During the lead up to May's primary election, two contentious city races and the volatile race for county chair sapped all the publicity, leaving little attention paid to the campaign for Multnomah County commissioner, seat two. It didn't help, either, that the four men running for the seat—which covers North/Northeast Portland and has been held by Serena Cruz Walsh for two terms—were well behaved, polite, and had nothing negative to say about each other. In fact, meetings with all four in attendance felt more like the Get-Along Gang than a political campaign.
In our endorsement for the seat, we asked voters to choose Lew Frederick due to his singular focus on community issues and first-hand knowledge of the district's burning problems—like racial profiling. But what we really wanted to see was a runoff between Frederick and the young, energetic, politically well-connected Jeff Cogen; a runoff between the two would ideally force each to adopt some of the other's best qualities.
Lo and behold, the Mercury nailed it. With two of the impossibly likeable candidates (Xander Patterson and Gary Hansen) swept away like so much political flotsam, the real race for seat two—the only local race that wasn't decided in the primary—can begin. You only have five months to familiarize yourself with Cogen and Frederick. Here's a jumpstart.
These are the basics: Cogen moved to Portland in 1992—in the past 14 years, he's started a pretzel-making business, served as chief of staff to City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, worked for former County Chair Bev Stein, and served as the board president for volunteer group Hands on Portland. He is married to Lisa Pellegrino and has two children.
Given his years of work inside city hall and the county office, Cogen is easily the most connected first-time candidate to run for local office since Sam Adams. This will make it difficult for him to escape charges that he's already a part of the "establishment" and disconnected from the private sector. On the other hand, his governmental experience will help him navigate the turbulent waters at the county, and keep his plans for new government programs—he has a lot of them—from sinking.
"I have a record of accomplishments in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors," Cogen says. "And I have a very clear vision for the county."
From anyone else, such political jargon would seem hackneyed, but Cogen's intense, rapid-fire delivery (sometimes his brain works faster than his mouth) belies his enthusiasm for the role of government in daily life.
"People don't think that government is relevant to their lives," he continued. "The county needs to be more strategic in its decision making. We need an easy win. We need tangible achievements."
Like, for instance, rolling out a plan to provide healthcare to the county's 17,000 uninsured children by adding them to the county's medical plan and/or utilizing school-based health clinics.
"Morally, it's the right thing to do, but it's also a strategically smart thing to do," Cogen says, dismissing the idea that he's simply looking for good PR for the county.
Since the middle of last year, as Saltzman's chief of staff, Cogen has been working on a deal to get all of Portland's municipal electricity from wind energy sources in Eastern Oregon. It will, he says, cost about the same—if not less—than what the city currently pays, meet city goals to become more "green," and "bridge the urban-rural divide" by providing jobs and revenue to Portland's country cousins. Along with a plan to switch the county's computers to all open-source software (taking money away from Bill Gates and giving it to local techies), it shows a knack for at least looking for creative solutions.Whether those creative solutions can be pulled off is another question entirely.
On most political counts, Frederick and Cogen are nearly identical. In terms of personality and approach, however, they couldn't be more different.
Frederick, who grew up in Atlanta during the civil-rights movement and spent time with Martin Luther King Jr., is as steady and calm as Cogen is excitable. He's lived in Northeast Portland since the mid-'70s—in the same house in the same neighborhood. He has been an elementary school teacher, a broadcast reporter, and a spokesperson for Portland Public Schools. Where Cogen is clearly excited about the county government as a whole, Frederick is seemingly more focused on representing his constituents—although he's quick to point out that his job at Portland Public Schools guaranteed familiarity with the entire county.
He decided to run for county commissioner not because that position was a particular goal for him, but because it was an open seat (meaning he wouldn't be fighting against an incumbent) and it would represent the area he lives in. And it's clear that as an African American man who lived through the 1960s in the South, Frederick has a closer, more intimate connection with many of the problems that are still facing District Two: like racial profiling by the police, of which Frederick says he's been a victim; like environmental racism and classism—District Two has a disproportionately large number of toxic sites; and like the shifting demographics of the area, where gentrification is pushing low-income residents to the outskirts of the city.
"I have a perspective that I bring to the district and the county commission that other people don't," Frederick says. "It's not that they are intentionally ignoring that perspective, but because no one was there to be that person on the commission. And it's not just Jeff, it's the entire county [government]."
"The county is referred to [by people in District Two] as 'the county,' not as 'our county.' I'm not going to be at my desk all day; I'm going to be out in the community talking to people. That's what I've always done."