Portland's next general election in November 2024 will herald the beginning of a new form of local government, wiping the current City Council roster clean. Since the charter reform measure passed, many Portlanders have wondered what current City Council members would do, come reelection time. The first to answer that question has been Commissioner Mingus Mapps, who announced his Portland mayoral candidacy last week, after filing paperwork to participate in the city's small donor election program.
Mapps didn't support the charter reform measure that Portlanders passed last fall, proposing his own alternative proposal for city reform. Now, he appears willing to get on board with the new system of government—and, in fact, now he wants to be at the helm.
"Charter reform is one of the reasons why I am running right now...I think this is an incredible opportunity to get some things right that historically Portland has gotten wrong," Mapps told the Mercury in a phone interview Thursday. "Frankly, there are no incumbents for any City Council or mayoral seat. This really is a brand new form of government."
The incoming system will spread political power over a dozen city commissioners, with a non-voting mayor, and a city administrator tasked with running the city. Under the new charter, the mayor will be able to cast tie-breaking votes, but their leverage in city hall will be different than it currently is.
"In the new system, the mayor and city administrator will be focused on implementing policy. I find that to be really exciting, because one of the things I think Portland has done wrong in the last decade or so is [implementing policy] in a way that actually makes life better for the people of Portland," Mapps said.
Mapps was elected to City Council in November 2020, defeating former Commissioner Chloe Eudaly. Mapps ran his initial campaign on a centrist platform and received endorsements from business leaders, law enforcement, and neighborhood associations, in contrast to Eudaly's more progressive platform that focused on tenants rights and homeless advocacy. Mapps' election marked a shift toward a more conservative direction on Portland's nonpartisan City Council, a trend that continued when Rene Gonzalez unseated former Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty in November 2022.
Mapps is currently in charge of the city's "utility bureaus," overseeing water, environmental services, and transportation. While the three bureaus all face funding concerns, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT)—assigned to Mapps in January 2023—is the most financially beleaguered. Amid further cuts to PBOT's revenue streams in recent months, Mapps has spoken candidly about Portland's transportation funding woes, winning him some favor among local transportation advocates.
"One of the things that just became obvious as soon as I took the reins over at PBOT is that it's a bureau and a core service in crisis. The funding model that we use to fill in potholes and to build sidewalks is fundamentally broken, and it's not going to heal itself," Mapps said. "One of the things that we've got to do right now is to come together as a community to figure out a strategy for funding our transportation system."
There's a trope within Portland transportation circles that "PBOT is where political careers go to die." The three most recent commissioners in charge of PBOT—Jo Ann Hardesty, Chloe Eudaly, and Steve Novick—all lost their reelection campaigns after being tasked with the transportation bureau. Mapps acknowledged the problems other local politicians have encountered, but said he thinks he can defy the stereotype.
"I actually think transportation is a space where some of our most important work needs to be done, and I think Portlanders reward and embrace public servants who lean into the hard and important things," Mapps said. "We've always been incredibly innovative in [transportation]. If you take a look at all the things that we've done for public transportation, bike lanes, [electric vehicle adoption], part of our brand is to be at the bleeding edge of this space, and under a Mapps administration, we are going to continue that."
During his original campaign, Mapps touted the need to end chronic homelessness and re-think the city's community safety division, while also wooing neighborhood associations and business owners. But since taking office, some of Mapps' leadership decisions have soured Portland progressives.
After getting elected, he vowed to continue the renters' rights and housing work taken on by his predecessor, Eudaly, but earlier this year, Mapps donated to a campaign to defeat an eviction rights measure that would have implemented a capital gains tax to pay for legal defense for tenants.
Mapps also took heat last year when 911 response times soared after the Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC) implemented a new software program under Mapps' watch. Mapps said he trusted BOEC leadership was handling the rollout and addressing any issues.
He came under fire once again this spring, when he led the charge against nonprofit social justice organization Reimagine Oregon, calling for the city to revoke unspent funding, before learning the city never released money to the group.
While in office, he's voted to expand the budget of the Portland Police Bureau, a stance he's remained firm on, amid some voters' calls for him to return an in-kind campaign donation years ago from the police union. He told the Mercury he wants to continue to grow the PPB, but "hold it accountable."
Despite these policy stumbles, Mapps said he thinks of himself as a "consensus builder" who can navigate the political issues that have divided Portlanders: most notably, homelessness, public safety, and policing. He voted in favor of Portland's new controversial ordinance that restricts daytime camping in several areas throughout the city, and also believes in expanding police presence as part of a larger effort to address fentanyl use on Portland's streets. But he has certain caveats, as well.
"One of the things I've learned since I've been on council is that if you really listen to what people are saying, I think there's actually a fundamental Portland consensus," Mapps said. He's been a critic of the city's partnership with the Joint Office of Homeless Services, calling the current city/county contract "frankly incoherent." Alongside Gonzalez, Mapps voted against renewing an agreement with JOHS late last month, but the two commissioners were outnumbered.
Regarding the daytime camping ban, which has been criticized as another attempt to criminalize homelessness, Mapps said "being houseless is not a crime."
"However, when we share space, there are some norms and rules and laws that every Portlander needs to adhere to," he said. "I think it's quite reasonable to ask people to pack up their tents during the day so people in wheelchairs can get to where they need to go, and businesses can open their doors and will welcome the public...[but] in the end...my work as mayor will not be done until we have a shelter bed, tiny house, supportive or affordable housing for every Portlander."
The proliferation of multiple, often overlapping drug, mental health and homelessness crises will no doubt shape the campaigns of Portland's next leaders. As the city's only non-police, behavioral health crisis response system—Portland Street Response—appears to hang in the balance, voters are looking beyond current bureau leadership for answers.
In 2021, the commissioner voted against expanding the program. He later voted to use alternative city funding to bolster the program, which is under the purview of Commissioner Gonzalez.
Mapps said he supports Portland Street Response–which currently faces an uncertain path forward, due to leadership changes and internal culture divides over recent directives from Commissioner Gonzalez—but would want to make some changes there, too.
"I think Portland Street Response has largely been a success... it's very important for us to get the police out of the business of responding to certain classes of calls," Mapps said. "But one of the things that we need to continue to strive for and fix with Portland Street Response is coordinating with the county so that workers can connect our clients with real services and housing."
Mapps also said he won't let his mayoral campaign get in the way of his current work as commissioner.
"I'm running because I want to fix problems, not to hide from problems. I'm grateful I have the privilege to dive in and try to solve, you know, one of the most vexing public policy challenges the city has ever faced," Mapps said, referring to the transportation funding crisis.
Even though Mapps has said he thinks the city is going in "the wrong direction," he told the Mercury he thinks "we're in a far better space today than we were when I came into office in 2020."
"The progress we've made really points to a brighter, safer, more prosperous future for Portland," Mapps said. "This is our Portland 2.0 founding moment....but it depends on who the next mayor is and what focus they come in with, and the culture and values they bring to City Hall."