In one corner there's Francesconi, the hard-nosed realist. In the other, Potter, the idealistic dreamer--who primarily sees the role of mayor as a "cheerleader."
Yes, Potter probably better represents the loftier ideals of Portland. He drives a hybrid car. He rides a recumbent bike. He disconnects his rainspouts to help save the river from oily runoff. But while Potter may make an apt mascot, it's doubtful he can turn these high-minded values into comprehensive policies.
The elusive candidate
Unlike Francesconi's past eight years in public office--which have been checkered--Potter has put forward few specific ideas that anyone can critique or use to forecast what he'd do as mayor. He's repeated he will "listen to the people"--but when pressured for specifics, Potter has proven frustratingly elusive.
For example, if elected, Potter plans on immediately gathering and overhauling all the city bureaus--from Planning and Police to Finance and Fire. Certainly some bureaus--like Water--are in trouble and need evaluation. But others like the Planning, Fire, and Parks Bureaus have strong records and important projects in play. City hall insiders say they're concerned those projects will come to a screeching halt if Potter pulls these extensive, and largely unnecessary, overhauls.
"The purpose for the [bureau] collection is that when we make changes, we make changes across the board," Potter said at the Mercury's endorsement interview. However, he could only make superficial explanations about improving "service orientation" and management structures. When asked what bureau might provide a blueprint for some of the changes he would like to see, Potter could not tell us a single one.
Potter also says he plans to spend at least half his time outside city hall. After 12 years with an elusive, aloof mayor, it's a nice idea--but who's holding down the fort? Potter doesn't have a good answer for that, either. He says he'll appoint a talented chief of staff, but was unable to provide names or even what sort of qualities this person should have.
(Conversely, we were encouraged to hear Francesconi list several of his own shortcomings he believes need to supplemented by staff members and appointments.)
But you promised, Potter!
The few specifics Potter provided, he managed to abandon or back away from. At the Mercury's "You Promised!" arts and culture forum, Potter was asked to provide five specific pledges for programs he would try to accomplish during his first year. (At all three "You Promised!" forums, exit polling placed Potter as the least convincing and qualified candidate among undecided voters.) For example, Potter promised to encourage better direct support for the arts. But at the City Club debate two months later, Potter shied away when challenged by Francesconi, saying those funding sources weren't set in stone, rather just ideas.
"There was nothing saying I would do that," Potter recently informed us.
Likewise, in July, Potter pledged support for two capital projects--helping PSU build a new performing arts center and transform the dilapidated Centennial Mills structure along the northwest bank of the Willamette. But now, in October, Potter admits he's done nothing to advance those projects and doesn't even know where they stand.
For the past 14 months, Potter claims he's been listening to the people, so why has he ignored repeated requests to be more specific?
Is this an "Anyone But Potter" endorsement?
Not entirely. Francesconi may not be the best choice, but he's the best choice of the two to push forward capital investment projects and manage the city's sprawling bureaucracy.
Francesconi is detail oriented (a little too much sometimes) and a knowledgeable bureaucrat. He's not funny (though he might dispute this point--in an unfunny fashion). He can be sensitive and kind, but also frighteningly overbearing and anxious. And, on occasion, he makes decisions that chafe our progressive sensibilities.
But perhaps his biggest shortcoming is failing to articulate the good he's done as head of the Parks Bureau. He oversaw a public-private collaboration with Nike to repave the city's basketball courts two summers ago. He helped spearhead a winning voter levy that raised more revenue from property taxes to maintain our park and rec programs--of that, $500,000 is earmarked for two new skate parks. He's courting Columbia Sportswear to secure even more funding for even more skate parks.
Those projects alone are admirable. More importantly, the skill sets he's shown in bringing about these projects bode well for future development. This cash-strapped city needs more collaborative projects--and Francesconi knows how to raise money. Under Francesconi, the Transportation Bureau has worked with the Planning Bureau to bring about the largest expansion of light rail in downtown--the pending transit mall plan. Francesconi's office helped secure $20 million in federal funding for the project.
"But waitasecond… you guys hate Francesconi!"
Over the past three years, the Mercury has unabashedly bashed Francesconi. That "love affair" began with his perplexing vote against the proposed anti-war resolution. He said that while he was personally against the war--and marched against it--he didn't think council had a place in federal affairs. Francesconi also cast an unpopular vote against re-zoning the lot where Dignity Village currently resides so they could stay put. He believes Dignity Village isn't the solution for homelessness.
During his endorsement interview, we cross-examined Francesconi about these decisions. Not only did he fail to convince us he did the right thing, he remained stubbornly unrepentant.
A thoughtful approach to issues is not a detriment. But neither is the ability to depart from previously held beliefs that may have been wrong. Francesconi needs to develop these skills. (We were heartened however to hear him admit the mess he'd made of his "million dollar" primary campaign.)
At the same time we also recognize Francesconi has a backbone and a willingness to make tough decisions. This spring, Francesconi voted against one of his largest financial backers, Greg Goodman. For years, the Goodman family has managed the city's parking lots. But recently city council, including Francesconi, awarded the contract to another company--a vote that set off a bitter downtown battle. In response, say many city hall insiders, Goodman's led a charge to torpedo Francesconi's pet project, the transit mall. (Interestingly, Goodman also yanked his support of Francesconi, and is now backing Potter.)
Without a doubt, Francesconi needs to work on his form--but it's hard to doubt his good intentions. At a time when the city needs to take action on economic development, police reform, and social issues, the city needs a mayor who can get the ball rolling. Moreover, given the structure of city council--where the mayor's vote is balanced by four others--Francesconi's bullheaded decisions will be brought under control.
Frankly, right now the city needs to hold its nose and take its medicine. Four years of platitudes about "listening to the people" is not what the city needs. With Potter in office, we may initially feel good about his dreamy non-specific ideology--but six months down the road? We could be in for a very rude awakening.