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Kafoury leans in to county chair race

Candidates line up to replace Jeff Cogen; stand-ins will fill posts as commissioners jockey for ballot


by: COURTESY OF DEBORAH KAFOURY - Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury is expected to be the leading candidate to replace outgoing County Chair Jeff Cogen.The race to replace former Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen begins Thursday — the first day to file for the 2014 primary — though political consultants say it will be tough to beat heir apparent County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury.

Kafoury’s fellow County Commissioner Diane McKeel said she also may run, setting up what one political consultant called a potential “family feud.”

Other names also being bandied about as potential candidates, including former Portland City Commissioner Jim Francesconi, who reportedly has put out feelers about entering the race. Francesconi didn’t return calls requesting information on his intentions.

Ironically, when Cogen’s four colleagues on the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners called for his resignation in late July, they said they wanted to end distractions and restore normal operations at the county, which has been abuzz since news of Cogen’s affair with a county health program manager went public in July. But if Kafoury and McKeel wind up running for his seat next May, they must resign their commissioner posts, leaving the Board of Commissioners with a majority that wasn’t elected by voters, at least until May. That’s because county rules required Cogen and the other four commissioners to designate their own replacements should they leave their seats mid-term. Voters wouldn’t be able to choose replacements until May, at the earliest.

Hours after Cogen announced his resignation Friday, Kafoury told the Tribune “I really need time to think,” about whether to enter the race. But several political insiders said it was a matter of when she’d file, not if she’d run.

“For the chair’s race, everybody seems to be looking at Deborah,” said Paige Richardson, a political consultant who led the successful county library levy campaign in 2012.

On Monday night, state Rep. Jules Bailey, D-Portland, got confirmation of Kafoury’s intentions to run, and he told the Tribune and others that he was no longer entertaining a run for Cogen’s post, and was setting his sights on running for Kafoury’s county commissioner seat. “It would be an honor to do my best to try to fill her shoes,” Bailey said.

After Bailey's announcement, Kafoury confirmed to Willamette Week on Tuesday that she plans to run, though didn't say when she’ll formally enter the race.

On Wednesday morning, Kafoury told the Tribune she definitely plans to enter the race, but wants to remain on the county commission for awhile to help provide leadership during this rocky period. "The county doesn't need me to quit and have a campaign," Kafoury said. "I will at some point."

She cited three big issues she wants to help see through on the commission: help rebuild the county courthouse, which recently scored $15 million in assistance from the Oregon Legislature; work on consolidating city and county housing and homeless services; and work on the ongoing transformation of the health care system.

Polls conducted last spring — before Cogen’s affair went public — showed that Kafoury had better name recognition and was viewed more favorably by county voters than Cogen or the other three county commissioners, Richardson said.

Being well-known by voters, and having a generally positive reputation among voters, give a candidate a sizable edge at the onset of a campaign — and could dissuade others from entering. The great equalizer, though, is often campaign cash, which enabled the relatively unknown Ted Wheeler to win his first race for county chair in 2006, unseating Diane Linn.

The filing deadline for the chair’s race is not until March, so there’s plenty of time for others to ponder entering the race.

There may be good reasons for Kafoury to hold off filing for the race, while sending clear signals she is running, to ward off would-be opponents.

Once Kafoury files to run, she must immediately resign her county commissioner post, and will stop collecting a salary. By staying in office, she can rightly claim to be helping steady a ship that has been taking on water since the Cogen affair went public in July.

But an open political seat without an incumbent is tempting for would-be candidates.

The race might be most tempting for sitting county commissioners, as the county chair runs Multnomah County government, while the other four commissioners have comparatively few responsibilities. The chair also makes $145,000, while commissioners make $95,000.

Reached by phone from Virginia on Monday, McKeel said she is weighing whether to enter the race for county chair. “When I get back, I will give it a whole lot of thought,” she said.

Her decision won’t depend on who else is in the race, she said.

McKeel represents the eastern part of the county, and is considered more centrist than Kafoury, a progressive Democrat. McKeel may have the ability to fund a robust campaign with family money, which helped propel her past favorite Carla Piluso to win her first commissioner’s race in 2008. Her political action committee reports show she’s still carrying $182,174 in loans from that race, but it’s possible there’s more money where that came from.

County Commissioner Loretta Smith announced at a Labor Day picnic that she would run for re-election, and her seat comes up for election next year. However, that was before Cogen resigned, and her name still is being bandied about as a candidate.

Smith didn’t return calls seeking her position on the county chair race, but state Rep. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, said he hears she is a potential candidate. “I think Loretta could compete well against just about anybody,” Frederick said.

Smith has strong ties to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden’s political circle, and is well-respected in Portland’s African-American community.

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Jeff Cogen's chief of staff Marissa Madrigal will replace him as county chair after his resignation. Other county commissioners are considering resigning to run for the top post.The other sitting Multnomah County commissioner, Judy Shiprack, said she is not going to run, and hopes Kafoury will enter the race.

Cogen’s position as county chair was filled this week by Marissa Madrigal, his chief of staff and designated replacement should he leave office mid-term. Madrigal promised she won’t run for his post, and sees herself as a “caretaker” leader who will seek to provide stability during a time of political transition. Madrigal also said she’ll keep Cogen’s staff in place, and will promote Emerald Bogue Walker, Cogen’s policy analyst and former campaign director, to be her chief of staff.

If Kafoury files to enter the race, state human services manager Liesl Wendt would take her seat until a permanent replacement is elected. Wendt also is former CEO of 211 Info.

If McKeel files to enter the race, her seat would go to Sue O’Halloran, principal and real estate broker at KBO Brokers in Gresham.

Kafoury and McKeel’s resignations would take place if they file for the county chair post, said county elections spokesman Eric Sample. But if Smith were to run, she wouldn’t have to resign if she filed after Jan. 1. That’s because she would be entering her last year in her term, Sample said.

Those running as mid-term replacements for Cogen or other commissioners must get a majority vote in May to take office, Sample said. If not, the non-elected replacements will remain until a subsequent run-off can be held, most likely in September.

One key advantage for Kafoury is her family name, and the network of political supporters that brings.

Her mother, Gretchen Kafoury, served in the Legislature, Multnomah County Commission and Portland City Council. Her father, Stephen Kafoury, served in the Legislature and as a lobbyist in Salem. Her stepmother Marge Kafoury is a former lobbyist for the city of Portland and elected Metro councilor.

But Kafoury hasn’t just stood on her family’s shoulders, Richardson said. She co-founded X-PAC, the political action committee that nurtured young candidates from “Generation X.” She was elected to the Legislature and quickly rose up the ranks of House Democratic leadership. While on the county commission, she helped secure funding, via the Legislature, to finance the Sellwood Bridge replacement. “She was the one that quietly got that problem solved, and the funding taken care of,” Richardson said, yet “didn’t demand the accolades for it.”