City Commissioner Carmen Rubio entered City Hall during an exceptionally unusual time. When she was sworn into office on December 28, 2020, the city was still seeing frequent evening racial justice protests, the state was shuttered due to the new COVID-19 omicron variant, and the country was weeks away from a violent uprising at the US Capitol.
Now, two years since her first days on City Council—when all meetings were confined to a Zoom screen—the landscape has changed. Rubio is now settling into her roles at the commissioner overseeing Portland Parks and Recreation, the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, and other policy areas, and finding her footing on council, which only began meeting in person this May.
From the start, Rubio found an ally in City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, both for their shared progressive politics and identities of the only women of color on the council. Often the two women formed a small voting bloc to support liberal policies or vote against more conservative ideas introduced by their male colleagues. With just two votes on a council of five, their solidarity didn’t always mean success, but it served to clearly reflect their values to the public.
With Hardesty’s nearing departure—she was ousted from office by newcomer Rene Gonzalez in the November election—Rubio is entering a new role in City Hall. Gonzalez is undoubtedly less progressive than his predecessor, and his addition to council is expected to skew the politics of City Hall’s collective leadership to the right. This shift also has Rubio taking over Hardesty’s role as the most progressive member of Portland City Council.
Rubio isn’t the only commissioner who joined City Hall at the beginning of 2021, both she and Commissioner Mingus Mapps are hitting their term midpoint this January. However, we wanted to see where Rubio’s head was at as she enters a new dynamic in City Hall. Last week, we sat down with Rubio to reflect on her first two years in office and look ahead to an unpredictable future on city council.
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.
MERCURY: You’ve now served half of your term on city council. Can you talk about what accomplishments you’re most proud of during that time?
RUBIO: I think it’s important to say that it felt very different at the beginning of my term than it does right now. I came in after the [2020 racial justice] protests in the thick of the pandemic, in January 2021, when everything was closed down. I wasn’t able to meet my colleagues face-to-face and establish the kind of relationships I know that you need to get things done in City Hall. It's those casual conversations in the hallway and between meetings that really helps the council work better together. Instead, every communication was really intentional, and much more formal than I would have liked. We did the best that we could with what we had. We were navigating a time where nobody knew what was going to happen. We had federal money coming in that we needed to make sure to get out the door to where it was most needed. Everything was high stakes. And there was very little onboarding.
But yeah, things I’m proud of? I’m proud I have the ability to work with each of my colleagues. That was important for me going into this job, to have foundational things we can agree on and make sure we’re starting conversations from the same baseline of understanding.
I’m also really, really proud of the work the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability [BPS] has done around climate and sustainability. I’m proud of our tree canopy strategy and how that’s intersected with the work of Portland Clean Energy Fund [PCEF]. I’m proud we were able to work together with the PCEF team and stakeholders and take some learning and turn it into something that ensures that PCEF is intact for the foreseeable future. We also moved the Office of Community Technology into BPS, to help streamline work that was really complimentary of each other…[like] digital justice work. I have these really interesting bureaus under my portfolio, and I’ve enjoyed figuring out how to move them forward together in some consequential ways.
By 2024, Portland will have a new form of government, one that severs commissioners’ direct oversight of city bureaus. How do you think about this massive change in terms of the work you want to get done in the next few years? What role do you see yourself playing in laying the groundwork to prepare your bureaus for a systemic overhaul?
I feel a lot of responsibility to make sure bureaus feel that there is good leadership in place. When you have good leadership and good systems, you retain good employees. I’m not saying this to sound cliche, but it’s true: We are only as good as our employees. We need to make sure that people feel satisfied in their jobs, and at the same time, that the public is getting the services they require. Whatever I can do to make sure those components are in place, I will do that.
And are there any moments or decisions you’ve encountered during your time on council that, in retrospect, you would have approached differently?
I do wish, earlier on, I would have forced myself into conversations sooner. There were so many very important issues happening in my first year, and table-setting for bigger conversations—and I didn’t have the bandwidth to be present. It was very overwhelming.What I would have done differently was force myself into those conversations, even if it meant a trade-off for something else.
I am doing that now. And I definitely am not waiting to be asked to be a part of something. I think initially I was. Now I pretty much insert myself into things, because it’s all so important. This is not a ‘sit and wait’ kind of job.
What has been the hardest thing in the job for me is that there are some things I have authority over and other things I absolutely don't have authority over. All my colleagues are doing their best with the bureaus, but having been an executive director [at the Latino Network, prior to joining City Council]—where I was able to look at every facet of the system—it's hard for me to not be able to do that.
Another thing I would have done differently: I won my election in May, but I didn’t start until January. In those months, a lot of things happened. But I was still working full-time [at the Latino Network]. If I could have afforded it, maybe I would have stopped working a few months earlier to start to get ready to just hit the ground running. But I gave myself zero time between jobs.
With the departure of Commissioner Hardesty from City Hall, many consider you the most progressive member of Portland City Council going into 2023. What do you think about that characterization?
First, no one can fill Commissioner Hardesty’s shoes. I can say unequivocally that she has been an incredible source of support on City Council for me. As the first Black woman on council, she saw firsthand what was missing in terms of support for women of color in City Hall, and she ensured that changes were made. It has made my time on council a lot easier than it could have been. I’m going to miss her. She’s a dear friend.
In terms of my position on council going forward, my values are my values. That won’t change for me, even though people on council have changed. I am going to continue to do what I do.
What about in situations where, because of your values, you might be the only 'No' vote on an issue—and you may not have an ally on council to back you up?
I’m not afraid of that. One thing I always try to do is make sure we as commissioners are holding ourselves true to what we say the city of Portland values are, and make sure they’re present. That’s whether we’re talking about equity, housing, climate, safety… all these things. They’re not mutually exclusive. But they can get lost where we focus on singular bureaus’ needs.
I am ready to move forward in this new council. I’m going to continue centering community and, at the same time, the work of the city needs to move forward.
What do you mean by ‘the work of the city’?
It means sometimes you have to make hard choices where, if it were up to you, the whole landscape would be completely different. But you have to tell yourself, ‘This is the moment we’re in, these are the resources we have, these are the other jurisdictions we’re engaged in, these are your bureaus.’ There have been moments where, in my earlier days, that I really wish [former city commissioner] Nick Fish was there to turn to for advice. Someone to help guide me. That was a big realization for me: There’s no one to ask… you just have to fall back on what you believe and make your best decisions based on those things.
There’s another big plan that council will focus its time on over the next couple years: The proposal to open six outdoor homeless encampments and ban street camping. You voted in favor of the proposal and its funding. Can you explain what informed that vote for you?
What it came down to for me is… it’s a matter of safety and dignity and respect for people who are sleeping outside. We were hearing of safety issues from people living outside… assaults, rapes… it was breaking my heart. I think we all believe in ‘housing first’—housing should be first all the time. But while people are waiting for housing, how do we assure there's some baseline of safety?
That’s the part I care about. That’s ultimately why I was supportive. As things progress, if there are pieces I do not support that come to council, I will not vote for them. This is why I’m inserting myself in the conversations. I don’t like when a policy comes to me and we only get to vote on it and negotiate around the edges.
Have you been welcomed in those conversations? Do you feel like you have a seat at the table?
I will say that I’m inserting myself in those conversations.
I also made sure I had a first hand look at what was being proposed. I went to Los Angeles and [Vancouver,] Washington to see for myself some examples of these outdoor camping sites. And I saw dignity and respect and even love there. When I first heard of the idea, I was resistant to it, since it’s not something we’ve ever done here. That’s why I’m glad I went and saw for myself.
But, context is everything. We need to make sure the ancillary policies that go with this program are right for Portland. We need the county to be a partner, because they are experts, so we can build something that is humane. I do think there’s a path forward here. And it’s going to require all of us to do some learning and some reflection to agree. But I also feel like we can’t do nothing. We have to try something new.
This proposal seems to have widened the gap between the city and Multnomah County, specifically because the way Commissioner Ryan and Mayor Wheeler have pressured the county to fund the campsite proposal. We saw that underscored in the recent county board meeting with several commissioners accusing city officials of making threats and ultimatums. Do you support the way your colleagues on City Council have asked the county to support the campsite plan? What role do you see yourself playing in mending the relationship between the two jurisdictions?
Here’s what I’ll say: My colleagues, if you talk to them, they really believe they have tried to communicate their ideas to the best of their ability. Like I said, one of the challenges for me is that we—members of City Council—are not in all conversations, but we’re still expected to stand behind decisions that come out of those conversations, since we represent the city as a whole.
I personally have strong relationships with folks at the county, and have already had some good conversations with [County Chair-Elect Jessica Vega Pederson]. I deeply value relationships with other jurisdictions, and I’m committed to being a part of those conversations [between the city and county]. I’m hoping we can find a way forward that we all feel good about... that we’re all playing to our strength and our roles.
What should we expect to see coming from your office in 2023?
We already have a packed schedule for next year, because we are fully taking advantage of the time we have left. We have the EV [Electric Vehicle] Ready code project, which will require new multifamily developments to provide EV charging sites, we have the PCEF tree program kicking off in March, which will use PCEF funds to support our tree canopy, the city’s first PCEF Climate Investment Plan by the summer, and creating a policy for the affordable housing energy efficiency program—you may know it as Build/Shift— by April.
Are there any policies that Commissioner Hardesty led on that you want to help carry forward now that she’s gone?
Yes, I’m very interested in seeing through the [Pricing Options for Equitable Mobility] program she’s worked on through the Portland Bureau of Transportation [which uses transportation-related costs, like parking fees, to stabilize PBOT revenue and disincentivize driving]. What I’m super excited about with PCEF is that we’ve expanded to include transportation, which wasn’t there before, so that opens the door to cross-bureau works. And also the 82nd Avenue transfer [from the state to the city], I’m really committed to seeing that through.
Do you have any overarching goals for the second half of your term?
Climate, climate, climate.
What are barriers to addressing climate change at the local level that you’re preparing for?
Technology. There’s a lot of promising climate science happening right now, and cost is always going to be a barrier with some of these technological advances. And we don’t have the time anymore, we’re running out of time to get things done. But we don’t have a choice. These are consequential issues, these are existential issues.