UNTIL LAST WEEK, State Senate District 24 (East Portland) was considered safe in the hands of incumbent Frank Shields, who's held it since 2000. But last Thursday, March 9—two days after the filing deadline—he officially dropped out of the race, sparking controversy and a battle between two Democratic would-be successors.

Two days prior to Shields' withdrawal, rumors began surfacing that he was dropping out due to health concerns. Those rumors were given weight when, on the last day to file, Shields' longtime friend and fellow politician Rod Monroe filed his own candidacy papers. Almost immediately, observers began grumbling (particularly at progressive blog blueoregon.com) that Shields and Monroe had engaged in a backroom deal to keep other Democratic contenders locked out of the race, effectively plotting to hand over the seat to Monroe.

In response, 30-year-old Bus Project co-founder Jesse Cornett filed his own candidacy papers within hours of the deadline, setting the stage for a primary battle between the old guard and the new face of Democratic activism.

Within 36 hours, Cornett—a legislative liaison for Secretary of State Bill Bradbury—was standing in front of 100 supporters at the Roots Brewery in SE Portland, giving his first campaign speech. But with less than two months until ballots are mailed out, both Cornett and Monroe will have to wage fast-paced campaigns.

"I'm going to raise enough money to win, and hopefully more than Rod Monroe is willing to give himself," Cornett told the Mercury. (Monroe runs an apartment business and has been involved in electoral politics for years, serving in the legislature, the Metro Board of Supervisors, and countless nonprofit boards.)

Cornett sidestepped questions about the propriety of the arrangement between Monroe and Shields, saying only, "Shields was elected to represent this district—in his heart I think he thought [handing it over to Monroe] was the right decision."

Monroe said that he and Shields began discussing the possibility of Monroe taking over a month or two ago, but he insists that he didn't know until after he filed that Shields would, in fact, be dropping out. He was a backup at Shields' request, Monroe says.

This isn't the first time Monroe and Cornett have faced off. Last year, the two ran for the same Mt. Hood Community College Board seat. Monroe, the seasoned politician, beat Cornett 82-17 percent. Still, this being Portland, they have more in common policy-wise than not. "We're not going to be fighting over shades of gray," Cornett said.