Illustration by Dave Neeson

AT THE CAMPAIGN kick-off for Metro Council president candidate Bob Stacey last week, a sign hanging above a table lined with cake and cheese spelled out one of the key problems in the recently launched race: "Metro? Where exactly is Metro?" Though the tri-county agency has a $208 million budget and, arguably, pulls more strings regionally than Portland City Hall, even the candidates for its top position joke that the real fight in the race will be getting anyone other than wonks to care about the agency.

Stacey and his competitor, current Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder, have similar progressive credentials to run the agency, which sets the region's land-use and development policies. Both have worked for decades on urban growth issues in Oregon. Both ride bikes. Both use the word "sustainability" quite a bit.

But in Stacey's kick-off (doubling as his 60th birthday party—an apparently successful idea to raise more campaign contributions), the former executive director of environmental nonprofit 1000 Friends of Oregon harped on the major issue he hopes differentiates him from Burkholder: the $4.2 billion Columbia River Crossing Bridge.

"We can continue to pretend that the emperor has $4.2 billion or we can say no to the bridge, restart the process, and come up with something better," said Stacey, to applause. While Stacey was one of the first civic leaders to come out swinging against the 12-lane bridge, Burkholder voted with the rest of Metro Council to support the bridge project last year. Stacey told his supporters that he would push Metro to rescind its support of the expensive project.

Burkholder says that painting him as the "pro-bridge candidate" is unfair. "My consistent position is that we need to support something we can afford," says Burkholder. He supports cutting down the project, including the number of lanes, to bring down the project costs, but says going back to the drawing board would be wasteful. "That would mean throwing away $80 million of work. That's stupid," says Burkholder.

Both candidates have lined up some impressive supporters. Stacey has raised $32,844 so far, thanks in part to high-profile support from people like former Governor Barbara Roberts, who stood front and center at the kick-off party last week while politicos like Steve Novick and Oregon House Majority Leader Mary Nolan snacked on figs and garlic cheddar cheese in the crowd. Meanwhile, Burkholder has snagged endorsements from Mayor Sam Adams and City Commissioners Nick Fish and Randy Leonard. His war chest is at $44,210 before having even officially begun his campaign.

If he doesn't win the president seat in the May 2010 election, Burkholder says he might start looking for another job. "I've been doing this for a pretty long time for pretty low pay," he says.