Surprise! Portland’s holding a citywide election next month. If this is news to you, we don’t blame you— there’s been a few other important issues dominating local headlines.
There’s only one item on the August 11 ballot: A vote to decide which person should fill the currently empty seat on Portland City Council. This special election was called after City Commissioner Nick Fish passed away on January 2, a fourth of the way through his third full term in office. The winning candidate will finish out the rest of Fish’s term, set to end in December 2022.
The May primary election helped narrow an extraordinarily long list of candidates to two: Loretta Smith, a former Multnomah County Commissioner, and Dan Ryan, the former director of education nonprofit All Hands Raised. We’re suggesting you vote for Ryan.
It wasn’t easy for us to decide who to endorse this election cycle. That’s because both of these candidates are imperfect leaders for this moment in time.
At this moment, Portland is being occupied by federal agents who—like our own police bureau—believe that property destruction should be addressed by indiscriminately gassing and shooting munitions at hundreds of non-violent demonstrators who are protesting police violence against Black Americans. This nightly violence is overlaid with another unwelcome guest—COVID-19—which has disproportionately impacted people of color in Portland, many of whom have been forced back to work as the pandemic spreads.
Smith is a Black woman who knows exactly what it feels like to worry that her son may be killed by the police whenever he leaves the house. With her long history in government offices, she’s surely familiar with the tools of systemic racism constantly working against her success. Her work connecting youth of color to jobs through the Summer Works program illustrates her investment in the local Black community.
Ryan is a progressive nonprofit executive who has experience with pandemics—he’s a gay man who was diagnosed with HIV in 1986, a virus considered a death sentence at the time. His 11-year tenure at All Hands Raised was centered on expanding educational resources to communities of color and those in school districts with few resources. And, as someone who has a long history of participating in protests, Ryan feels strongly about supporting the First Amendment rights of protesters targeted by police.
Yet both candidates have flawed records. Both say they care about affordable housing, yet both have been showered in campaign donations from major development and real estate interests—groups that are driven by projects that drive profits, not public services. Both have been accused of discrimination at their workplace. In 2013, Ryan was sued by a former All Hands Raised employee who claimed he made racist statements about Black people. The case was “dismissed with prejudice,” suggesting it ended in a settlement agreement. In 2017, two former employees of then-commissioner Smith alleged that she had repeatedly bullied them with racist and sexist harassment. An independent investigation concluded that some of those allegations were correct.
And both candidates offered little in cohesive ideas at our endorsement interview for addressing the current societal chaos from inside City Hall. Smith did present a list of recommendations as to how to improve policing at the state and local level, but none of the proposals are original. Smith’s close relationship with the Portland Police Association (PPA), Portland’s union for rank-and-file officers, makes us question her genuine support of these measures.
It’s this feeling of insincerity that kept us from endorsing Smith in this election. Smith’s current statements about homelessness and policing—some of Portland’s paramount issues—contradict with her past actions, like encouraging the county to turn the isolated Wapato Jail into a large homeless shelter. While we know people can change their perspectives, we believe Smith may be changing her tune to appease voters, not because she wants to instill genuine reforms after taking office.
We’re also concerned about the number of financial transparency and government ethics issues she's toyed with simply to benefit herself—from pressuring county staff to campaign for her to using county credit cards for personal purchases.
We’re endorsing Ryan for what appears to be a genuine intent to use the community’s input to inform his decisions, whether that’s around public-led police reform or financial support for small businesses impacted by COVID-19. His work at All Hands Raised reflects his commitment to equity (City Hall’s favorite new buzzword) and ability to respond to the actual needs of a community—even if deep-pocketed donors may disagree.
Ryan has also supported the latest proposal to turn Wapato Jail into a residential homeless shelter, this time run solely on private dollars. We’re not thrilled by this. But, where Smith appeared closed off from hearing the perspectives of actual houseless people and advocates against the project, Ryan seems interested in the new project now that it’s being led by people who’ve experienced homelessness.
There are other concerns, like the possibility that Ryan’s close relationships with local financiers —built through his past jobs fundraising for Portland State University, Oregon Ballet Theatre, and All Hands Raised—will steer his decision-making, especially when it comes to issues impacting low-income and minority Portlanders. We’d also like to hear how, exactly, he plans on addressing the accountability issues baked into the Portland Police Bureau (PPB). Those problems will remain once the feds leave town.
As we said before, both candidates have their flaws. But one appears more open to listening to the community’s needs—and that’s Dan Ryan.