2016: A YEAR WE COULDN'T PREDICT
2016 was the year political conventional wisdom was turned on its head. The most obvious example is Donald Trump defeating all establishment Republican candidates and Democrat Hillary Clinton to win the White House, something the 'experts' said could never happen. But many unexpected things happened on the state and local levels, too, raising questions about whether 2017 will be just as unpredictable.
2016 was the year political conventional wisdom was turned on its head. The most obvious example is Donald Trump defeating all establishment Republican candidates and Democrat Hillary Clinton to win the White House, something the "experts" said could never happen. But many unexpected things happened on the state and local levels, too, raising questions about whether 2017 will be just as unpredictable.
Here's our look at some of the biggest surprises over the past year in Oregon and the Portland area.
Quickie mayor's race
The news: State Treasurer Ted Wheeler seemed a shoo-in to win the Portland mayoral race after incumbent Charlie Hales dropped out late last year. But then Multnomah County Commissioner Jules Bailey, a former state representative from Southeast Portland, shook things up when he jumped into it.
Conventional wisdom: Many political observers felt Bailey had an instant edge over Wheeler when he began running to the left. Known as a smart progressive, the former economic consultant seemed poised to exploit Wheeler's wealth and support from the business community among Portland voters who view both with suspicion.A repeat of Tom Potter's upset of Jim Francesconi in the 2004 mayoral race seemed in the making.
What happened: For reasons that still aren't clear, Bailey's campaign never gained traction. A number of local activists and other progressive candidates in the race turned on Bailey. While Bailey struggled to respond, he was handicapped by limiting his campaign contributions. Meanwhile, Wheeler raked in big checks and dominated the TV advertising and mass mailings. Claiming progressive credentials of his own, Wheeler cruised to victory in the May primary election with 55 percent of the vote. Bailey received only 16 percent.
Eudaly comes out of nowhere
The news: Commissioner Steve Novick was vulnerable after mishandling the street fee issue, so multiple candidates jumped into the May primary election against him, raising the possibility that he would be forced into a runoff election with the No. 2 finisher.
Conventional wisdom: Portland architect Stuart Emmons, a well-respected advocate for low-income housing, seemed the most likely candidate to force Novick into a runoff election in November, especially after he raised the most money after Novick. Still, no one had unseated a sitting councilor in nearly a quarter century, so most expected Novick to prevail in November.
What happened: Surprise! Not only did little-known housing activist Chloe Eudaly beat out Emmons to force the runoff with Novick, the first-time candidate beat Novick decisively in November. Despite trailing badly in the primary and being far outspent in the runoff, Eudaly ran a brilliant grassroots campaign. Focusing relentlessly on Portland's affordable housing crisis, she mobilized tenant activists and low-income advocates, and enlisted cartoonist Joe Zacco for the city's first-ever comic book campaign piece.
Conservative wins secretary of state
The news: With the state's liberal voting record and strong union backing, Democrat Brad Avakian appeared on course to become the next secretary of state, the state's second-highest office. But Republican Dennis Richardson rocked Oregon's Democratic establishment by defeating Avakian.
Conventional wisdom: No Republican had won election statewide since 2002, when Gordon Smith was re-elected to the U.S. Senate. Avakian, the current labor commissioner, had endorsements from most of the usual liberal organizations and unions that might be expected to boost him to victory.
What happened: Avakian campaigned on a platform to expand the duties of the secretary of state, such as conducting audits of businesses that contract with state government. Some people, including Democrats who opposed him in the primary, saw his proposals as an overreach of the office. Meanwhile, Richardson focused on the traditional duties of secretary of state: auditing state agencies and impartial oversight of elections. He also benefited from better name recognition stemming from his failed 2014 bid for governor against John Kitzhaber.
Police shootings down but not protests
The news: Waves of street protests — mostly peaceful but some violent — swept the county in 2016. They included Black Lives Matter protests against police killings of unarmed African-Americans and protests about the election of Republican Donald Trump as president.
Conventional wisdom: Although Portland has a long history of street protests, it seemed well-positioned to avoid the most violent ones. No African-Americans have been shot by the police since Mayor Charlie Hales took office. And Portland voters were overwhelmingly anti-Trump, going heavily for Democrat Bernie Sanders in the 2016 May primary election and Hillary Clinton in November.
The city had requested a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the police shooting of unarmed African-American Aaron Campbell in January 2010. Hales and the rest of the City Council approved a settlement when the investigation found a history of excessive force by police against the mentally ill.
What happened: Portland got more than its share of protests throughout the year anyway, including some that turned violent. Protesters shut down freeways and pelted police with rocks after police killed African-Americans in other cities. Police forcibly cleared demonstrators from City Hall so the council could ratify a contract with their union that included raises, hiring bonuses, and an end to the 48-hour rule that DOJ wanted eliminated. A move by Hales to keep police invisible early on in the Trump protests backfired, leading to a window-smashing spree in the Pearl District. That sparked national media coverage calling Portland "the epicenter" of Trump protests.
Charlie turns green
The news: After four years in office, Mayor Charlie Hales's biggest accomplishment may be his climate change policies.
Conventional wisdom: Hales, a Republican and homebuilders lobbyist as a young adult, started shifting to the middle of the political spectrum years ago. But when Hales took the mayor's gavel in 2013, many expected he'd remain close to the downtown developer crowd that has lots of influence at City Hall.
What happened: Pressed by environmentalists early in his term, Hales opted not to seek a compromise to allow the Port of Portland to build trade terminals on West Hayden Island, effectively preserving all the wildlife habitat there. Last year he blocked Pembina Pipeline's effort to get a simple permit needed to approve a $500 million propane terminal at the Port, a project he initially heralded.
This year, Hales put Portland in the national and international limelight against climate change. He flew to Mexico City to accept an award from the world's leading cities working to counter climate change, in honor of the Portland/Multnomah County Climate Action Plan. He pushed through one of the nation's first Home Energy Scores, a city mandate opposed by Realtors and homebuilders aimed at promoting energy efficiency and cutting carbon emissions. Most significantly, he pushed through a ban on new and expanded fossil fuel terminals in the city.
In hindsight, Hales might be regarded as more of a greenie than the sustainability-minded man he replaced, former Mayor Sam Adams.
The news: Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith resigned effectively overnight upon the release of a damning report of the district's handling of lead contamination in school water.
Conventional wisdom: Superintendent for nine years — a lifetime compared to other urban schools chiefs in the nation — Smith was well liked among area politicians and district administrators. She had weathered many other controversies with a smile, and her announcement earlier in the lead crisis to retire in a year could have assuaged critics. Also, Portland's water has been known to leach small amounts of lead out of older pipes and fixtures for many years, with no lead poisonings attributable to school water systems. Smith also had mentioned many times that the school maintenance budget was threadbare.
What happened: Displeasure over Smith's management style had been simmering for years and the lead controversy brought it to a boiling point. Parents and teachers were viscerally angry that their children may have been poisoned, and the lack of a plan for a known issue seemed to underline their concerns about her management. Smith's bureaucratic apology that "mistakes were made" probably didn't help either.
Hip Portland becomes too pricey
The news: Homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in the Portland region became major political issues in late 2015. The City Council declared a Housing State of Emergency in October, allowing it to waive rules to create more shelters and affordable housing. The Multnomah County Commission quickly made the same declaration.
Conventional wisdom: The business-as-usual approach to ending homelessness and building more affordable housing looked to be over in 2016. Multnomah County Commissioners Loretta Smith and Diane McKeel pushed for opening the unused 525-bed Wapato Jail for the homeless. The City Council let developer Homer Williams try opening a 400-bed homeless shelter and multi-service center at Terminal 1. Community groups advocated for more funding for such programs, rent controls and an end to no-cause evictions.
What happened: On-the-ground results were a mixed bag. A majority of the Multnomah County Commission, led by Chair Deborah Kafoury, panned the idea of opening Wapato Jail for the homeless. Portland Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman pulled the plug on Williams' plan. The city and county created several hundred new beds at smaller shelters, but some of them were only temporary. The council and commission authorized over $100 million more for affordable housing projects, but most will be built though the traditional Request for Proposal process. A voter-approved $258 million affordable housing bond approved in November allowed the city to immediately buy and preserve the 263-unit Ellington apartments in Northeast Portland.
Wim leaves on whim
The news: Portland State University President Wim Wiewel announces his retirement will come in 2017.
Conventional wisdom: After years of getting unsatisfactory budget figures from the Oregon Legislature, Wiewel seemed to throw political caution to the wind by mounting a likely doomed campaign for a regional payroll tax to fund Portland State University — but not other Portland institutions. None of the elected leaders of Metro would publicly support the idea, so Wiewel encouraged a political action committee to start collecting signatures for an initiative campaign. Though Wiewel said at the time that he was "not smart enough" to have planned this outcome, pressure from the signature-gathering was enough for the business community to announce a plan to come up with $25 million per year for PSU in exchange for them dropping the tax idea. To this day, however, the details are still murky and one might think Wiewel would stick around to see how this story ends.
What happened: Wiewel says he had always planned to retire around 2017. This plan came as a surprise to his board of trustees, but in hindsight seems preplanned. His three-year contract, to last from July 2015 to June 2018, allows for one year of a paid sabbatical after his retirement this summer.
Tax boom to bust
The news: As state officials projected a $1.4 billion revenue shortfall for 2017-19, Measure 97 on the Nov. 8 ballot appeared to be the answer to the problem, purportedly without hurting the average Oregon-ian. Proponents targeted the 2.5 percent corporate sales tax toward large, national corporations such as Walmart and Comcast. Yet the measure failed overwhelmingly.
Conventional wisdom: Oregon needed revenue, and Measure 97's proponents — public employee unions funding Our Oregon — had a winning record at passing ballot measures in the past.
What happened: Initial polls showed nearly 60 percent support for Measure 97. But as opponents amassed record funding from large corporations to defeat the measure, they highlighted weaknesses in backers' arguments. The tax was projected to cost the typical Oregon family about $600 more per year in the form of higher prices, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Revenue Office. Opponents also drove home that lawmakers could use the revenue for any purpose they chose, not just education, health care and senior services. Finally, owners of some of Oregon's most iconic businesses, such as Powell's Books, said the tax would jeopardize their operations. The final result wasn't even close.
Another sheriff bails
The news: Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton was hit with a series of public revelations and allegations about his management style, ranging from a top manager's lawsuit threat accusing him of misogyny and boorish remarks, to a complaint that he appeared to have dangled a promotion to a union leader to avoid a no-confidence vote.
Conventional wisdom: Advocates of county charter reform had decried the difficulty of removing an elected sheriff while calling to make the position appointed instead. This would allow the elected county board to remove a leader who might not be doing the job. Staton rapidly became the poster child for the argument, as his lethargic and defensive response to the allegations only seemed to bolster concerns.
What happened: Rather than validate critics' portrayal of how hard it is to remove an underperforming elected sheriff, the Staton case showed otherwise.
In May, he announced his intent to retire more than two years before his term ended. Voters later rejected turning the sheriff into an appointed position.
EDIT: The reference to Portland's water clarifies that the water itself does not contain elevated levels of lead.