of the Oregon Association of Counties, which lobbies the state on behalf of county governments. Most of my experience in Salem was on the Ways and Means Committee, I’ve been a very progressive family values candidate that’s relatively conservative on financial issues.”

Why are you running?
“Multnomah County is an incredibly important government. It provides services to the most in need, mental illness issues, public clinics, teen services, and it’s the primary public safety government in terms of jails, corrections, parole and probation. It’s a very important government, and I think that there need to be candidates focusing on the Multnomah County issues rather than some of the international and broader issues that sometimes get dragged into these races.”

Which specific issues are you focused on?
“The biggest one is mental health, and I’m advocating that tobacco settlement dollars that in the past have been bonded by the state be dedicated to the mental health system. If the police shootings have shown our mentally ill people just simply aren’t being served, we’ve got to do a better job than we’re doing right now, both for the human cost as well as the government cost of mental illness.”

Can you give me an example of some of the international and broader issues that sometimes get dragged into these races?
“We have to be doing everything we can to lower the carbon footprint, but on the other hand there’s not a whole lot Multnomah County can do about them and sometimes we get distracted.”

One of my pet peeves is we often talk about sustainability, but we don’t get into job creation quite as hard.
“If we’re smart we can do both—we could, for example, give lodging tax breaks to hotels that provide electric vehicle charging stations. We could actually do that, because the lodging tax is within the county’s control. I’m a huge advocate for planting trees—I think it’s ridiculous that we have freeways without urban forest along them, but those are state transportation issues, and city of Portland urban issues. What can the county do?”

How do you stack up against your competitors?
“I’ve got a little more experience than they do.”

Other candidates have said if you’re experienced, you’re politically entrenched.
“It’s a flipside. One of the things that modifies that in my case is, I’ve been out of office for four years. I remember, for example, how I was treated when I’d intervene on a social service issue as a state representative compared to now, as a private citizen. And that brings home that we should be treating everybody the same no matter whether or not they’re in politics. For example, it’s easy to vote for photo radar, but what about the guy who’s totally unemployed in a recession, is $285 really a reasonable amount to soak someone who’s 13 miles over the speed limit? Being out of office helps to freshen your perspectives.”

What have you been up to for the last four years?
“I’ve been doing lobbying for a nonprofit—the Portland habitation center, which builds employment opportunities for disabled citizens. I did a little work for the community mental health directors in the Association of Oregon Counties in the session before last.”

Any endorsements yet?
“Randy Leonard, former labor commissioner Dan Gardner. Randy and I have worked together in the legislature, and I worked with him on some fire issues.”

Whose endorsement would you most like, and why?
“The voters.”

Do you feel like endorsements are an important factor in this race?
“Not terribly, I think people make up their own minds. I feel uncomfortable asking for endorsements from sitting county commissioners and people in government because they’re going to have to work with whoever is elected. In terms of people I’ve worked with before, it’s a little easier because it shows you’ve earned some respect from people you’ve worked with.”

Is this race all about getting through the primary?
“Obviously if you’re going to get elected you’ve got to get through the primary. I think the general is probably more important from a standpoint of once it gets down to a two person field there can be a better dialog, the differences between candidates are easier to shape. The other thing is, this open seat came up so quickly. It’s hard to formulate really good policy questions and stuff—I’ve got a lot of really good ideas, but I want to research them more thoroughly before I go public with them. And quite frankly, I think none of us were expecting to be in this race until a week ago.”

Do you agree that the three favorites for this seat are Karol Collymore, Chuck Currie and Gary Hansen?
“I think I’m in a strong position but I don’t know which other candidates are going to really emerge, and they’re a pretty qualified group.”

Chuck Currie said he was pleased that the county’s union, Local 88, hadn’t endorsed anyone because they’ve stuck with you in the past—he saw it as a signal that it’s time for new blood. Is that fair?
“I don’t think it’s fair or unfair. Chuck can have his opinion. I think there are so many good candidates in the race that they had trouble developing consensus on who the top two would be, and I’m pleased that I was in that discussion.”

How much money are you hoping to raise?
“$20,000 for the primary. There’s $2,000 committed so far.”

How are you going to run this campaign?
“Very quickly and carefully. This is going to be a fairly low-key campaign because it’s so quick. In order to spend money, counting backwards from May 18, ballots will be going out before that, by the end of April, so by the time you’ve raised money and figured out how to spend it, the election really is here, so it’s not the same kind of an election that somebody plans for a year.”

So what are your priorities alongside mental health?
“Reform of the public safety system, I think we’re relying much too heavily on incarceration. We need to be focusing on drug and alcohol treatment, we need to better coordinate between state, county, and local government. All of those systems are multi-government level systems, and I don’t think we do a very good job of coordinating between the three.”

When you were at the county before, what did you do to improve the collaboration between the governments?
“One involvement with the Association of Oregon Counties, of which I was elected president, my last year at the county, I tried to work very closely with the leaders in the other cities. I networked well with Metro, probably my biggest accomplishment there was shifting EXPO and Multnomah County’s parks department, including Oxbow, Glendoveer Golf Course, and I worked with my first wife, Sandy Hansen, who was a Metro councilor at the time, to get those over to Metro and develop a regional parks and open space capacity over there. It was probably one of the major shifts of public services that have occurred.”

Talking of shifting services, the city keeps saying ‘the county does mental health.’ Should the city be taking more of an active role?
“No. The split has always been that human services are to be provided by the county, and city or urban services are provided by the city, and that fits well with the way that the state funds mental health services. If we really want to improve the mental health system now, we’d be much better doing it through the county than spending the time trying to reorganize through the city and then starting over. One of the problems with mental health is there hasn’t been political buy-in or the dollar buy-in. So instead of committing resources, there’s been re-organization after re-organization after re-organization. So instead of reorganizing, let’s try to find the resources for it.”

So where are the resources coming from?
“Well one thing is we contract with nonprofits for services—we need to do a better job of tracking how those dollars are spent. The Cascadia meltdown had a huge effect, and quite frankly, the county should have been keeping much closer tabs on a contractor delivering such an important service.”

You also mentioned this tobacco settlement dollars idea?
“In the late 1990s, the attorney generals of states across the country sued tobacco companies. It generated about $100million per biennium. That money was bonded by the state to pay off bonds, but it’s available now, and it should be dedicated to mental health.”

What about the preemption on tobacco taxes that’s being suggested by some of your opponents?
“I’m thinking that’s a real elitist idea. We’ve already heavily taxed smokers—they’re some of the poorest citizens of Multnomah County. The only way I’d support increasing the tobacco tax at this point is if the money were totally dedicated to tobacco cessation. Otherwise we’re going after some of our poorest citizens. And when you’re talking about just a local tax in Multnomah County, you’re talking about not only the poorest citizens, but the least mobile citizens. You end up with a base of people paying the taxes that are already struggling with an addiction, and of course some of the smokers can just drive to Clackamas county to get their cigarettes at the Fred Meyer down there.”

A lot of county commissioners seem pretty committed to doing it though, so what would you do?
“I’d vote no. Also, I seriously doubt whether the legislature would grant the preemption, because every time you grant preemptions it becomes harder to accomplish something statewide. The same thing happened with the restaurant smoking bans—should you prevent counties from doing it? The rationalization was if you could get a lesser smoking ban improved statewide, are you doing more good than if you have very aggressive smoking bans in the more liberal counties? I think you could make a good case that if it’s worth doing something, you should try to do it statewide.”

What are some other revenue generating ideas for the county?
“I think if Multnomah County can prove that it’s a credible, responsible partner, then we can go to the voters and ask for bonding authority, levies, there’s lots of avenues that we can pursue within the same basic framework of our tax system now. Clearly the state should be reforming its tax system, but Multnomah County can’t do it by itself, and when I was a Multnomah County Commissioner we had a great track record of passing levies and bonds.”

What do you think of Chair Wheeler's idea to take control of jail management from the Sheriff's office?
“I think the sheriff should stay elected, but the charter commission could increase the physical controls of the county commission on the sheriff’s office to give tighter control of the budget. But I don’t think that you make somebody more accountable if they’re appointed rather than elected, and it’s a moot point, because the voters have traditionally wanted the office elected.”

Why isn’t anybody talking about Wapato so far in this race?
“Probably because there’s no good answers. I was on the Ways and Means Public Safety Committee my last term in the legislature, and I worked closely with Max Williams and the state trying to come up with a state proposal, and it’s very difficult to put the dollars together. What I would propose then, and I propose it now, is that Wapato be opened as a drug treatment facility, that for property crimes people who’ve committed a felony with less than a 2 year prison sentence, that the state would be better off putting them through an intensive 6-month drug treatment program. The per-day cost is more expensive than incarceration, but if you shorten the term, the dollars pretty much even out, and you’d be getting more success than if you just put someone in jail without treatment. The problem I had at the legislature is the cost is in this biennium, and the savings are in the next biennium, and it’s hard to get people to look long term. But certainly that’s an idea that I’d be taking to the legislature as one of the possible solutions.”

Is there any issue that you’ve yet to see raised by the other people running in this race that you think is significant?
“It’s so early in this race. We’ve only had one joint appearance, before the AFSCME people. Multnomah County touches people in so many different ways.”