IN PERHAPS the most surprising local election Portland’s seen in at least 24 years, the winner almost forgot to vote for herself.
Chloe Eudaly showed up to her campaign party at Holocene on November 8, thinking the place would be near empty. In fact, the bar was already bustling, but Eudaly noticed a sad energy. Glum attendees pointed her to the increasingly worrisome results of the presidential race.
“That’s when I realized I still had my ballot in my purse,” Eudaly tells the Mercury. It was 20 minutes before the polls would officially close.
The candidate hustled to the nearest ballot drop, but the vote wouldn’t make a difference in her race. When initial results came out at 8 pm, Eudaly had a commanding lead over incumbent Commissioner Steve Novick. As of the latest count, she’d bested Novick by more than 24,000 votes.
“I had a really hard time feeling a sense of joy or success [at the time],” Eudaly said Monday. “It’s really just the last few days that it’s begun to sink in.”
With her win, the bookstore owner and affordable housing advocate accomplished an exceedingly rare thing in Portland politics. A challenger hasn’t defeated an incumbent commissioner since 1992, but many observers say you’ve got to look farther back than that to find a race where such an underdog found success. They point to the 1984 mayoral contest, when tavern owner Bud Clark soundly defeated conservative mayor Frank Ivancie. And it’s true the similarities are hard to deny.
Eudaly, like Clark, bristled at questions about her qualifications, pointing to decades of connections she’s forged in the city as owner of Reading Frenzy, founder of a Special Education PTA, and, most recently, a renters’ rights advocate. Eudaly also ran on a platform of inclusion like Clark, and her overtly “Portland” campaign—complete with a housing-themed comic from decorated local cartoonist Joe Sacco—echoed the offbeat campaigning Clark used to set himself apart.
“People have been underestimating me and dismissing me since the primary,” Eudaly says. “I’ve lived and worked here for 25 years.”
In any other election, Novick’s ejection would have been a signature story from November 8. But as the country—and Portland—grappled with the reality that Donald Trump will be president of the United States, it was easy to lose track of the upset.
Still, the outcome has important ramifications, and interesting takeaways.
While Novick edged out his nine challengers in nearly every city precinct during the May primaries, last week’s results suggest Portland is somewhat divided by its central river. Eudaly took most of the precincts east of the Willamette—with particular strength in ultra-lefty inner Southeast.
Novick, on the other hand, won in most precincts on the city’s west side, though he also had modest leads on the city’s eastern edge.
“This was the most shocking thing anywhere in Oregon politics,” says Jason Kafoury, a local attorney who advocates for campaign finance changes that would let grassroots candidate like Eudaly take a valid shot at office. “I think this will lead a lot more people who are outsiders—who never thought they had a chance—to run.”
Particularly notable about Eudaly’s victory: It came without the big money that typically fuels success in Portland politics. Novick raised more than $440,000 this year for the race. Eudaly raised just over $100,000.
Eudaly is careful when she talks about winning despite the cash disadvantage. On the campaign trail, she’d been a vocal supporter of Commissioner Amanda Fritz’s push for a new publicly financed elections system in Portland. She says that such reform is still necessary.
“We won in spite of a system that is heavily biased in terms of the incumbents, and favors the affluent and politically connected,” Eudaly says. “I’m really afraid of the media using me as an excuse not to do campaign finance reform.”
Given the financial disparity, people the Mercury spoke to were inclined to think Eudaly’s win had a lot to do with Novick tarnishing his reputation with voters—a factor the commissioner himself has acknowledged.
“Steve Novick was someone who led with his chin,” says Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University and director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation. “He stuck to his principles, pushed things, and the voters pushed back.”
It didn’t help that plenty of Portlanders already distrust city governance.
“Novick probably had to carry the burden of all the people who were pissed off at City Hall,” said Len Bergstein, a longtime Portland lobbyist and political observer.
Bergstein, who readily admits to being part of the city’s political establishment, was honest about the fact he didn’t know quite what to make of Eudaly’s victory.Was it a perfect storm of factors—missteps by Novick, smart messaging by Eudaly, citizens panicked over rents? Or has the city changed in a more fundamental way, such that being a four-to-one fundraising underdog without political experience is suddenly not a death sentence for a candidate’s chances?
“I’m still trying to digest it,” he said.
Eudaly says people should give her more credit.
“You could say it was a referendum on Steve, but we have a lot of really engaged people right now,” she says. “I had connections to thousands of people across the city.”
She also had help. Both Eudaly and political observers point to Marshall Runkel, a local campaign veteran and her campaign’s leader. Runkel will serve as Eudaly’s chief of staff when she takes office next year.
Together, they’ll face an uncertain task. Eudaly says she met with Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler last week, and that she’s told his office what bureaus she feels qualified to lead (she declined to say which).
She’s up front about the fact she doesn’t believe she’ll get control of housing, her core competency. She’s not ruling out the possibility of being assigned the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, often seen as a comparatively easy lift compared to other bureaus.
Whatever happens, Wheeler has some tricky decisions to make. Novick’s workload includes the large Portland Bureau of Transportation, along with the city’s 911 dispatch and its emergency management agency. If the new mayor doesn’t think the rookie commissioner can handle those jobs, he’ll have to find someone who can.
“Now Ted has to do a little rearranging,” Eudaly acknowledges. “Everyone assumed that Steve would win, so this is a bit of an upset for the whole council.”