They went last, after almost hour and a half of political speechifying. First, John Kitzhaber regurgitated his stump talking points, then the two candidates for Metro president made their respective pitches, and finally Ted Wheeler spoke about the treasurer's race.

Karol Collymore
  • Karol Collymore

But when Karol Collymore and Loretta Smith strode behind the twin lecterns on stage last night at the Emmanuel Temple Church in Portland, the hallways emptied, empty seats filled up and the crowd, emerging from whatever drowse it might have settled into, erupted in healthy applause.

At a forum where candidates in the November general election were asked to address issues close to the African-American community, both Smith and Collymore—vying in a close race to be the first black county commissioner in decades—were clearly the stars of the show.

Politely, sometimes pointedly, they laid out their bona fides. And they sparred on issues such as disparities in health care and incarceration rates, economic opportunities and on whether and how the state should support big-ticket items that cut through North Portland, like the Columbia River Crossing.

Loretta Smith
  • Loretta Smith
Smith, who works as Sen. Ron Wyden's Multnomah County liaison, talked about being a single parent, raising a son in public schools, navigating a difficult reality in which funding doesn't always make it to African-American communities.

"I don't need to connect the dots," she said, "because I have been the dots in this community for the past 20 years."

Collymore acknowledged she's only been in Portland for the past eight years. But she stressed her work with nonprofits here and her time as an analyst in County Chairman Jeff Cogen's office (Cogen has endorsed Collymore). She also called on the county to begin including "racial impact statements" when it prepares reports on new policies, alongside the economic and environmental reports officials already considers.

"We need to get to a model where we have culturally specific services where people live," she said.

Keep reading for an awkward moment in the debate, plus other highlights.

Things mostly stayed civil between the two. Collymore, animated and smiling, repeatedly forsook her right to rebut Smith's statements. Smith, however, was all business—clutching the lectern and keeping a grim look of gravitas etched on her face.

But then things got interesting. An exchange on how to increase job opportunities for African-Americans spiraled into a tense argument over the Columbia River Crossing. One of the moderators, Sharon Gary-Smith, had to playfully ask the two to stop talking over one another. "I love your passion," she said. But can you bring it down a little bit."

It all started when Collymore answered, "The No. 1 thing that gets black people to Portland is when they go to Google and they see there's a leader that's black. We need to start elevating our community to positions of power, and people will not only feel comfortable moving here but staying here."

And then Smith responded, an edge in her voice: "People will come to Portland if there are jobs. They're not going to come here just because they see me in office."

Things only got hotter from there.

Smith pivoted from that point into a defense of the Columbia River Crossing, talking of adding thousands of jobs and easing pollution-choking traffic through North Portland. Which got Collymore to pipe up that building a 10-lane bridge might bring a new set of environmental challenges and a new bottleneck—"There is an environmental impact that would affect Multnomah County if we don't build a bridge in an environmental way." That's when the two began cutting one another off.

Later, Smith got the biggest applause of the night—before the standing ovation delivered to both candidates when they finished—when she made an appeal to the many black community leaders who had turned out for the forum.

"I know who you are. You're in my cell phone," she said. "They don't have anybody like me now, but they're soon to have one."

So what where some of the other highlights?

• Kitzhaber, the Democratic nominee for governor, got in a few shots at his Republican opponent, Chris Dudley, for having another event planned that night and not showing up: "I am a little disappointed to be here alone," he quipped to the empty lectern to his left.

Most of the old cowboy's remarks involved invoking education as the antidote to social and economic ills. Toward the end, when an audience member asked about the CRC, he said management needed to change, "to an entity that has the confidence of local communities and incorporates environmental concerns."

• Metro contenders Bob Stacey and Tom Hughes joked about the government agency's low-profile despite its high-profile portfolio. "Metro needs a little bit of advertising," Stacey said. They then dove into a solid discussion about linking transit to population areas (Stacey) or making sure job centers were linked instead (Hughes).

But at one point, Hughes, the mayor of Hillsboro, tried to claim the church as his "home court," noting that he'd worshipped there a few times before. Later, though, he stuck his foot in his mouth by praising gentrification: "That's been a positive thing for the region."

Heads shook, and Stacey, a former Portland planning director, took the opportunity to win the crowd over. "If you were a homeowner on Alberta Street or Mississippi Avenue in 2000, you might have been able to prosper along with the neighborhood. But if you found yourself moving along," he said before pausing, "you were gentrified! What this region needs is a strategy to deal with gentrification."