Teressa Raiford

On the ballot, Portland’s mayoral election looked like a clear runoff between incumbent Mayor Ted Wheeler and competitor Sarah Iannarone. But for progressive Portlanders closely following the election, the November 3 race also included a third candidate: Teressa Raiford.

Raiford, founder of police accountability group Don’t Shoot Portland, was a candidate in the May 19 general election for mayor, where she collected 8 percent of the vote—putting her in third place behind Wheeler and Iannarone. For Raiford, who’s run for other local offices in the past, the primary results marked the end of her race. But weeks into the start of Portland’s racial justice protests, spurred by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in late May, a group of activists reignited the idea of having Raiford in the mayor’s office. They began pushing a write-in campaign to keep Raiford in the race.

The “Write in Teressa Raiford” campaign gained quick popularity among racial justice protesters, many who didn’t see the Black Lives Matter movement adequately represented in the Iannarone or Wheeler campaigns. While Raiford applauded the work of this campaign, she never actively participated herself.

Tuesday’s election results reflected the popularity of the write-in campaign. While Wheeler won a second term in office with 46 percent of the vote, beating out Iannarone by 6 percentage points, a notable 13 percent of ballots went to a write-in candidate.

Because Multnomah County Elections Office doesn’t publicize the names of write-in candidates—unless a write-in candidate wins the election—it’s unknown how many of those votes went to Raiford. But a glance at Portland’s electoral history suggests the Raiford campaign made a significant impact. The last time Portland saw a runoff election for mayor, in 2012, write-in candidates scored just 7 percent of the vote. In the last mayoral runoff preceding that, in 2004, write-ins came in at just .9 percent.

Tuesday’s results quickly splintered Portland progressives, with Raiford supporters applauding the turnout and Iannarone backers accusing the write-in campaign of siphoning votes away from a candidate that could have beat Wheeler. Amid the finger-pointing and subtweeting, there was one person whose perspective didn’t get the attention owed: Raiford herself.

On Wednesday, the Mercury spoke with Raiford about the election results, her role in the race, and what it says about the Portland establishment.

MERCURY: What did yesterday’s election results, as a whole, tell you about Portland?

RAIFORD: To me, it was exhilarating, because a decade ago in this city, we had representatives that were appointed by the status quo, and everyone accepted that. Now, ten years later, and I’m witnessing a new generation not willing to be exploited by the political process. When I saw the ballot numbers, I was like, “Wow, ya’ll liberated the vote.”

What did those write-in numbers represent to you?

Those numbers speak to autonomy. Those people were literally voting for themselves by writing my name in.

Some have been urging Portland to change its election process to a ranked-choice model. Is that something you support?

No. We need a complete overhaul of the system. This city is built for the benefit of white supremacy. For decades, everyone who has voted in this city has relied on a framework that harms Black people.

What does an overhaul look like to you?

Well, it starts with programs like the Open and Accountable Election system. That program acknowledged that the way we elect people in this city is only based on status and money and endorsements, and that usually goes to white candidates. It needed to be fixed. I want to see people be successful without having to exploit the process.

Some people have blamed the write-in campaign for tipping the election in Wheeler’s favor. How do you respond to that claim?

They can’t continue to blame Black people for white supremacy. One of the main things I want to point out is that I had already announced I was running in the primaries in 2018, before anyone else did. But when [Iannarone] announced her election, everyone was talking about her like she was the only candidate, with messaging saying things like, “She’s our only hope against Ted.” People are now standing up for Sarah, accusing me of taking votes away from her—but no one stood up for me that way back then.
Now’s not the time to be blaming me. Let’s blame the system.

Your write-in campaign really took off over the past few months, but you seemed to remain on the sidelines throughout. Was there a reason you chose not to actively campaign?

I didn’t even want to run anymore after May 19! I was done, I was exhausted. When the folks with the write-in campaign first came to me, I said “What, no, I definitely don’t want to put myself or my family through that again!”

Did that perspective change at all as the campaign gained momentum?

No, it never changed. I just never want to not support people who want to support our community. Had I not come out and say I endorsed [the campaign], I was going to humiliate people who cared about seeing change.

Were you frustrated at all that this support for your candidacy came after your primary race?

No, I don’t blame them. I think people were under the impression that there wasn’t much of a choice in the primary, that there were only two people in the race: Ted and Sarah. Only after that did people realize they had been lied to.

If you had been elected through the write-in campaign, would you have done the job? Are you still interested in being mayor?

Sure, I would have done the work. But this was never about me. It’s horrible seeing all these people online saying the campaign was all about me and my ego. I really had nothing to do with it. But that doesn’t discredit the work they did… the fact that people felt they had no other choice than to create this campaign, that says something about our community.

How do you feel about it now, a day after the election?

I’m glad that it’s over. I felt like I got my life back. I couldn’t go places without people asking me about it, wanting to talk to me about police brutality. It was triggering to me.

It sounds like you were more concerned about community members being humiliated than your own personal discomfort with being the focal point. Am I understanding that right?

Yes, that’s exactly it. The campaign, it was more for our community than for me. I hope this momentum doesn't end.

Are you disappointed at all with the results of the local election?

I don’t think we’re any worse off right now because we have Ted as our mayor. For Black people in this city, it doesn't matter who runs the city—including Teressa Raiford—because we live in an inherently racist society.

What is your attention focused on right now? What does the future look like for you?

Well, [Don’t Shoot Portland] is still suing the federal government—and the mayor (laughs). If anyone thought I supported Ted Wheeler, I’d remind them of that. We’re also working to create a telehealth space in our building, that will address mental and emotional needs for people who have been protesting. We need more spaces to support Black Portlanders right now. For me, this has always been about Black lives and it will continue to be.