GOOD NEWS! You got a ballot in the mail a couple of days ago and now you get to help decide something really important: Which politicians best deserve the chance to lead our city, region, and state to—we hope—a brighter, happier future?
It's okay if you don't know. That's why we're here. We've been checking out the candidates for months—doing research, thinking hard, and then, eventually, bringing them all in for face-to-face interviews. You're worried you won't make the right choices? Relax! We'll make them for you!
All you have to do is read our handy endorsement guide, mark the names we tell you to, and then make sure it gets to the county elections office by 8 pm Tuesday, May 15. As you're doing that, here are some other things you need to know: First, you'll notice we're not wasting our time with little-watched judicial contests or any race that solely involves Republicans. And second, perhaps most importantly: Don't worry! There are no monsters here, and even if you pick wrong, how bad can it be? We get to do this all again in four years.
CITY OF PORTLAND
Mayor: Charlie Hales (nonpartisan)
After months of watching this mayoral race—Portland's most competitive in 20 years—and after hoping and praying that one of the 23 candidates would see fit to sweep us off our feet, we're disappointed to report the following: Our political loins are about as cold as they were in 2004 when cranky grandpa Tom Potter was trying to convince us (and himself) that it would be a good idea to put him in charge.
And that's a shame. Because if ever this town needed someone electrically compelling—what with an ever-shrinking city budget, crumbling roads, unparalleled inequity, rising tensions over police accountability, a slow-growing economy, and new seasons of an annoying cable show that lampoons us—that time is, uh, now. But no.
Businesswoman Eileen Brady has stayed in the conversation this long largely because of an overwhelming pile of campaign cash (which she's hemorrhaged at an equally astounding rate, arguably with little return). Some of her best ideas are buzzwords or programs our current mayor, Sam Adams, is already working on. And while she's expended much energy to align herself with Green Party and Occupy-affiliated voters—cozying up to fellow candidate Cameron Whitten, an activist and Occupy Portland organizer with more moxie and charisma than almost anyone else in the race—she's also the choice of the Portland Business Alliance. And the PBA is an outfit that demands a return on its investment. (Also—ugh!—Potter endorsed her.)
East Portland State Representative Jefferson Smith is progressive, quirky, and refreshingly blunt. He dropped an NWA reference in our interview and even tossed off the word "shitty." It feels like we really ought to be behind him. But his personal style, his propensity for jawboning, surliness, and dismissive attitude left our editorial board surprisingly and undeniably cool. We're also concerned—despite Smith's anti-labor stand against the wasteful Columbia River Crossing bridge—that there's still a reason that most major public employee unions (especially the Portland Police Association) have lined up on his side.
And then there's Charlie Hales. Sure, he's the only candidate who's ever served on city council. But that was a decade ago. And he bailed on the gig in the middle of his third term to go work for the same industry—streetcars—whose cause he'd spent championing while in office. He says he'd get gruff with the police union, but he whiffed on knowing the name Keaton Otis, a mentally ill man killed in one of the city's more recent, and controversial, police shootings.
And while Hales says he prizes things like preserving Portland's social safety net programs over other city priorities, real estate agents and developers fund him—the same people who drive gentrification and don't like paying fees for things like social services and cops and parks.
Given those choices, we were sorely tempted to pick none of the above. Whitten genuinely impressed us. He's not afraid to tilt with the bigger-name candidates. (Unlike the city's other alt-weekly and its presumptive daily paper of record, we actually interviewed some other candidates besides the Big Three.) And, at one public forum this spring, he laudably forced them all to do something human: dance. We also considered, as a lark, a write-in endorsement for Adams, who's been a far more important and successful mayor than most people give him credit for.
Of course, Adams isn't running. And Whitten, while funny and smart and passionate, isn't quite ready to run city hall—as either a political boss or technocratic manager. The same thing goes for the other earnest candidates we invited: Bill Dant, college student Max Brumm, and Scott Fernandez. (But wouldn't it be fun to see someone like Whitten in a debate against Dan Saltzman in 2014?)
So we're back to the obvious choices. And of the three, Hales squeaked by as the candidate we could best imagine spending the next four years with. Hales is reasonable. He didn't rub us the wrong way, and knows how to work well with others. We also found ourselves liking some of what he had to say—and believing he'd be the most likely candidate to deliver on it.
We think he means it when he says he'll stand up to the police union—his record with the fire bureau when he last served on council, pushing it into hiring more minorities and women, means something. He's the only mayoral candidate in arms over the fact that just 34 percent of our cops actually live Portland (proving he reads the Mercury, since we were the first and only paper, in 2010, to affix a dismal number on what had long been an anecdotal phenomenon).
He's even come out and clearly stated—referring to the firing of Ron Frashour, the cop who shot and killed Aaron Campbell in 2010—that "failure to follow directions is not a criteria for shooting to kill.... That will not be an easy conversation."
Hales also comes across as flexible, the candidate most likely to listen. He does that even with his own opponents. We think that trait, along with his success passing a parks bond the last time he was in council, could help him team effectively with Housing Commissioner Nick Fish to develop some kind of housing and mental health levy that would finally provide sustainable funding for those needs. And in the meantime, he says he’d rethink our decades-long commitments to urban renewal districts that starve the city and county and schools of tax dollars.
He brought specific ideas for funding transportation at a time when revenue from the gas tax, amid historically weak demand, is plummeting. Among them? A new tax based on miles traveled, not gas guzzled. Oh, and it doesn't hurt that Hales has suggested painting police riot gear pink.
If he does just that—even if he lets fat-cat developers run all over Portland, even if he stops building bike lanes on major thoroughfares so he can repave little-used side streets, even if he moves back to Washington State in two years to get out of paying taxes—it’ll be worth it. Vote Hales now and then let's wait and see how we all feel in November.
City Commissioner, Position 1: Amanda Fritz (nonpartisan)
Here's the choice in the only city council race featuring an incumbent: Should we keep Amanda Fritz, a citizen politician and devoted tax-dollars watchdog, whose independence and quirkiness and zeal for process has sometimes left her on the outside of consequential city hall decisions?
Or should we dump her for Mary Nolan, a sharp-elbowed former Oregon House majority leader who boasts city bureau and private-sector experience—but who's also run a negative, whatever-it-takes campaign and has big support from all the city unions who don't much like that they haven't been able to co-opt Fritz after all these years?
We're going with Fritz.
She's the more careful candidate on issues like whether to invest in the Oregon Sustainability Center—a shiny, multimillion-dollar present for green economy zealots that could sink an already-strapped city budget even further in the red.
"It's nice, but we can't afford it right now," Fritz said during our endorsement interview, perfectly illustrating her worldview.
Fritz helped kill an unnecessary water filtration plant, saving Portland hundreds of millions of dollars that would have been paid through sky-high water rates. She asks annoying, yet valuable, questions during city council meetings, emerging as Randy Leonard's best frenemy. And she's been a champion for publicly financed elections, riding the now-defunct system into office in 2008. This time, she's accepting no more than $50 per contributor—even as Nolan has collected thousands from the unions she'll have to negotiate against. (But let's not forget that Fritz has had to spend, as of mid-April, $82,000 of her own money to stay in the race.)
Not that Fritz is perfect. Even with a light portfolio of bureaus, she's stumbled.
She did a poor job fighting back when the police union—which had ulterior motives, fearing potential discipline because of GPS tracking—unfairly rapped her over the rollout of the city's new 911 system. She needed Adams' help last year to rescue an aimless plan for the new Office of Equity and Human Rights, only recently hiring a nationally prominent director for the new office. She can get too involved in crusades like keeping well-managed food carts from serving beer and wine.
Further, we wish she’d step up and take bolder stances on police accountability, given her history as a psychiatric nurse and the fact that she’s already no friend of the police union.
Nolan's best argument for firing Fritz is that she'd wield more influence, drawing on her time running two city bureaus and also her own business. We're not certain about that. Nolan is reliably progressive, but she's inescapably a politician. There's a reason she's no longer a leader in Salem: She earned a reputation as someone who puts her own aspirations above anything else—voting no on a divisive 2009 transportation bill after cajoling most other Democrats to say yes. She also loses a lot of luster for the nasty campaign she's run—spending more time nitpicking Fritz's record than actually selling voters on why she'd be any better.
Fritz has more sway than the public might realize—it's just that, sometimes to her own detriment, it manifests behind the scenes. She's also spent the past four years improving at the city hall game. Tellingly, two of her colleagues, Saltzman and (more importantly) Nick Fish, also value her voice on the council. She should stay.
We'd also encourage another candidate in the race, Teressa Raiford, to stay involved at city hall. Raiford, an African American activist whose family has been personally touched by the pain of gang violence, spoke unflinchingly to both Fritz and Nolan about the realities of inequity in Portland. The city needs more voices like hers. And as for Nolan, if she can stand waiting two more years, we think she'd also make a good opponent for Saltzman.
City Commissioner, Position 4: Steve Novick (nonpartisan)
No, Steve Novick probably doesn't need our endorsement, or any other, to help himself onto Portland City Council.
The guy who's held the seat for the past 10 years, retiring Commissioner Randy Leonard, has already anointed him. Portlanders preferred Novick over Jeff Merkley in their 2008 primary race for the right to take down former US Senator Gordon Smith, and many still remember him fondly. And Novick has raised vastly more money than the less-experienced and lesser-known candidates who've thrown in against him.
But more important than any of that? He's flogging a pair of brilliantly compelling reform proposals that deserve to be taken for a test run at Portland City Hall and in the Capitol—and he's got the right friends in high places (like Governor John Kitzhaber) to make it happen.
The first is a plan that would tackle the region's tangle of public safety and mental health budgets and then, presumably, untangle them. Novick says Salem should give local governments like Portland and Multnomah County a set chunk of cash for public safety and let everyone get together to prioritize how much should be spent on front-end treatment (which is cheaper) and how much should be spent on jail beds and prison stays (which are ridiculously expensive).
Novick's other plan would see Portland, which already runs its own health insurance program, invest in its special health clinics and health coaches for high-cost workers—a way, eventually, to keep costs down. He'd even let private companies buy in.
Beyond those big ideas, Novick is likely to emerge as the council's leading voice on police accountability matters. He's one of the only candidates in any of the races to wonder why our city's Independent Police Review office doesn't do more of its own "independent" misconduct investigations. He's also willing to talk about scary ways to raise transportation funding: street-paving fees that vary by neighborhood and variable-price parking meters.
It would've been better if a well-funded rival had taken on Novick—forcing him to sharpen his pitch to voters. But two opponents do deserve special mention. Jeri Williams, a sex-trafficking survivor and a person of color from East Portland, brought real power to our discussion of issues like cop accountability and equity. And Mark White, a Powellhurst neighborhood activist and the former co-chair of the city's defunct Charter Review Commission, effectively, naturally, highlighted the need for real charter reform in Portland.
Measures 26-126 through 26-134: Vote yes on all
Which gets us to this chunk of the ballot, exclusively dealing with Portland's charter, a document akin to the city's constitution. City commissioners hamstrung Mark White's charter commission when it tried to tackle complex issues like utility rate oversight and police accountability. But the commission managed to bury something significant in this list of "housekeeping" charter changes (most of which will clean up outmoded language like "the exhibition of deformed or crippled persons"): a measure that would give some power to the next commission, whenever it's convened. If voters say yes, those commissioners would be guaranteed two-year terms and be given the explicit right to serve more than one term. The recent commission had to beg and plead for the nine-month terms they served amid increasing frustration.
County Commissioner, District 1: Deborah Kafoury (nonpartisan)
In just four years on the county commission, Deborah Kafoury has emerged as a reliably staunch advocate on issues of housing and health. She thinks big (partnering with City Commissioner Nick Fish to help streamline and update the region's needlessly redundant social services system) and small (no elected official in the region has done more to erase the stigma surrounding the quiet scourge of bedbugs). Moreover, she's managed all that—and fought to hold the line on safety net services—at a time of shrinking county resources. Kafoury clearly deserves to continue her work, and even expand on it. She's shown she can work across jurisdictions—beyond working with Fish, she helped close the deal for the new Sellwood Bridge. And now, for her next act, we hope she'll persuade the Oregon Legislature to stand up to the tobacco lobby and give the county the green light to raise much-needed cash through a tobacco tax. Her opponent, Wes Soderback, couldn't make our interview.
County Commissioner, District 3: Judy Shiprack (nonpartisan)
It's a good thing Judy Shiprack isn't terrible at her job. In fact, the one-term commissioner came off as impressively capable when it came to discussing the needs of her district—a densely populated chunk of long-neglected outer Southeast Portland—and the county's role in improving its quality of life. Let us also mention her most conspicuous achievement: the transformation of an old Carnegie library into a community center. Shiprack, a former state legislator and prosecutor, has drawn just one semi-serious opponent: activist, mom, and psychic medium Patty Burkett. Burkett was relentlessly focused on criticizing public housing agency Home Forward. Hopefully she's already sensed that, while we respect her energy and her passion for politics, we're not going to give her the nod.
Ballot Measure 26-125: Yes!
No-brainer doesn't begin to describe this ballot measure. Saying yes extends our current library tax levy for three more years. It won't raise your taxes. And saying no would be stupid and disastrous. Which is why no group or opposition campaign has come forward to urge anyone to do that. Come fall, we might be asked to do something more dramatic: approve a special library taxing district that will actually cost us money and lead to cutbacks for the county and city budgets. BUT THAT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THIS VOTE. So please SAY YES so our heavily used and award-winning libraries can stay open.
Councilor, District 5: Sam Chase (nonpartisan)
Metro remains the country's only elected supra-regional government—guiding land-use and transportation policy, and tending graves and zoo animals, on behalf of 1.5 million people spread over three counties, including ours. But its seven-member governing council, led by former Hillsboro Mayor Tom Hughes, is somehow always dominated by politicians from the sticks.
That's one reason why the two Metro Council districts that share Portland need the smartest and strongest candidates possible. In District 5, that's Sam Chase, the current director of the Coalition of Community Health Clinics and a former chief of staff to City Commissioner Nick Fish. Chase opposes the current Columbia River Crossing. And he's as good a housing advocate as Metro can get: He helped spearhead Portland's policy of setting aside 30 percent of urban renewal cash for affordable housing.
Retired vice principal Helen Ying, Chase's main opponent, is pleasant and says a lot of nice things about community outreach. But she's too green for a job this wonky (and, troublingly, she also supports the current Columbia River Crossing plan). Brad Perkins, a real estate guy and neighborhood activist, rails (get it?) too much about the need for high-speed rail and would raise barriers to bicycling by proposing a license fee. This race could head to a runoff, but Chase deserves to win outright.
Councilor, District 6: Bob Stacey (nonpartisan)
Bob Stacey is another wonk who belongs in Portland's bloc on Metro. We endorsed him two years ago when he ran against Tom Hughes for Metro president and nothing's diminished our opinion of him, or his résumé, since then. (He's led 1,000 Friends of Oregon, been a planning director in Portland, worked for TriMet, and twice served as Earl Blumenauer's chief of staff, first in Portland City Hall and then in Congress.) Stacey remains a firm opponent of invading precious farmland on the fringes of our region just so we can build houses that are so far from jobs and services that no one will actually want to live there. He speaks articulately about the need for in-fill industrial development. And, like Steve Novick, he's willing to talk about radical transportation funding ideas like a tax on vehicle miles and congestion tolling on highways and city streets. Stacey's opponent, Portland State grad student Jonathan Levine, couldn't attend our interview.
STATE OF OREGON
Attorney General: Ellen Rosenblum (D)
John Kroger, recently revealed as the next president of Reed College, handpicked his preferred successor at the Oregon Department of Justice a long time ago: Dwight Holton, the political scion and federal prosecutor who, for almost two years, stepped up to lead Oregon's US attorney's office.
In placing his imprimatur on Holton, Kroger could have done a lot worse. Holton is collaborative, can claim solid management experience, and has a clear judicial track record of taking on polluters and other reprehensible types. Nor is he a reactionary, having come up in the Clinton White House before taking work as a federal prosecutor first in New York and then, since 2004, in Oregon.
But as agreeable as we found Holton, we were just slightly more impressed by his only rival in the race, Ellen Rosenblum—a former appeals court judge and former state court judge who also, many years ago, spent some time as a federal prosecutor. She's also smart and likeable and unquestionably progressive.
In truth, both Rosenblum and Holton would make worthy attorney generals—and whatever daylight there is between them is minimal and ought to be measured in something more akin to microns than inches. Neither will tolerate fraud, etc. And they both thunder about protecting seniors and consumers and homeowners, etc. Whoever wins the primary, because no Republicans have filed, will undoubtedly assume the office next year.
Two things tipped our choice—and neither had anything to do with Rosenblum having worked and lived in Oregon way longer than Holton. The first is Rosenblum's more nuanced approach to medicinal marijuana. Rosenblum has said she'd prioritize other crimes over marijuana and has found herself (even if it's all just been a grab for national marijuana lobby cash) in a position to foster enough trust in patients and providers to make meaningful changes in the legal gray area where shady dispensaries have begun to thrive.
Holton, backed by district attorneys and law enforcement officials from all across the state, will have a harder time doing that. He carries a lot of baggage stemming from his federal job, which made him play the role of the heavy, and he did himself no favors by inflaming the medicinal pot advocates by calling Oregon's pot laws a "trainwreck." In our interview, he insisted he supports the state's pot law—but we worry all the same about how he'll enforce and interpret it.
The second point for Rosenblum was her unbidden nod toward completing Kroger's work on reforming public records law in Oregon. Kroger couldn't manage to browbeat legislators into loosening the state's shamefully expensive, opaque, and loophole-filled statutes; maybe she can. Of course, it came after both candidates disappointed us with weak stances on releasing public employee pension information—stances that seemed more designed to please backers in big labor than actual citizens.
Holton very nearly overcame all that by offering what's likely the more robust platform on police accountability. He notes accurately that he helped push for the ongoing federal probe of the Portland Police Bureau's use of force, he speaks clearly about the breakdown in trust between the cops and some community members, and he even has an endorsement from one prominent member of the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, Dr. T. Allen Bethel. But his plan to look at whether his office could emerge as a state hub for deadly-police-force investigations, among other things, is more exploratory than solid. We question whether he could effectively stand up to skeptics among his law enforcement backers to make it happen.
We're also just slightly dismayed by Holton's relationship with the white-collar law firm that hired him after he left the US attorney's office. Lane Powell represents and takes money from the kind of companies—Wells Fargo among them—that an attorney general ought to be rankling instead. Holton plays down the relationship, but also acknowledged using office space at Lane Powell to do campaign work. That's a gift, but it hasn't shown up yet in his state campaign finance records. Instead, his campaign says, Lane Powell will wait until after the campaign to submit invoices. Which is, conveniently, after voters who'd otherwise take umbrage at such an arrangement would've already cast their ballots.
State Representative, District 36: Sharon Meieran (D)
You could flip a coin to decide who ought to replace city council candidate Mary Nolan in one of Oregon's most reliably Democratic legislative districts and you honestly wouldn't go wrong.
In a close call, we're pulling for Sharon Meieran, an emergency room doctor at Adventist Medical Center, over Jennifer Williamson, a well-connected lobbyist and attorney who's also worked for the Oregon Department of Education. Meieran also boasts a law degree (plus the endorsement of another prominent doctor in Salem, Governor Kitzhaber) and is uniquely positioned to work on health care reform. Plus, sending her to Salem affirms the notion that qualified political outsiders deserve just as much a chance to serve as insiders do. But we won't be troubled if voters decide otherwise. Williamson, who makes much of her experience as a first-in-her-family college student navigating the horrors of financial aid, will also be an effective advocate for good ol'-fashioned liberal issues and wouldn't need any help learning her away around the Byzantine world of the Capitol. Computer programmer Benjamin Barber didn't make our interview.
State Representative, District 47: Jessica Vega Pederson (D)
Here's a somewhat easier call, this time to decide who should succeed mayoral candidate Jefferson Smith in this unpolished pocket of outer East Portland. We felt a little bit better picking Jessica Vega Pederson, a Microsoft executive with a family history steeped in politics, than we did Thuy Tran, an engaging optometrist and community volunteer. Pederson showed a slightly better grasp of issues like kicker reform (give it to the schools) and seemed to be a stronger advocate for sentencing reform and reducing prison spending. Tran, though she'd bring a perspective to Salem that's lacking (she's a former refugee and also a longtime business owner), was less bullish on the kicker and on sentencing changes—and a tad uncomfortably bullish on ideas like bicycle license fees, the pre-emption of real estate transfer taxes, and exploring a regressive sales tax.
State Representative, District 48: Jeff Reardon (D)
We're for anybody but Mike Schaufler, the allegedly Democratic 10-year incumbent representing this district in eastern Multnomah County (and now, thanks to redistricting, parts of Southeast Portland). Schaufler wouldn't return our calls or emails inviting him to meet, but we're not troubled. He was famously punished by his caucus over accusations he groped a woman at a labor convention last year. He memorably bucked his colleagues by refusing to get behind the push for Measures 66 and 67. And then, just last month, he received a $3,000 campaign contribution from the anti-union Tea Party-backing Koch brothers. He returned it, sure, but only after he pissed off his few remaining supporters on the left. Jeff Reardon is a teacher who's served time on the David Douglas School Board. We didn't meet him, but we'll hazard a guess that doing that work has grounded him in one of the most vexing issues facing the state: our lousy, under-funded schools.