GOD, WHAT A MESS. The worst part of politics is the circus of the campaign.
Candidates who get the most votes by digging up the most dirt on their opponents. Interest groups who peddle mistruths and mischaracterizations in hopes of conning voters too busy and too cynical to pay attention. The endless barrage of awkward, shrill TV commercials that somehow make candidates look more wooden than Lincoln Logs.
And now? We're stepping right in the middle of it.
Which brings us to the best part about politics: you. Your voice. Your informed vote. Ballots will drop in your mailbox any day now (you did remember to register, right?)—and you can punish the devilish and the dark. Or reward the decent and the daring.
But maybe you need a little help. That's why we're here! The Mercury editorial board has studied the issues, queried candidates and advocates, and made the miserable, tough calls some of us would prefer not to make. Study up, and then let's do it all again in a couple of years.
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CITY OF PORTLAND
MAYOR: CHARLIE HALES
Charlie Hales and Jefferson Smith are essentially the same dude, separated by several years. They're mainstream liberals difficult to like and tougher to trust—but both would probably do a decent job passing smart progressive policies at city hall. With a few exceptions, when you dig into the nitty-gritty specifics, they're nearly identical on policy issues. And yet, a large plurality of voters would seemingly rather have anyone but either of the two in charge.
But we have to pick one. Hales got our reluctant endorsement in the spring, and he's getting our still-reluctant endorsement now. Yes, he radiates the sober persona of an insurance salesman. Yes, he's got a history with developers. Yes, his campaign staff got caught in a couple of lies. And, yes, he has to tuck in his raging hard-on for the wasteful Portland Streetcar. We're going to be watching him like a goddamned hawk.
Even though it was a tough call—based overwhelmingly on policy, political experience, and leadership skills—we've decided he's the (slightly) better choice for Portland at a time when big issues like police accountability and a crumbling infrastructure need tending by a steady, effective hand.
Among the things we appreciate most about Hales: He's a practical progressive, with an actual track record in city hall, based on his admittedly 20th-century tenure (1992-2002) on Portland City Council.
He'll be stronger on police accountability—based on his willingness to tilt with the influential firefighters union over diversity in hiring during that past political life. That lingering bitterness likely cost him the backing of both the fire and police unions this time around. He should be proud of that.
Both candidates have emphasized training and community policing, à la the recent federal report condemning our police bureau for beating up on the mentally ill, as well as having fractious relations with minority communities. But Hales has spoken out, time and again, about another solution close to our hearts ["Where Police Officers (Don't) Live," News, Oct 21, 2010]: enticing more of our cops to actually live in the Portland neighborhoods they patrol, rather than places like Southern Washington and Troutdale.
Hales was pro-bike funding before it was trendy and won't let hot-button issues like potholes and paving diminish his enthusiasm for expanding our bicycling system. (We're overlooking his waffling stance on the Columbia River Crossing.) Hales also says he's against expanding coal trains in the Northwest (although it's super disturbing that he's received campaign cash from coal fans). And he's able to communicate his ideas well, articulately summing up complicated, wonky details—which is a big part of the mayor's job.
And, unlike some of the mayoral candidates of the past, at least he's not a buffoon.
Smith—a two-term East Portland state representative—isn't exactly a buffoon, either. Unlike Hales, who reportedly needed some coaching on how to precisely use Portland-friendly buzz words like "equity," Smith comes steeped in the city's quirky and liberal values. But his overwhelming overconfidence in the belief he's preaching a new brand of political gospel tends to work against him.
We were already troubled by Smith's penchant for haughtiness and surliness, and we've not seen much that's made us feel better.
A steady drip of news about Smith's past—and especially Smith's messy handling of all the surfacing muck—highlight his arrogance and seeming inability to spill all the straight facts about touchy personal issues (his assault case, his driving record) until it's too late. Smith's handling of the dirt—which, he's right, is unbecoming of a Portland campaign—matters way more than its substance.
That Smith's obvious charm comes with a dark side is no grand revelation. It also doesn't mean he's a bad politician with bad ideas—a temper can be used effectively in politics, and it would be exciting to see Smith fight hard for his bold issues, pushing city commissioners around when they need it.
Smith has interesting ideas and a rare willingness in milquetoast Oregon politics to boldly state his positions on controversial issues like the Columbia River Crossing. That's great. Hopefully this campaign won't sour him on politics forever. Here's hoping he'll buck up and stick around for a while, getting some seasoning in a position that could use an outspoken big fighter. Like on the county commission, back in the legislature, or even as a city commission.
Hales, of course, can be just as pissy. Like when he sent nasty text messages to the Portland Association of Teachers when he didn't get their endorsement. And his character isn't so spotless, either.
Hales let his campaign lie about his role in a schools bailout that happened after he left office. His campaign plagiarized an Oregonian article in a letter that also lied about Hales joining a public safety tour of St. Johns. Then, partly to embarrass Smith, his campaign blithely leaked a recording of an obviously confidential joint endorsement interview.
He also came damned close to breaking tax and/or election law (pick one!) when he moved to Washington but kept voting in Oregon. He's also got deep roots with developers and business folk who back the city's largest and most-often-wrong lobbying group, the Portland Business Alliance.
Which is all to say that Hales—though he'll probably be more effective and land in the right places on most big issues—is hardly perfect. Remember, there's a reason Portland is having a mumbly "can't we just write in Sam Adams?" moment. So don't trust him. Don't expect him to govern like a choir boy or not get too cozy with developers. Instead, figure he'll be slightly more likely to leave the city in a slightly better place than he found it. And hopefully no worse.
CITY COMMISSIONER, POSITION 1: AMANDA FRITZ
No, Amanda Fritz hasn't been perfect. It took her a smidge too long to learn the contours of her job as city commissioner. And she's still clearly uncomfortable dishing out the sharp elbows and nasty whispers that are an essential ingredient in getting shit done in Portland City Hall.
But everything else Fritz brings to the job—a citizen's eye, an independent streak, and a laser-like focus on saving tax dollars—make up for the things she doesn't.
We gave Fritz our nod during the primary, where she barely beat the well-funded, negative-campaigning State Representative Mary Nolan, and nothing we've seen in the months since then has changed our minds. If anything, it's a pick we're even more bullish about.
Consider what's happened since this spring:
On one of the most important issues vexing Portland—our cops' propensity to excessively beat, Taser, and/or shoot people enduring a mental health crisis—Fritz has taken a much-needed leadership role. Unlike Nolan, Fritz has taken a strong stand in support of Mayor Sam Adams' legal fight to not reinstate the cop who fatally shot Aaron Campbell. And just last month, Fritz helped roll out a new suicide-response hotline that will lead to fewer Portlanders in crisis calling the cops in the first place. That stems from her work running the city bureau that oversees the region's 911 system.
More proof of Fritz's commitment to the issue? The retired psychiatric nurse was invited to join Mayor Adams at the big press conference where the US Department of Justice read the city the riot act and then warmly thanked us for our willingness to get deep into reforms.
And let's talk more about our 911 system—which became a campaign issue after Nolan and the city's rank-and-file police union moaned about bugs and other problems that emerged during a region-wide upgrade last year. For all the noise the union made about safety concerns, a grievance filed last spring was quietly settled this summer after union leaders admitted that the city, under Fritz's leadership, was making fixes in good faith.
Nolan—endorsed by the police union among others, and a client of kingmaker political consultant Mark Wiener—is about to start up her fall ad blitz. Last time, she raised and spent tens of thousands of dollars to drop bombs all over Fritz instead of selling herself. Which was a shame, because she's got an interesting story: legislative leadership experience in Salem, time served running city bureaus, and the ownership of her own business.
But she's known for rubbing colleagues the wrong way in Salem. And it's telling that two commissioners who'd be working with her if she won—Dan Saltzman and Nick Fish—have publicly stated she's not their first choice. Not that she'd be an awful city commissioner. It's just that she's not our first choice, either.
MEASURE 26-145 (POLICE AND FIREFIGHTER PENSIONS): YES
In this year of half-hearted voting and caveat-ridden endorsements, here's an A+ idea we can enthusiastically give a thumbs up. This boring-sounding bureaucratic measure is a baby step toward correcting the astounding amount of money the city spends on cops' and firefighters' plush retirement benefits. These people do a dirty job well and, of course, they deserve solid health care and pensions as much as any hard-working American. But the benefits are absurdly bloated with little loopholes that police and fire unions fight tooth and nail to keep. It's gotten to the point that for every dollar the city collects in property taxes, a whopping 26 cents goes just to the police and fire retirement fund. That's not caring for heroes and elders—that's hurting the city.
One big change in this measure would make police and firefighters eligible for lifetime payments only after they've served on the force for six months. Currently, if someone is still in their probation period, and then injured so badly during that they can no longer be a police officer or firefighter (but remain healthy enough for other kinds of work), they receive the same disability benefits as someone who actually served on the force. For the rest of their lives.
"We're paying people to retire rather than paying them to be on the street," says City Commissioner Dan Saltzman.
The other money-saver in the measure calculates retirement payouts based on their last 12 months of employment, rather than their last 30 days. All told, the measure is expected to save $46 million over the next 25 years. Simple. Smart. Let's do it.
MEASURE 26-146 (ARTS TAX): YES
This measure is tricky to support, both because its campaign has been misleading and the tax itself is regressive. The "School and Arts Together" campaign is built around the funding of one art teacher for every 500 public elementary school students in Portland, thereby backfilling deep cuts that have nixed full-time art teachers entirely from 22 local schools over just the past five years.
But $3.8 million of the $12.2 million collected annually through the tax wouldn't go to photogenic school kids, it would fund dozens of Portland arts nonprofits like the Portland Opera and Portland Symphony. Plus, the proposal calls for a flat $35 annual tax that would hit nearly all adult Portlanders equally, regardless of income, though people making below the federal poverty line are exempted from the fee.
So, looking at what the tax actually is, would we still support it? Yes, we believe it's worth 35 bucks a year to create a stable funding source for Portland's arts nonprofits and for art instruction in Portland schools.
Opponent Eric Fruits compared the tax to OMSI proposing a science tax for schools. "What service the city provides is so unique that it requires its own source of funding?" asked Fruits.
Arts budgets are worth protecting in a special fund because theater, drawing, dance, and music are often the first sacrifices by schools and government when times get tough. But they're an integral part of this city, they attract employers who want healthy schools, and they should be integral to students' education—even though there are no "arts" bubbles to fill in on the standardized tests that sadly dictate curriculums. Only 18 percent of elementary schools in Portland have someone on staff to teach any kind of art classes. That's especially dismal compared to the national average of 83 percent of schools having that kind of instruction. If you support stable funding for Portland's arts organizations and creating jobs for arts teachers in Portland's schools, vote yes.
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MEASURE 26-143 (LIBRARY DISTRICT): YES
Books! Arguably more popular in Portland than their archrival: boobs. The good news is you can vote to support books this year because Multnomah County's library district is a smart idea that's long overdue. The bad news is it'll cost the average Portland homeowner about $49 a year—more than the price of that new JK Rowling hardcover.
Here's the deal: The county library system kind of kicks ass, circulating more material than any library in the country except New York's, checking out nearly 24 million works a year (twice as many as Seattle's system) and spending less of its budget on staff than many of its peers.
But for years, the library has been funded with "temporary" levies and bailouts from the county that could be spent on other things. This permanent tax district will replace the always-fluctuating levies with a stable funding source, so the library can restore cuts to staff and hours made earlier this year and ensure we'll be able to check out books for years to come.
It's not a perfect solution. Because of screwy Oregon tax law, creating the district will suck $7 million in tax revenue from Portland's general fund and $1 million more from its children's fund. (Not that the city ever minded until recently that its urban renewal districts essentially did the same thing to the county.) The good news is Portland and county politicos say they have plans to alleviate some of that impact by shifting some city-run services to the county. And now, some city officials who had been skeptical of the district are either supporting it or, at least, staying neutral.
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PORTLAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS
MEASURE 26-144 (SCHOOL BOND): YES
Our schools are a crumbling, aging mess. That's an undeniable fact. And we can wait to do something about that—for the economy to magically improve, for Salem to get its act together, for a deadly earthquake to beat the wrecking ball to the punch—or we can move forward with the first step of a decades-long revitalization program that will rebuild four schools and overhaul nearly 70 more.
That's why we support Portland Public Schools' $482 million bond measure—a pared-down and better-focused version of last year's doomed $548 million ask.
We'll get three new top-of-the-line high schools: Roosevelt, Grant, and Franklin—chosen because of their decrepitude but also because of how many students each holds. We'll get a new PK-8 school: Faubion. Some 40 schools will get science labs. And 30 more will receive much-needed fixes. You know. Like new roofs. And heat. So kids can pay attention instead of shivering during the winter.
It's also worth noting the signal that solid investment in our schools will send to employers looking to move to Portland.
Not that this doesn't all come with a cost. For someone with a house assessed at $100,000, paying back the bond, through property taxes, will cost a little more than an extra $100 a year. Critics of the bond say financing such a high-priced passel of construction projects will put fixed-income Portlanders over the edge. (They also fret about spending so much on buildings at a time when teacher layoffs loom.)
We hear those concerns, but worry they're overblown. Most of us can afford this sensible investment in our educational system.
STATE OF OREGON
MEASURE 79 (REAL ESTATE TRANSFER TAX): NO
Some wealthy real estate types are spending big money hoping to scare the living crap out of you by raising the specter of something that's already way illegal in (most of) Oregon: the dreaded real estate transfer tax. Say no to this craven, cynical measure—a completely unnecessary bid to amend the Oregon Constitution. Under current state law, only Salem has the power to impose a real estate tax—and only if 60 percent of legislators (unlikely) say yes. Cities and counties are banned. The real estate industry isn't convinced that's good enough. They worry people might want to, someday, maybe, change their minds. But would that even be a bad thing? Let's look at the one place in Oregon where a local real estate tax has been grandfathered in since the 1970s: Washington County. Prosperous, jobs-filled Washington County. Maybe we need a measure demanding a real estate transfer tax instead.
MEASURE 80 (LEGALIZE POT AND HEMP): YES
Oregon's marijuana advocates are—surprise—slackers. Marijuana legalization measures on the ballot this year in Washington and Colorado have brought in boatloads of national support and built $4 million and $1 million campaign war chests, respectively. Meanwhile, the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act has raised only $37,000 ($5,000 of it from hippie soap outfit Dr. Bronner's—eee!). That's too bad, because the poorly run measure is actually a good idea that would kick Oregon marijuana policy out of its wink-wink medicinal limbo, where selling pot is illegal so medical marijuana growers have to take, instead, "recommended donations." This measure sets up pot to function like alcohol: Created by state-licensed growers, sold in state-licensed stores, overseen by an Oregon Liquor Control Commission-like state board. Like alcohol, pot would still be illegal to smoke in public or to sell without a license. A to-be-determined pot tax would cover the bureaucratic cost of running that licensing, plus Oregon would see fewer prosecutions for marijuana crimes. Face it: A large chunk of our state economy runs on marijuana. By not admitting it exists, we're leaving money on the table.
MEASURE 81 (SALMON GILLNETTING): NO
This campaign to "protect salmon" by banning a certain type of fishing, called gillnetting, is a red herring. The real issue here is that fancy folks who fish for sport want a bigger catch of the annual salmon haul—banning gillnetting would squeeze commercial fishers out of the yearly harvest while still killing the same number of fish per year in the state. But measure-backers have pretty much dropped their campaign after Governor John Kitzhaber said he would bring a compromise bill to the legislature this year. Vote no now and don't support any bill in the legislature that gives sport fishermen an upper hand by exploiting Oregon's desire to protect salmon.
MEASURES 82 AND 83 (NON-TRIBAL CASINO): NO
A Canadian corporation wants to build a casino-and-entertainment complex a few miles east of Portland. Fuck those guys. This thing would be unnecessarily gigantic and will likely pay way less to the state than its backers promise. The measure allows for the installation of some 3,500 slot machines. For comparison's sake, the Luxor in Las Vegas has 2,000. The developers say that will add up to $100 million a year for the state—but that's assuming the casino will make $400 million annually, which is insane because Oregon's nine other casinos combined make $470 million a year. What will happen is that a private company will be allowed to move into the state and eat up a large chunk of the money that goes to the Oregon Lottery and native tribes, under agreements that the state struck that barely begin to address the historical fact that we screwed the tribes out of their traditional ways of supporting themselves. Before they abruptly "suspended" their campaign this week, the casino's developers spent $5.2 million pitching the project as a win-win, dangling a promise of 3,000 construction jobs. But let's not rewrite our constitution to cut out tribes just so 3,000 people can construct a monstrosity of regret and addiction that will allow a Canadian private equity firm to profit off Portlanders.
MEASURE 84 (REPEAL ESTATE TAX): NO
The backers of Measure 84, led by none other than initiative maestro Kevin Mannix, like to start off by framing this as a matter of economics. Getting rid of the estate tax for all Oregonians (stiffs who leave behind $1 million or less in regular assets, or farms worth up to $7.5 million, are already exempt) will draw all sorts of rich people to the state, they say. And all those rich people will pay out so much in income taxes that we'll never miss the $120 million in annual revenue the current estate tax already provides.
But when you poke some holes in that argument, namely the fact that fewer than 800 families in all of Oregon might actually be affected by the estate tax, and the notion that tax policy actually doesn't inform where people live, things change. Suddenly, it becomes about "fairness." That's also another canard. This is about adding Oregon to a list of states on a national checklist and the ongoing battle to further shift the tax burden from those who can afford to those who can't.
But there's a darker secret hiding in the fine print: Wealth transfers between relatives would also become tax-exempt—opening a gaping capital gains loophole. Let's say someone's been sitting on a pantsload of Apple stock since the late 1980s. Cashing it out, after years of appreciation, would mean forking over big bucks to the government. But if that stock were "gifted" to a relative, who then sold it? That relative would pay taxes only on the stock's gains since the transfer—not the original amount of appreciation. Another "gift" could then see all that money sent back to the stock's owner. The state revenue office says that loophole will add hundreds of millions more to the cost of this measure.
Rich people have it swell enough. They don't need our help making it easier.
MEASURE 85 (END CORPORATE KICKER): YES
One of the dumbest things Oregon voters ever did was constitutionally enshrine the incredibly flawed budget "kicker"—the provision that sends money back to voters and corporations whenever tax receipts exceed what's essentially the state bean-counters' best financial guesses. Measure 85 would do away with the part of the kicker that applies to corporations, requiring that any unexpected revenue be funneled not to big businesses (mostly based out of state) but to our K-12 education system. Because the kicker only "kicks" every few years, the idea is to give the schools a little something extra they can salt away to help blunt cutbacks in down years.
Opponents raise a couple of compelling points. They complain we should wait for Salem to somehow produce "comprehensive kicker reform." They say the state's rainy-day fund should get any surplus. And they also worry that legislators will play dirty pool, spending the kicker check on schools but then cutting an equal amount from education's usual appropriation.
But here's the reality: The education budget's among the most scrutinized in Salem, which would make any end-run politically idiotic. The rainy-day fund is too hard to crack into in a polarized legislature. And then there's the fact that we've already waited too long to come up with reasonable solutions for the budget crisis facing our schools. So thank the measure's foes for their diligence, and say yes anyway.
SECRETARY OF STATE: KATE BROWN (D)
Kate Brown is a fairly unexciting career politico, who's made some high-profile stumbles and now faces the awful prospect of becoming the rare Democrat who actually manages to blow a race for statewide office. Insurgent bids by the Greens' Seth Woolley and the Progressives' Bob Wolfe (a pot activist who's PO'd that Brown fined him a state-record $65,000 and disqualified a pot measure vying for this year's ballot) have opened the door for Republican doctor Knute Buehler. Don't let that happen. Buehler is peddling a few intriguing ideas, like letting a nonpartisan commission redraw legislative districts. But he's also made some troubling comments about voter fraud and ID requirements, repeating the same dark tone as his GOP peers across the country.
ATTORNEY GENERAL: ELLEN ROSENBLUM (D)
Here's what the write-in Republican candidate in this race, Yale-educated James Buchal, has to say about "federal power":
"The federal government is out of control, and destroying our future in a fury of unconstitutional spending and legislation. There is no more immediate threat to the future and freedom of all Oregonians than the federal government. Its foolish efforts to imitate communist countries in 'managing the economy' ruin nearly everything it touches, from health care to forest and natural resource management.
"Our Constitution was supposed to protect us from this threat, and it lies torn and bleeding at the hands of officials who seem unable to understand what a constitution even is."
So... yeah. We liked Rosenblum in the primary. We still do. Even if her husband co-owns the Willamette Week.
STATE TREASURER: TED WHEELER (D)
Ted Wheeler! He's a stand-up guy! Hopefully he'll do what he says he will and punch the bloated state retirement system into some sort of manageable order! As for challenger Cameron Whitten—well, he's a good kid, makes a mean vegan smoothie, and definitely shouldn't be in charge of a state office just yet.
BUREAU OF LABOR COMMISSIONER: BRAD AVAKIAN (NONPARTISAN)
Current labor commissioner Brad Avakian and his opponent, Bruce Starr, are neck-and-neck in this race. Maybe that's because it's one of the few races where no one lists a political party next to their name, and maybe it's because Avakian and Starr look so eerily similar that even their own mothers would have trouble telling them apart. But go for Avakian: He's a decent guy who uses the bureau of labor to back smart progressive policies like upholding workers' rights, equal pay, and vocational programs in schools.