IT'S BEEN nearly 20 years since Dan Saltzman faced a truly tough political contest.
In 1998, Saltzman battled with Tanya Collier for an open Portland City Council seat. Both candidates were former Multnomah County commissioners, and both knew their way around a campaign. In the end, Collier’s candidacy was enough to force a run-off, but she fell just short in that year’s general election.
It’s been easy street for the dean of the City Council ever since.
In the four races he’s run since 1998, Saltzman’s never had to campaign past the May primary. He faced his most formidable challenger in 2006, when now-Commissioner Amanda Fritz tried to unseat him, but she couldn’t muster enough steam to hold Saltzman below 50 percent plus one vote, which would’ve forced a run off.
Even with the diluting power of eight challengers in his 2010 race, Saltzman came out of the primary with more than 55 percent of the vote. He’s been untouchable.
But maybe that easy streak comes to a close next year. On Friday, August 4, Saltzman got word that he’d once again be facing a challenger who knows how to campaign.
That afternoon, Jo Ann Hardesty—president of the local chapter of the NAACP and a former state representative—had requested a meeting with Saltzman, citing personal business.
The meeting was brief. Hardesty says she explained to Saltzman that she’d be running for his seat, and suggested he voluntarily end his council tenure at an even two decades. Saltzman declined.
But as Hardesty walked away from the meeting, a feeling began to emerge in parts of the Saltzman camp—a notion that next year’s race could be a rare uphill climb.
A lot of it’s the appeal of Hardesty. She’s sharp-elbowed, an aggressive and constant advocate for police reforms, and an East Portland resident in a city where four of five councilmembers live west of the Willamette. She’s also an African American in a city that might finally be ready to elect a woman of color.
But it’s Saltzman, too, and what his stream of steady successes represent in this political moment. He’s the establishment candidate at a time of growing unrest over Portland governance, and the longest-serving current Portland elected official when people are agitating for change.
True: Saltzman has been an unquestioned champion of domestic violence victims and underfed children. He has been seen as a competent bureau manager in a city that demands that of its councilmembers.
He’s also long had a reputation as the councilmember most likely to miss meetings.
It hasn’t always been clear how these factors played into Saltzman’s recent races, where the power of his incumbency—and its ability to bring in heaps of political contributions—loomed large.
Assuming Saltzman follows through with his assurances he’ll run next year, he’ll once again have the money to do it. He’s already raised $62,500 this year (including in-kind donations).
But there seems to be a real question whether the other pieces that have made Saltzman untouchable for the last 20 years will slide into place this time around.
It will be fascinating to find out.