Portland City Hall
Portland City Hall K Marie

There was plenty to cheer Portland progressives on election night: City voters passed measures for universal preschool and authorized the establishment of a new police oversight board, while voters across the state decriminalized possession of small amounts of narcotics and authorized the use of therapeutic psilocybin.

But in other races, in a city in which activists have been putting their bodies on the line demanding major systemic change since late May, candidates promising to pursue that change were swept away by more moderate opponents.

The highest-profile defeats came in the two city council races. Progressive mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone fell just short of unseating incumbent Ted Wheeler, while leftwing City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly was easily dispatched by former political science professor Mingus Mapps.

In a statement released the day following the election, progressive City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who had endorsed both Iannarone and Eudaly, wrote that “I do believe that my job on council just got much harder.”

One day after that, Hardesty’s proposal to redirect $18 million of the $230 million Portland Police Bureau (PPB) budget to community safety and COVID-19 response programs was voted down by city council 3-2.

City Commissioner Dan Ryan, who was elected on a promise to cut the police budget in August, called the proposal a “threat to public safety” and joined outgoing Commissioner Amanda Fritz and Wheeler to sink it.

It may well be a sign of things to come. Incoming City Commissioner Carmen Rubio is expected to lean to Fritz’s left when she takes her seat in January, but with Eudaly’s departure, the incoming council is poised to veer to the right as the city continues to face crises related to policing, housing, the coronavirus, and more.

“There [was] an opportunity for the city to be a leader on things like policing and climate,” said Gregory McKelvey, who served as campaign manager for Iannarone. “I think that’s completely gone on the city council level.”

McKelvey isn’t the only one pessimistic about what a moderate city council can be expected to deliver this year.

"The lived experience of this council is different and more reflective of this city than a lot of councils that we've had before."

“I’m not optimistic about that block of commissioners,” said Bobbin Singh, executive director of local criminal justice organization Oregon Justice Resource Center, referring to Wheeler, Ryan, and Mapps. “There’s nothing to suggest to me that they’re actually supportive of civil rights or racial justice.”

Some Portland progressives are more hopeful. James Ofsink, president of Portland Forward, said that while progressives are facing a “steep uphill battle” on certain issues with this council, there are still reasons to be optimistic.

“The lived experience of this council is different and more reflective of this city than a lot of councils that we've had before,” he said.

But Singh’s frustration—also voiced by Hardesty and Eudaly in the aftermath of the election—is indicative of the mood of a number of left-wing activists in the city who are facing the prospect of seeing much of their local legislative proposals blocked.

Singh said that frustration was evident in protests staged outside of Ryan’s North Portland house both before and after he declined to vote for Hardesty’s PPB budget cuts. Protesters lit flares and shattered a window, chanting as Ryan remained inside.

“At the end of the day, when people are in distress and crisis, whatever power they have, they’re going to use this power to try to move the conversation,” Singh said. “That direct confrontation is just a symptom of something bigger that [city commissioners] are not recognizing.”

McKelvey disapproves of protesters confronting commissioners at their homes, saying that the precedent it set will almost certainly put BIPOC activists in danger. But he agreed that public communication with the council will continue to be imperative once the new council is seated.

Mass movements can change the political terrain quickly—even Wheeler and Fritz voted to cut some $15 million from the PPB budget and disband the bureau’s Gun Violence Reduction Team in the wake of the George Floyd protests in June—but there are signs that popular pressure may have its limits.

“If calls and emails and mass protests worked, then we would have seen a different vote on Commissioner Hardesty’s vote last week to defund the police,” McKelvey said. “So I think it was a clear signal right off the bat that those forms of mass communication are not going to work.”

Activists will continue to push the council on a range of issues, and it remains to be seen how intra-council dynamics will play out once the new council is seated in January. Ofsink said that he believes that Hardesty will continue to hold considerable sway, in large part due to her background in community organizing.

Nevertheless, some progressives are thinking about how they might work around the council—targeting their efforts at the county and state level, building organizing infrastructure and engaging in direct actions like the one that has delayed a sweep of houseless people camping near Laurelhurst Park.

Another area of focus may not be in pushing for policy at all, but rather in fighting to change the mechanics of city government entirely.

“If we’re not keeping our eye on the prize of system change, of actually changing the structure and form of government, it’s going to be really, really hard for us to have a government that actually represents the people who live here,” said Julia DeGraw, a former Portland City Council candidate and coalition director for the Oregon League of Conservation voters.

"I actually think we’re going to see more division in our city now as people feel like they are not represented on council."

Portland is the only major city in the United States to use a commission form of government, in which city commissioners are assigned to run specific bureaus instead of representing city regions.

A report commissioned by the City Club of Portland last year called the system “inherently inequitable” and said that it had “long since ceased to be the most effective form of government for Portland.”

The report recommended a drastic overhaul of the system, including expanding the council from five to between nine and thirteen members, electing members from individual geographic districts instead of citywide, and hiring a city manager to run the various bureaus. In addition, progressives like DeGraw want the city to consider establishing multi-member districts.

There is a window of opportunity upcoming to make those changes. Portland’s city charter—which acts as the city’s constitution—is undergoing a scheduled review next year, with the 20-person charter review commission slated to bring its recommended changes to the council by the fall.

Should the commission recommend changing the city’s form of government, they’ll likely be received by a favorable audience. Wheeler and all four city commissioners who will be considering charter reforms in 2021 have expressed support for changing the system.

Other activists and organizations in Portland are looking towards election reform as an area to make structural change quickly—potentially via the ballot measure process.

Portland currently uses a “first-past-the-post” voting system, in which voters mark their ballot for a single candidate. But proponents of ranked choice voting, in which voters rank candidates in order of preference, and STAR voting, in which voters score every candidate on a scale of zero to five, argue that their systems more accurately capture voter preferences and better serve them in contests with more than two viable candidates.

The state of Maine and municipalities like Minneapolis, Berkeley, New York City, and San Francisco have all adopted some form of ranked choice voting, in which voters rank candidates in order of preference instead of just voting for a single candidate like Portlanders currently do.

Changing the voting system, along with limiting the flow of PAC money into local races, could have an impact immediately. Both factors could have been decisive in the mayoral contest, in which the percentage of voters who wrote in a candidate was more than double the final margin between Wheeler and Iannarone.

"I think the city commissioners and the mayor would be foolish to think that this community that has been activated and engaged will go away."

It is another signal to progressives that even while the candidates who won in November ran largely on promises of moderation and collegiality—often painting their progressive counterparts as overly divisive with the city already riven with tension—there is no clear mandate for status quo politics.

In fact, McKelvey argued that the lack of progressive representation on the council will stoke tensions in its own way.

“I actually think we’re going to see more division in our city now as people feel like they are not represented on council,” he said. “That’s not going to heal our city. What would heal our city is being able to march together towards progress.”

Singh agreed—pointing to victories at the ballot box in both May and November and raised awareness from the summer protest movement to make the case that, despite setbacks, the city is evolving on a range of issues.

“There’s a community that will no longer accept racial injustice,” he said. “I don’t think anyone expected that things would change overnight, but I think the city commissioners and the mayor would be foolish to [think] that this community that has been activated and engaged will go away.”