As accusations of racism volleyed around city hall, the media, and in North Portland over a proposal to rename Interstate Avenue for César E. Chávez, three city commissioners have stepped in to negotiate a peaceful end to the standoff.
"Our responsibility is to interject ourselves and moderate that discussion," said Randy Leonard, at his office late last week. He and two other commissioners—Sam Adams and Erik Sten—have grown increasingly frustrated with the widespread perception that renaming Interstate was a "done deal."
"This is a process that appears to be sending the message that a decision has been made, and we'll keep having meetings until [the residents] all agree," Leonard explained. "And we don't like that."
Additionally, the accusations of racism have bothered Leonard. "There's a message being sent that it's Interstate, and if it's not [renamed], you're a racist. There's a tremendous sense of unfairness, to be dismissed as racist because you disagree. [That] if you disagree with us, there's something going on with you," he says.
Leonard says he and Adams have discussed the Interstate situation for the past few weeks, and had originally planned to let the current process ride out until a council vote. But "comments from some staffers in the mayor's office that any opposition must be tied to overt or subconscious racism" pushed them to take immediate action.
The two spoke with Sten, and—since Mayor Tom Potter, who has been very vocal in supporting the rename, has said he's not leading the process—stepped in to reframe the debate.
Pointing out that almost everyone commenting wants to honor Chávez, and the council has signaled unanimous intent to rename a street, Leonard now hopes for an open public process to determine which street is the best place to honor him—and Interstate wouldn't be off the table. "We're going to back up and start again. Let's have a community process," he said, adding, "That's what we should have done in the first place."
To that end, Adams met with the Chávez committee on Friday evening, October 5, to break the news that a majority of the council was seeking a new process. To date, the committee has made it clear that they refuse to compromise on Interstate, and the meeting with Adams—which was reportedly "intense"—didn't change their position.
"We are firm, and we are not looking for choices other than Interstate," says committee co-chair Marta Guembes. "I cannot put flowers or hearts around it to say it another way, because we're very firm."
Moreover, she adds, when the committee first went to the city commissioners, they explained "why we chose Interstate," and outlined the support they had for that change. "We said, tell us please what we can do," she says, recalling their meeting with Leonard. "The proposal has been very clear, and we've been doing what we've been told.
"We're going for it. We have done a lot of work," she adds. She plans to follow the process through to the end, "until we have to go back and get their votes."
Leonard acknowledges that he misled the Chávez committee when he originally told them he supported their proposal. "What I probably should have said is I'm committed to naming a street."
That said, he points out committee already has a victory: Their original goal was to rename a street in Portland for Chávez, and that's going to happen. Determining which street, however, is "not their decision to make."
Sten, however, is less adamant. "I had told Randy last week that I'm definitely interested and open to starting the process over, but I wanted to meet with the committee first," Sten says. "I'm searching for a middle ground." That means he's going to work with Leonard and Adams to craft a proposal to bring to the committee.
"I told the committee I think it would be in their and the city's best interest to have a little more process," Sten explains, adding that he asked them to "work with me and keep an open mind and look at it, and see whether we could come up with something that—if not what they wanted—is acceptable to them. As opposed to we're just going to take a vote, or we're starting over."
Overall, however, Sten stresses that any additional process "should either affirm Interstate as the best street, or it should come up with a better one."