Candidates pictured from left to right: Harold Williams II, Chip Shields, Jo Ann Bowman, Richard Ellmyer, and Fred Stewart Photo by David Reamer

HEY, PORTLAND, there's a Senate seat up for grabs! Of the five candidates currently vying for the seat, most observers agree that the final choice comes down to State Representative Chip Shields and Oregon Action Executive Director Jo Ann Bowman, who was a state representative between 1997 and 2001. We're pleased to report that whoever gets the seat, the district wins. But it's tough to choose between super candidates Shields and Bowman.

In a strange twist of the democratic process, regular voters won't get to cast ballots for the new senator. Instead, Multnomah County Commissioners will select their favorite.

"Usually, it's the case where the person who wants the seat most gets it," says County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury, one of the five who will ultimately make the choice on September 24. "But in this case, I really don't think you can say who wants it more, between Chip or Jo Ann."

Nevertheless it would be chickenshit for the Mercury to sit on the fence. So here's an issue-by-issue look at why we think the county commissioners should pick Jo Ann Bowman for the job.

INCARCERATION

Shields is a relentless defender of a smarter, more rehabilitative justice system—he's one of only a handful of legislators who voted against mandatory minimum prison sentencing. And as a sponsor for nonprofit Project Clean Slate, Shields helped ex-cons get back on their feet with jobs and clean records. Bowman has also put in time turning inmates into model citizens—in 2002, she led a campaign registering former felons to vote.

On this issue, the difference comes down to approach. During our interview, Bowman criticized Measure 11's creation of mandatory minimum sentencing, saying that removing the judge from the sentencing equation has worsened the justice system's racial and economic inequality. We preferred her blunt attitude to Shields' more cautious statement that Measure 11 "needs to be improved."

EDUCATION

Like the rest of Portland, District 22 has some of the most troubled schools in the state: Citywide dropout rates are as high as 40 percent and the district also hosts some of the poorest schools in the city. Bowman says high suspension and expulsion rates show some students just do not work in the current school environment and suggests hosting "community education forums" to rework curriculums. "I think that how we spend our education dollars could be drastically improved," she says.

"It's not so important what people say they will do—and they're all well intentioned—it's the results that have been accomplished," says Shields, pointing out that as a house representative, he recently passed the best K-12 budget in well over a decade.

Apart from Shields' recent house experience, there's little difference between Bowman and Shields on this issue.

BUDGET

Bowman and Shields disagree on the chances of recent Democratic tax increases surviving a January ballot initiative. Shields thinks they're likely to pass, while Bowman thinks, "We're going to be called back to special session [next February] to cut across the board."

Shields' experience on the house Ways and Means Committee would set him up for handling budgets in the Senate.

While it may be paranoia talking, we'd like to see Democrats be more outspoken in this fight. Bowman argues that more progressive legislators should be pounding the streets to make the case for the Democratic tax increases. "I've always told voters the truth," she says. "And when I was a legislator, voters could count on my telling them what the hard choices were."

RACIAL EQUALITY

When former District 22 senator Margaret Carter resigned the seat late last month to take a job with the state's Department of Human Services, her departure cut the number of Oregon's African American legislators in half.

Bowman's nonprofit Oregon Action aims to involve low-income people and communities of color in debates around issues like health care and housing. "When you bring kids of color into the building, I think the assumption they walk out with is that this is not a place for people of color," says Bowman about the legislature. Bowman has also fought uncompromisingly over the last three years for the Portland Police Bureau to change its tactics to avoid racial profiling.

For his part, Shields has worked hard to help minority businesses get equal footing when bidding for government construction contracts. His recent big success was passing a bill to invest $1.5 million in pre-apprenticeship training for women and people of color. These are not achievements to be sniffed at, but Shields hints that the legislature could improve its diversity by filling his vacant house seat with a person of color, and we disagree. There's no reason Shields shouldn't continue being effective as a representative while Bowman uses the Senate seat to raise uncomfortable race equality issues at the highest level.

"Though Chip is an excellent legislator, I don't think that entitles him automatically to go to the Senate," says Bowman. "I have been an excellent legislator, but I've also been an excellent community member who has galvanized and mobilized people around issues that a lot of people just don't want to talk about."

Agreed.

THE OUTLIERS

FRED STEWART—Kudos to Stewart for being the only candidate who promises to resign Carter's former seat in May to allow for an open and more democratic election. But this well-connected real estate agent opposes the tax package the legislature approved last session, which will protect state services for the needy by increasing corporate taxes that haven't been raised since 1931. Stewart's long family history in Northeast Portland ("Some of these gangbangers here that we're talking about, my grandfather dated their grandmothers, and their great grandmothers," he says) and interesting education ideas make him a more viable candidate for a city council seat.

HAROLD WILLIAMS II—A Portland Community College board member who runs a local consulting company with his father, Williams speaks out on behalf of the regular Joes. When Williams and Stewart disagreed over the effectiveness of tough crime law Measure 11 during our group interview, Williams stood up and reached into his pocket, suggesting the two wager money on whether the measure has sent 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds to prison (the district attorney's office confirms Williams would have won the bet). Williams' strength is political inclusion, but he needs more experience within the system to turn his impressions into effective policy suggestions.

RICHARD ELLMYER—The first Google hit for this candidate reads, "Richard Ellmyer is truly a DICK." Not a good sign. The strident backer of single-payer health care said during our interview that the most important role of an elected official is "the public platform, the bully pulpit, if you will." Ellmyer's current bully pulpit is the world of email spam, where he has bombarded the Housing Authority of Portland and other foes with frequent, scathing missives. He boils down the lack of African Americans in the legislature to "personal choice," not discrimination and says low voter turnout to school board elections is the cause of our poor public school system, because "voters don't care." Let's keep Ellmyer as the ubiquitous public-meeting attendee and hot topic spammer, instead of state senator, shall we?