Longtime Gresham mayor faces challenger
For the first time in a dozen years, the Gresham mayoral race will be contested.
Vying for his fourth term as mayor, incumbent Shane Bemis is being challenged by a political newcomer, Allen Cox. Bemis previously ran uncontested in 2010 and 2014, after being voted the youngest leader in city history by defeating predecessor Charles Becker in the 2006 mayoral campaign.
Cox, 64, was born in Portland and has lived in Gresham for the past 13 years. He is self-employed through a pressure washing business he created, and said he wants to challenge voters to become more involved in the political process. His hope is that through a mayoral campaign, he can spur changes within the community.
"I'm running because I don't think people should be elected unopposed," Cox said.
The longest-serving Gresham mayor in more than six decades, Bemis previously served as a city councilor from 2003 to 2007, having topped John Dillow for council position 6. His focus has been on economic development, community safety and livability, and making Gresham a thriving environment for children and families.
"It has been my greatest privilege and honor serving as mayor of this community," he said.
New face, ideas
The seeds of running for mayor were planted in Cox's mind the day the city added a Police, Fire and Parks fee to the utility bill. The per-unit charge of $7.50 per month is sent to single-family households, multifamily property owners and businesses.
For Cox, that unexpected jump on his bills was an unwelcome surprise, and has become something of a trend for the mayoral hopeful.
"People didn't want that fee on their bill," Cox said. "It was a manipulation of the people and the system, and we need to ask questions as to how it happened."
The main thrust of Cox's campaign is transparency and accountability. He is frustrated by the muddy waters of Gresham politics, and said he wants the elected officials to be more forthcoming with their decisions and processes.
"The public isn't getting a chance to ask any questions of our elected officials," Cox noted.
He sees crime and homelessness as being thrust upon the community from Portland. He said he doesn't want to take a passive stance toward the younger homeless individuals, instead finding ways to get them off the streets with stable jobs. But the problem has grown to a point where he rarely visits places like the Springwater Corridor Trail.
Cox said he wants to increase the livability of the community and deal with the rush of traffic. Two potential solutions would be a new bridge spanning the Columbia River between East Multnomah County and Washington, and the completion of the long-abandoned Mt. Hood Freeway plan.
"I am responsive to the will of the community," Cox said. "I would listen to what needs to be done in Gresham."
Cox got a brief taste of politics while living in Oregon City 20 years ago, serving as a precinct captain for two terms. He made his way to Gresham thanks to his wife, and went to Mt. Hood Community College for a couple of terms.
"I ended up here because I married a woman who had a house in Gresham," Cox explained. "In my mind, anything that isn't Portland is special."
Though that wasn't always the case. Cox remembers growing up in Portland and being able to join his friends for a game of baseball on an empty lot. There was space for kids to be kids, and have a fun time without constantly getting in the way of other people.
But now, thanks to the urban growth boundary, Cox said that people are being piled on top of each other with no room to naturally expand.
"It needs to disappear," he said. "You should be able to freely live where you want to live."
Deciding to run for his fourth term as mayor of Gresham was a family-decision for Bemis, as his loved ones have been alongside him throughout his political career. When he first made a bid for city council, his eldest son was only four months old. Now, as Bemis revs up for reelection, his oldest is a Gresham High School junior.
"It was a real gut check for me because if I am successful in the election, it'll mean 20 years serving the city," Bemis said. "I had to check with my family first because they serve as much as I do."
Bemis originally ran a dozen years ago at the behest of his predecessor, Charles Becker, even though he was unsure — worried about committing his prime working years to a volunteer position as leader of the community.
"I never started all of this to be in politics," he said. "I just wanted to make my community better."
Bemis, 46, is both the city's 26th mayor and a restaurateur, helming the popular downtown Italian eatery Boccelli's Ristorante. He is a founding member of the Metropolitan Mayors Consortium and a ranking member of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. That national experience has allowed him to bring new ideas back to the community.
Bemis said that Gresham is going through a renaissance right now. Schools are being rebuilt, transportation is being revamped, young families are moving into the community and the economy continues to grow.
"We are right there as a community, and I didn't want to sit it out," he said.
Through the election, Bemis' priorities are to continue to create opportunities in Gresham. He wants to support both large and small businesses, develop parks with legacy playground equipment, explore the housing crisis using the newly formed Housing Task Force and work with regional partners to support education and livability in the neighborhoods.
Under Bemis' leadership, the city has tried to double down on community celebrations. The importance of bringing different types of people together has been a priority for city leadership.
"Mayors have to be able to hold people together," Bemis said. "In the absence of federal government, I think we have been able to cultivate community. The toilets will flush, the water will run, the streets will be paved — but we have to be able to live and work together."
He is excited about the youth movement — both across the country and here in Gresham. Young people have become active voices in politics, and Bemis said he wants to support them and give them a platform here in East Multnomah County.
The growing diversity in Gresham is also something he is focused on, and he wants to continue to meet with and listen to people from all sorts of backgrounds to better serve Gresham.
"I wake up every day and work for Gresham," Bemis said.