TO PEOPLE who've attended most of the forums held so far in Portland's still-young mayoral contest, it may well seem like a two-man ballot.

State Treasurer Ted Wheeler and Multnomah County Commissioner Jules Bailey are the most prominent and seasoned candidates in the race, and so they're getting invited to share their thoughts with union members, bar goers, and arts enthusiasts.

There's logic in this approach. Bailey and (in particular) Wheeler are raising the cash that history tells us is necessary to gain office in Portland. They have carefully cultivated academic pedigrees, and actual experience as elected officials. To the extent that event organizers feel their time is best spent questioning candidates with a shot at gaining office, Wheeler and Bailey are the obvious choices.

But if you attended the mayoral forum on homelessness last Friday at Union Gospel Mission, you watched that rationale quickly disintegrate.

For the first time, the forum presented an opportunity to see the mayoral race's most vocal candidates side by side, answering questions about what has emerged in recent months as one of the city's central issues. Wheeler and Bailey were present, of course, but so were Sean Davis, Sarah Iannarone, David Schor, and Jessie Sponberg—hopefuls who've clamored for a little light while sitting in the shadow cast by the "top two" candidates.

The forum was far better for their inclusion. What might have been a recitation of the largely comparable positions on homelessness Wheeler and Bailey have been offering for months—summary: it's terrible, housing and shelter are desperately needed, and organized camping is a slippery slope—was instead a punchy discussion, full of ideas and the occasional sharp elbow.

Opinion polls might well favor Bailey and Wheeler (though such polls have been remarkably few and far between, so far), but in the eyes of a crowd containing homeless people, advocates, and other interested citizens, Sponberg and Schor seemed to shine the brightest.

Sponberg, in particular, routinely got the evening's loudest applause, with answers that were very, very short on policy proposals, but long on a history of assisting homeless Portlanders.

"What's the most tired you've ever been in your life?" Sponberg asked the crowd, ordering them to look out of the mission's windows, at the homeless people traversing West Burnside. "What's the most exhausted? But somehow you just keep waking up."

He mocked Bailey, who'd offered a campaign-style vignette of serving breakfast to homeless youth, and scoffed at millionaire Wheeler's insistence that "any one of us in this room could find ourselves... homeless."

Schor, an assistant attorney general with the Oregon Department of Justice, won audience enthusiasm for repeatedly excoriating the practice of criminalizing homelessness—which the city's done for years.

Iannarone and Davis had their moments, too. So did Bailey. So did Wheeler.

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Instead of a pissing match, what emerged with the full slate of candidates was an honest-to-god conversation about the city's homelessness crisis.

No matter who emerges as the city's next mayor, it's the kind of thing this race should aspire to more often.