When the five Metro candidates vying for an open seat representing North, Northwest and Northeast Portland left our office on the afternoon of March 12, we were exhausted and yet oddly energized. It was the final group interview at the end of a long day and was supposed to end at 4:30, but we didn't wrap up until after 5 as the quirky quintet kept the lively conversation going.
In a quick debrief after they departed, we were leaning heavily toward one candidate. And, as the depths of the coronavirus impact became clearer over the next few days, so did our endorsement decision.
We don't know what the post-virus political landscape will look like, but we are absolutely positive our regional government will need someone like Mary Nolan on its seven-member legislative council.
Nolan is a tested public commodity, and one of the things she's known for is a sharp mind.
The Chicago native was in the first class of women admitted to Dartmouth and graduated with a degree in math.
Her knack for numbers served her well. After serving as Wall Street banker, she ran two of the city of Portland's biggest bureaus, public works and environmental services, from 1986 to 1990. A licensed pilot, Nolan left public employment to cofound a Hillsboro company specializing in custom engineering for the airline industry.
In 2000, she jumped back into public life after winning an Oregon House seat. She rose through the ranks of the Oregon Legislature, serving as House Majority Leader from 2009-11, before leaving Salem in 2013.
After an unsuccessful bid for the Portland City Council (she lost in November 2012 runoff with Amanda Fritz) Nolan went on to serve in leadership positions with a pair of non-profits, FamilyCare Health Plans and Planned Parenthood.
With that résumé, it's not surprising that Nolan often seemed just a step ahead of the other four candidates on the details of land-use planning, regional development and other areas where Metro councilors are supposed to guide policy.
But what really sold us was her take of what's missing at Metro: accountability.
Nolan generally supports Metro's expanding mission, into areas like affordable housing and public transit. But she said with that extended reach comes the need for the council to set clear, measurable outcomes and then hold Metro's managers accountable for reaching them.
Nolan, who as a legislator was known for asking pointed questions, said employees shouldn't fear accountability, but view it as "an invitation to succeed."
Those kinds of management skills would always be welcome on the Metro council, which tends to draw candidates motivated by causes. But they will be even more in demand as Metro is seeking $250 million per year for homeless services (via a measure on the May ballot) and a potential multi-billion-dollar transportation bond (still being considered for the November ballot).
Nolan supports the homeless measure, which would tax high-income individuals and high-profit companies. She says pushing most of the money raised to existing organizations already working on the issue is a sensible response to a growing regional crisis.
But Nolan is less sure about the transportation package, saying it's not clear that Metro has built enough support for the proposal or addressed some inequities inherent in the current public transit system.
Such critical thinking, as well as her experience as a legislator and public agency manager, would be particularly helpful to regional government now. In addition to venturing into new responsibilities, the agency laid off 40% of its 1,700 workers last month due to the shutdown of Metro-run venues such as the Expo Center, Convention Center, Portland Center for Performing Arts and Oregon Zoo.
Given all that uncertainty, Nolan is our clear choice to replace Sam Chase. But it doesn't mean the other candidates are slouches. Far from it.
If all Metro did was transportation planning, Chris Smith might have been our man. Smith, a longtime transportation activist and blogger, is a member of the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission and has served on the Metro Policy Advisory Committee. On a body that set policy, he'd walk in ready to contribute on a several key areas where Metro has responsibilities. He provided concise, specific answers to a host of questions, displaying an impressive understanding of the regional government's mission and history.
Mary Peveto, by contrast, is somewhat of a one-issue candidate. But, to be fair, it is the issue that should be part of every policy conversation.
Peveto has been an effective advocate for cleaning up the regional airshed in her role as founder and director of Neighbors for Clean Air. The former Nike and Adidas manager backs up her environmental activism with data and a relentlessness that would serve her well at Metro.
She makes a strong case that Metro is the one government that is big enough to deal with pollution on the regional level, and that climate change is linked to transportation planning, the housing crisis and other areas where Metro already is involved.
Karen Spencer is another impressive first-time candidate who spent time at Nike. In her case, she became one of the highest ranking African American women at the company, during her 15-year-tenure. A graduate of MIT and the Harvard Law School, she has served on a variety of boards and advisory bodies, from the Oregon Youth Development Council and Portland Parks Foundation to the Portland Business Alliance and Metro' own grant review committee.
Her background in law and business would be an asset to the council as would her commitment to use the post to "educate and advocate" on behalf of those who often feel left out.
Cameron Whitten, meanwhile, is making is second run for office. He jumped into electoral politics at the tender age of 20, in a losing mayoral bid in 2012 followed by a hunger strike on the steps of City Hall to draw attention to the Portland's growing affordable housing crisis.
Whitten has matured since then, channeling his energy into results-driven activism. As the executive director of Q Center, he' been a champion for LGBTQ+ rights. As the founder of Brown Hope, he's helped highlighted lingering racial disparities in the region.
He's demonstrated in this election that he's a serious candidate. We're just not sure Metro is the right match for his passions.
Given the varied backgrounds and motivations that each of these candidates brings to race, it's no wonder that we ran out of time during our joint interview. To be honest, we'd be comfortable with any of them filling the open council seat. But we believe that Nolan's experience as a legislator, business owner and public agency manager, make her the best choice as Metro heads into a challenging period.
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