IF YOU'RE STILL SHOCKED by the emergence of formerly dark horse candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, you shouldn't be. Their campaigns were brought to life by millions of Americans who are tired of toiling under politics as usual, while change inches forward at a snail's pace. And if you haven't noticed, these same feelings of disenchantment have found their way into Portland's May primary election.
For those just arriving in town: The faces currently populating city council are essentially the same faces that have been there for the last 20 years. We elect overwhelmingly white, moneyed people to steer the ship—players who often tip their hats in reverence to the West Hills power brokers and the Portland Business Alliance (PBA).
This is largely because Portlanders have repeatedly refused to consider a districting form of government used by so many American cities, which would offer better representation to those who might not be so white and well-heeled. (But that's not on the ballot, and so an argument for another day.)
Right now, it's up to us to decide on a future Portland. And from the groundswell of discontent the Mercury has been hearing (and writing about) for the last year or so, the merry parade of business-as-usual politicians and their wealthy supporters should be worried. We're in the midst of a housing emergency, which directly feeds into the homelessness crisis, which directly feeds into the panicky, immoral actions of NIMBYs and the PBA. The police union continues to be its own worst enemy, putting contract provisions above the citizens it polices—and squirming away from recommendations made by the US Department of Justice. Meanwhile, Portland's streets continue to erode, while developers continue to gentrify, pushing people of color and the creative class away from the "highly livable" city they helped create. (And then there's the earthquake thing... but, again, a discussion for another day.)
What we've been hearing from our readers and many of the outlier candidates in this election season is that it's time to shake things up. Americans and Portlanders are tired of politicians holding hands with big money, while simultaneously throwing their hands up about what they believe cannot be accomplished. Developers can be forced to curb their greed, the police union can be forced to act with equity, and the wealthy can be forced to stop criminalizing homelessness. But it all depends on a community finding its voice, and electing leaders with vision and fire in their bellies—then supporting those leaders with action.
Will Bernie Sanders (and his Portland counterparts) make it through the primary and into the general election? Probably not. But it's not all about winning today—it's about pushing the envelope for tomorrow. No progressive agenda has ever been welcomed with open arms. It takes years of stubborn action to build a society we can be proud of. Portland may be further along than most, but it's stagnated thanks to money and apathy—which is why it's more important than ever to listen to the candidates who don't get the media coverage they deserve, and have oh-so-much of value to say.
What follows are our endorsements for the 2016 May primary. It makes absolutely no difference if you agree with these picks or not—we couldn't care less. We just want you to listen with respect to the candidates who are starting a conversation Portland desperately needs to hear. And hopefully? Move the needle just a little bit in the right direction.—WM. STEVEN HUMPHREY
The Mercury Endorsement Strike Force is Editor-in-Chief Wm. Steven Humphrey, Managing Editor Erik Henriksen, News Editor Dirk VanderHart, Arts Editor Megan Burbank, and news reporter Doug Brown. Our focus is largely on local, competitive races.
CITY OF PORTLAND
MAYOR: Sarah Iannarone
MAN THIS WAS A FUN mayoral primary.
Late last year, this race looked like a sleepy, run-of-the-mill contest between two white, Ivy League, Lincoln High grads trying (largely in vain) to pinpoint a difference between themselves. But then the race got messy, turning into an old-school populist scrum.
Mayoral forums were interrupted—repeatedly, by Sara Long, a candidate for another office—when only state Treasurer Ted Wheeler and Multnomah County Commissioner Jules Bailey were invited to speak.
One candidate, Jessie Sponberg, got kicked out of an event on housing for having sharp elbows on the issue of rent control. Another, Sean Davis, left in solidarity.
The Oregonian actually had to pull the plug on a mayoral event over vague "threats," after some folks (including Bailey and Wheeler) thought it was stupid only Bailey and Wheeler would get the platform.
This city was better for all of it.
When the Mercury Endorsement Strike Force reached out to most of the 15 mayoral candidates—the vast majority of who have no reasonable shot at gaining office—for a joint interview, we could have found ourselves mired in a time-wasting slog. Instead, we found a table of well-informed, thoughtful, and often inventive candidates.
Bim Ditson, jeweler and drummer for And And And, makes an impassioned, well-reasoned case for retaining this city's artsy grit in the face of change. David Schor, an attorney with the Oregon Department of Justice, is the only candidate offering concrete specifics on how to find new money for housing—his tax-the-rich proposal would probably play very well with most Portlanders. No one speaks with more empathy about this city's escalating homelessness crisis (or drops better rap tracks touting their candidacy) than activist Sponberg.
And, of course, we have candidates Wheeler and Bailey—so similar in their accomplishments, qualifications, and policy positions that they were often forced to lean on campaign finance pledges to set themselves apart. Early in the race, Bailey vowed to accept no more than $250 per contributor. Wheeler, raking in thousands at a time from Portland developers, made lots of noise about reporting those donations within two days and not taking money from "independent organizations."
Of the two, we prefer Wheeler, who came off as the more genuine candidate on the campaign trail. He's smart and affable, and—if the scant polling we've seen is any indication—might well be the city's next mayor. Wheeler's also the candidate favored by the big-money crowd—including the often-awful PBA. That's never a particularly positive sign. (Side note: The Mercury Endorsement Strike Force was deeply divided as to whether Wheeler most resembles present-day George McFly from Back to the Future, an "old Owen Wilson," or Editor-in-Chief Wm. Steven Humphrey's father-in-law. It's created a pretty big rift, actually.)
Bailey's got plenty of fine attributes, but often struggles to get beyond a hokey script, and has waffled on a key aim of Portland police reform: doing away with a rule that gives police 48 hours after they shoot someone before they have to speak with internal affairs investigators.
Don't worry about voting for either of them. Instead, our pick is relative unknown and progressive urbanist Sarah Iannarone.
Iannarone's a Southeast Portland café owner whose day job is working for a Portland State University (PSU) program called First Stop Portland (with Mayor Charlie Hales' wife, Nancy). Basically, she shows visiting dignitaries around town, explaining the city's finer points. She's also a PSU doctoral candidate studying sustainable cities.
Iannarone's most unique strength is her progressive transportation bent—something that earned her a nod from political action committee Bike Walk Vote. She makes a lot of good points about reducing our obsession with automobiles (which, like it or not, contributes to Portland's affordability crisis)—including potentially making downtown car-free in coming decades. No one else in the race is saying that, let alone studying how it might be accomplished.
On other pressing issues, Iannarone offers more compelling answers than other candidates. She's calling loudly for a rent freeze, and makes the case that the possible failure of said freeze, at the hands of a state preemption, is no reason not to explore it.
"I hate the it's-not-legal argument," she told us. "Gay marriage wasn't legal. True leaders do what's right."
She's not alone in that feeling, of course, but Iannarone strikes us as the best candidate to put it forward. She readily tangles with more-seasoned opponents Bailey and Wheeler, is a fixture at notable city council hearings and housing protests alike, and knows her way around planning policy.
Iannarone's also a density booster who gets that Portland needs to be smarter about how it grows, even as NIMBYs lose their minds. She's not afraid of organized homeless camps that have been proven to help people in crisis. And holy shit, you guys—she actually lives east of 60th!
Sure, there are things that give us pause. Iannarone failed to pay some of her income taxes from 2010 to 2013, and only recently had a $4,500 state-issued lien lifted. She told the Oregonian the issue was due to an "accounting error." It's not a great look.
Iannarone's also had one pie-in-the-sky prediction publicly shot down during this campaign. When she announced her candidacy in January, she assured reporters that she could raise $100,000 in short order, saying that's the amount she'd need to run a credible campaign. As we write this—three months later, to the day—she's still trying to crack $33,500.
Could Iannarone's current rosy plans suffer a similar fate? Sure. But pretty much any campaign pledge from any candidate could, and it's not exactly a bad sign that this town's largest bank accounts aren't ready to get behind her.
As for the tax situation, be concerned if you want. Fiscal smarts are important in Portland City Hall—one reason there's an entire budget office to help the mayor make prudent choices.
The bottom line is this: We on the Endorsement Strike Force have an inkling of where we'd like this city to be, and Iannarone is the most likely choice to push it in that direction.
CITY COMMISSIONER, POSITION 1: Amanda Fritz
WE KNOW, we know. We talk boldly about shaking up the city in the intro to this thing and then tell you to vote incumbent Amanda Fritz back onto city council for a third term. What the hell?
It wasn't a complete slam dunk. Fritz, in her seven years on the council, has at times given us pause. She's convinced downtown cyclists are a potential menace, and was against bike share before she was for it. She's shown hints of opposing development standards that could actually help the city, as with a recent vote on relaxing regulations for accessory dwelling units. Mayor Hales apparently perceived her to be such a bad fit to oversee the city's zoning arm, the Portland Bureau of Development Services, that the assignment was snatched away from her (not that any of Hales' decisions can be seen as pristine, of course).
Even with those blemishes in mind, Fritz is a far bigger part of the solution than the problem—probably one reason she didn't see many challengers until just before the deadline to file for candidacy.
There's a lot we could talk about: Fritz has been a supporter in forming rational, compassionate responses to the homelessness crisis, and a champion for finding Right 2 Dream Too a new home. She worked with Hales to enact strong stances against fossil fuel activity in the city. She's ensured that half of Portland's surplus budget cash goes toward necessary maintenance—not flashy trinkets, as has been the case in the past. And as the only non-incumbent candidate in Portland to win office using public funds, she's planning to push "voter-owned" elections in Portland again, potentially vital if we want to see new faces making credible runs at city hall.
More than all that, she's an uncompromising voice on council. She's less interested in politics and deal-making than speaking and voting her conscience, as she's done with increasing conviction (to our delight).
Fritz's opponents are thoughtful, and clearly care about the future of Portland as much as she does. Lanita Duke, who runs a media production company, speaks passionately about the changes that have befallen Northeast Portland, and the "two Portlands"—rich and poor—that are increasingly obvious. She's a community-policing advocate who'd love to take control of a police bureau that, almost without exception, belongs to the mayor.
Ann Sanderson is a salon owner who got her start fighting off the street fees Commissioner Steve Novick and Hales concocted in 2014. She's concerned about homelessness, but she didn't convince us she had any new or interesting ideas to address the problem.
Sara Long may have been the most visible candidate on this race's campaign trail—largely owing to her repeated interruptions at mayoral forums. She's a dedicated activist who clearly cares deeply about the homeless, and offers interesting, inventive ideas for easing their plight (like an end to a city prohibition on backyard camping). She also says she wants Duke to win this race.
In the end, it's this simple: Despite various weak points, nothing in Fritz's record merits her being tossed from council, and plenty of things merit her continued work on your behalf.
CITY COMMISSIONER, POSITION 4: Chloe Eudaly
A THEME came up in nearly every one of the Mercury's endorsement interviews: housing. Something else came up, too: housing. And every once in a while, a candidate would mention one of their pet projects: housing.
Those running for office in Portland know what voters are interested in. And Portlanders—many of whom are facing the possibility of no longer being able to afford being Portlanders—care about housing.
Out of everyone the Mercury interviewed for our 2016 endorsements, no one was as devoted to the issue as Chloe Eudaly, who stands apart from incumbent Steve Novick and challengers Stuart Emmons, Fred Stewart, and Suzanne Stahl.
Not only does Eudaly know Portland—as the owner of Reading Frenzy and a co-founder of the Independent Publishing Resource Center, she's helped create the arts scene that makes the city so appealing to residents and newcomers—she's also entrenched in Portland's grassroots advocacy, having co-founded the Special Education PTA of Portland and rallied thousands via her Portland housing Facebook group "That's a Goddamned Shed." And as a renter, Eudaly's familiar with the day-to-day challenges of getting by in Portland in a way few local politicians are.
"We cannot build ourselves out of this housing crisis," Eudaly told the Mercury, correctly noting she had yet to hear of a "holistic approach" to the problem from the other candidates. "I'm actively pushing for rent control and an end to no-cause evictions," she said. "We will not be able to deal with the homeless population with people continuously fed into that system."
Unlike Emmons and Stewart—both of whom have enthusiasm to spare, but whose ideas can be vague and regressive—Eudaly is a pragmatist when it comes to Mayor Hales' camping policy, calling it a "rational move" made to meet "a deplorable situation." Stahl, who has an admirable history of pressing the city for equal access on behalf of disabled Portlanders, says the policy "encapsulates everything that's wrong with Portland."
In the past, the Mercury's generally endorsed Novick—and in fact, the Endorsement Strike Force was divided on this decision. We still like the guy, particularly when he serves as a brusque wildcard in a government sometimes known more for manners than effectiveness. (Take his response when we asked about his well-intended yet poorly received street fee: "We screwed the process up," Novick admitted. "The difference is that unlike every other transportation commissioner in the past 20 years... I decided I had a responsibility to try to do something.") All things being equal, we'd be happy to see Novick continue his work on the council.
But in Portland in 2016, things are anything but equal—in large part thanks to housing. Eudaly would bring a fresh perspective and a deep-rooted passion to city government, with a hard-earned awareness of the ways trying to make rent and stay one step ahead of gentrification affect Portlanders' lives. In our interview, Eudaly stated that if elected and offered a choice of bureaus, she'd choose the Portland Housing Bureau and the Office of Equity and Human Rights. She'd be a great fit.
MULTNOMAH COUNTY COMMISSION, DISTRICT 1: Sharon Meieran
THE COUNTY COMMISSION'S always been that important, boring provider of justice and social services whose political intrigues—absent the occasional bout of sheriff incompetence or sex scandal—are often overlooked.
Ever seen some of the resolutions they bring up at those commission meetings? Countless hours of the public's time each year are spent declaring things like "Volunteer Week" or "Purchasing Month." PURCHASING MONTH.
But county governance is getting more important all the time. In July, vital homelessness services that were once split between the county and the city will all be collected under Chair Deborah Kafoury. It also looks like there'll be a new sheriff before long (embattled Sheriff Dan Staton is laying the groundwork for an early departure).
With three spots on the five-member commission up for grabs, this election's a biggie, and its most contentious race is for the seat being given up by Commissioner Jules Bailey (he's running for mayor [but don't vote for him]). It's your district if you live in Northwest and Southwest Portland (and parts of Inner Northeast and Southeast).
Sharon Meieran, a Portland physician, is the best choice in that crowded field. Through both her job and extracurricular pursuits, Meieran's on the front lines of two of the central issues facing Portland today: police reform and mental health care.
As a member of the citizen group overseeing the city's police reform efforts, Meieran sits through mind-numbing meetings to parse policy tweaks and ensure cops are abiding by a settlement with the US Department of Justice. As an ER doctor, she wrestles with the outcomes of an inadequate mental health care system. And as a board member for the Unity Center for Behavioral Health—a forthcoming emergency center for people in mental health crisis—she's working to improve that system.
She's also a former lawyer, and a champion for women's reproductive health as medical director at the Oregon Foundation for Reproductive Health.
It's a stellar background (one possibly tarnished in some people's minds by the fact Meieran hails from the San Francisco area), but just as important—in fact, a key reason we're endorsing Meieran—are her positions on the issues.
After all, Eric Zimmerman, chief of staff to outgoing Commissioner Diane McKeel, presents a better case for being immediately effective in county government. He's walked the halls of the Multnomah Building for years, and helped to push through valuable policies in that time. He's a US Army veteran who knows all the political players, and intimately understands the workings of county governance. He's both smart and likeable. The Mercury Strike Force might have given him the nod, except we disagree with him on too many points.
Zimmerman told us he doesn't support doing away with a state pre-emption on rent control, which would at least allow local governments to look at their options. Meieran thinks it should be gone.
And Zimmerman is irresolute when it comes to doing away with the police bureau's 48-hour rule—and to be fair, offers some compelling anecdotes from his own armed combat experiences. Meieran, like most candidates (and plenty of citizens), wants it gone.
Other candidates in the race include Brian Wilson, who works in property management and ran for this seat back in 2014, and Mel Rader, executive director of Upstream Public Health.
Wilson's arguments aren't too far off from his pitch last time, and they're still not terribly compelling. And while we like Rader's interest in food policy—not to mention Upstream's championing of 2013's ill-fated fluoride measure—he came across as disinterested in our interview.
Given her background and her firm grasp of some of the city's biggest issues, Meieran should be your choice.
MULTNOMAH COUNTY COMMISSION, DISTRICT 4: Lori Stegmann
OF THE THREE candidates for this East Multnomah County district, only two answered our questions: Gresham city councilor and insurance agent Lori Stegmann and former Wood Village City Councilor Stanley Dirks.
Of the two, we like Stegmann.
While she waffled on some of her answers, Stegmann also had preferable positions on homelessness (she doesn't like Mayor Hales' camping policies, but is okay with organized camps and tiny houses), law enforcement (she supports the resignation of Sheriff Dan Staton, and she's for appointing, rather than electing, a sheriff), and housing affordability (she's VERY skeptical about rent control, but wants an "affordability mechanism" in new construction).
If you live in Portland, Stegmann won't be anywhere on your ballot. But based on what we've heard from East County candidates, she's the best choice.
MEASURE 26-173 (GAS TAX): Yes
THERE'S SO MUCH ANGER and mistrust around transportation cash in this city, but the fact is, nothing substantial has been done to help fix Portland's deteriorating roads in decades. The mercurial street fee Mayor Hales and Commissioner Novick tabled in early 2015 got a lot of people upset, but the needs it sought to address are real.
You can grouse all you want about misplaced priorities during prior administrations—you're right to do so, in fact. But those needs will still exist.
That's why we support the gas tax that Novick and a coalition of active transportation activists, business types, and developers are now pushing.
Ballot Measure 26-173 would institute a 10-cent-per-gallon tax on gas bought in Portland. It would last four years and it's expected to bring in about $16 million annually. Of that yearly money, 56 percent—or $9 million—would go toward repairing Portland streets. The remaining chunk would go to safety projects like creating sidewalks in East Portland, crosswalk improvements, bike lanes, and so on.
There's a catch, to some: Portland's road repair backlog requires somewhere between $100 million and $200 million a year for a decade to fix. Given that, you'll hear criticisms that the gas tax doesn't devote enough—or all—of its potential revenue to roads. It's an easy argument, but it's also flawed: Portland lacks adequate money to complete safety projects, too, and the never-ending string of road injuries and deaths in East Portland speaks more to outstanding needs than the deepest pothole.
Another argument, from Paul Romain, the head lobbyist for the state's fuel industry (and a professional foe of local gas taxes), is that the tax would put Portland gas stations out of business—specifically, those on the outskirts of the city. We asked how many stations he thought would close. He couldn't say. Could he offer data from other cities where a local gas tax has had that effect? Romain could not.
Romain's other big argument—that the city needs to look at all of its finances, and make absolutely sure there's not a dime out of place before enacting new revenue measures—comes off as something of a ruse. The City Club of Portland recently took that look, and found any meaningful reshuffling of funds toward roads would cause drastic cuts elsewhere.
Romain says he doesn't trust that, and he wants to see a lengthy audit done in public. It'd be an easier argument to listen to if it weren't coming from an industry that has opposed—and had a hand in killing—every effort to find road funding locally over the last decade.
No, this gas tax is not a magic bullet for perfect Portland roads, and it will take more revenue sources to completely fix everything. But overall, it's worth it. We can't afford to remain stagnant on this issue and let our streets continue to crumble.
The longer we wait to act, the costlier it'll be to fix. Do the right thing and vote yes on Measure 26-173.
DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARY: Bernie Sanders
HILLARY CLINTON is smart, tough, experienced, and unquestionably qualified to be president. She's also closer than any woman in American history to winning the presidency—a long-overdue accomplishment that would allow her to further her record of advancing women's rights and equality.
And almost certainly—hell, if she isn't by the time you're reading this—Clinton will be the nominee. Even now, the math is overwhelmingly in her favor; it's almost a given Americans will have another chance to vote for her in November. And in November, Americans will happily do so—at least the ones who aren't just morbidly curious to see how much longer the GOP's shit-smeared clown car can keep rolling.
But it's not November yet. It's primary season, which means policies and attitudes that will define America for years are still being hammered out. Perhaps more than at any other time, voters have a chance to shift our country's political dialogue in better, more progressive directions.
And when it comes to that, no candidate is better than Bernie Sanders.
Sanders, as everyone on the planet now knows, bludgeons away at one issue: economic inequality. That's because economic inequality is every issue, and fundamentally affects everything else: housing and homelessness. Health and longevity. Education and employment. Crime and violence. Industry and commerce. Political and civic involvement. When Sanders speaks, passionately and knowledgeably, about how we can change a system rigged in favor of the rich (and make no mistake—we can), he's not just talking about one thing. He's talking about all of those things.
There's a reason Sanders' message has resonated far more than anyone expected, particularly among the young and the educated: As working Americans have come to see even the middle class as an outdated ideal rather than an achievable reality, we can no longer deny how profoundly our broken financial systems dominate our lives.
Already, Sanders has ensured he's not the only one talking about this. With blue-collar determination, he's forced everyone else to address economic inequality—a topic that more moneyed candidates (and more moneyed citizens) would happily ignore. Already, Sanders has pulled Clinton—and the Democratic Party—both into the conversation and further to the left. Already, Sanders' success has sent a message: Americans deserve and demand a better system.
None of this is to say that Sanders, for all of his curmudgeonly charm and dark-wizard bird enchantments, is ideal. Just as Clinton's critics point to her hawkish interventionism and ties to Wall Street (seriously, just release the transcripts already) as legitimate concerns, Sanders has faults of his own: It's anyone's guess how he'd do in a national contest against a Republican candidate. His refusal to attempt to curtail America's gun violence is a massive demerit. And the less any of us have to deal with belligerent Bernie bros, the better.
No candidate is perfect. And of all the 2016 races the Mercury considered, this was the most contentious, and our ultimate decision was not unanimous. But we were won over by Sanders' populist determination to compel our country to actually fix its deep-seated inequality. That's a tall order, and like anyone who wants a revolution, Sanders' ideas can sound, at first, radical and impossible. Upon further examination, they sound like something else: common sense.
It's primary season. There's still work to do. The conversation about what's most important to Americans is still happening. Oregon will help shape it. Vote Sanders.