Multnomah County Chair isn't the region's most high-profile seat, but the race to take over Jeff Cogen's old position is looking increasingly like the most-competitive race in May's primary.

Last week, former Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury—in touting a growing list of community, political and law enforcement endorsements—announced she was "opening up a big lead in community support" over former City Commissioner Jim Francesconi, the first-such poke we'd seen in the race.

Now, we might just get some debates. Or something like them.

Francesconi today formally invited Kafoury to a series of five public "forums" his campaign is organizing in the run up to the May 20 primary. The events are staggered between February 8 and April 22, and would cover topics like health care, public safety, East Multnomah County issues and housing. Here's a bit from a letter [pdf] Francesconi's campaign sent Kafoury today:

The decision of who will serve as new County Chair for Multnomah County is very important for our community. It involves and affects our population, our environment and our future. With that much at stake, voters deserve a robust discussion about the issues and challenges our community faces—from the point of view of each of the candidates for Chair.

In particular, the community deserves to hear from us directly and in person about how well we are currently carrying out the core mission of the county. With poverty doubling in Multnomah County in the last 11 years, we are experiencing an increase in the gap between rich and poor that is both ethically and technically our job as county chair to take on. As the outsider in this race, I have specific plans to do so energetically and creatively. Lets both put our cards on the table and have a candid discussion about the county.

Of note: Francesconi's apparently taking the tack of "outsider," though he's had his hands in Portland-area politics pretty extensively in the past. He spent eight years on the Portland City Council before losing a 2004 bid for mayor. Since then, he's been in private practice as an attorney.

No word yet from Kafoury's campaign whether she'll accept. There are, by the way, three more candidates vying for Cogen's old seat.

Update, 12:40 pm: Jillian Schoene, a spokesperson for Kafoury's campaign, tells the Mercury the forums are a "stunt," and that Kafoury will not participate.

"There's nothing to say 'yes' or 'no' to because this is just a stunt," Schoene says. "He alerted the media before having a discussion with Deborah or the campaign. If he was serious, he would have reached out to us."

That doesn't mean these types of events won't occur, though. Schoene notes the City Club of Portland, Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce and other organizations are planning candidate forums. Both campaigns say they'll attend.

Francesconi, meanwhile, says the forums he's proposing are a chance for more "in-depth" conversations that include broader segments of the public. He said he'll direct campaign staff to reach out further to Kafoury.

"I hope they reconsider," Francesconi says. "We're gonna do these discussions. We're gonna be there. The point is: They need to happen."


Here's the schedule for the proposed forums: