Left, right or middle? How City Council might swing
Will the winner of the City Council race shift it far to the left or preserve the status quo?
Among political observers, activist Jo Ann Hardesty is widely seen as someone who will shake up City Hall, while Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith is regarded as more of an establishment figure. Because of that, many City Hall insiders are thinking Hardesty will consistently vote with the more liberal members of the council for new programs, commissioners Chloe Eudaly and Amanda Fritz. Conversely, Smith is expected to vote more often with Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Nick Fish to stick closer to the city's traditional policies.
"That's the way the offices are looking at it in City Hall," says one lobbyist who spoke on background.
Eudaly has heard the speculation and agrees the council would be more liberal if Hardesty is elected. But she rejects the notion that anyone can predict how they will vote on any specific issue.
"I have seen the process work behind the scenes. There are no nefarious alliances. I've changed my mind during meetings after hearing expert and public testimony," Eudaly says.
A case in point: Hardesty has been saying at campaign events that she would be the third vote to pull the Portland Police Bureau out of the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, suggesting that she has an agreement with Eudaly and Fritz to do so. But Eudaly says she's made no such agreement with Hardesty, although she supports a conversation about whether the participation of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement violates the city's sanctuary policy.
Fritz would only say that she's publicly expressed her desire to pull the police bureau out of the task force. She declined to comment further on the race.
Some veteran political observers say the idea of establishment and anti-establishment voting blocs is too simplistic. They say it is even wrong to think outgoing Commissioner Dan Saltzman was not liberal. He was the first of the current members to get city government more involved in sustainability and social service programs.
"The winner of the race will scramble the votes and test Mayor Ted Wheeler's leadership ability to get things done, there's no doubt about that. But assuming she will automatically be part of a voting bloc is a mistake," says Len Bergstein, a lobbyist and political commentator.
"Jo Ann Hardesty and Loretta Smith are two very independent women. They had to be to get as far as they have, as two women of color in politics," says political consultant Paige Richardson.
Speculation about the relationships on the next council began five months ago when Hardesty and Smith finished first and second in the May primary election. Hardesty came close but failed to win more than 50 percent of the vote, setting up a Nov. 6 runoff election. Fish was easily reelected in the primary.
Bergstein admits it's easy to think of Hardesty consistently voting with Eudaly and Fritz against Wheeler and Fish on controversial issues. Eudaly and Fritz have endorsed Hardesty. All three women are considered political outsiders, compared to Wheeler and Fish. Hardesty is running with grassroots support, Eudaly upset incumbent Commissioner Steve Novick, and Fritz is the only council member elected with public campaign financing.
"It's easy to assume the men are the establishment and the women are insurgents, but people need to look more deeply," Bergstein says.
Smith is regarded as the more conservative candidate by some because she has been endorsed by the Portland Business Alliance and the Portland Police Association. Richardson says that's unfair, insisting that both she and Hardesty will make sure marginalized communities have a voice on the council if they are elected.
"In a city where 'conservative' is a dirty word, it doesn't apply to Loretta," Richardson says.
Both candidates have occasionally fueled such speculation, however. For example, during the Oct. 5 debate with Smith before the City Club of Portland, she said, "I am sure the men on the City Council will be proud to work with a strong group of women." One lobbyist says Smith suggested she would vote more consistently with Wheeler and Fish while seeking his (the lobbyist's) support. The Smith campaign says she is only talking about not immediately withdrawing Portland from the Joint Terrorism Task Force.
Hardesty denies that she would automatically form a voting bloc with Eudaly and Fritz, however, telling the Portland Tribune, "I will always strive for a unanimous consensus, and I expect there to be a significant number of 5-0 votes; however, sometimes the women will be the majority, while other times there will be a mixed majority, because we are not monolithic."
And the record shows it is wrong to assume Smith would automatically vote with Wheeler and Fish. As a county commissioner, Smith has repeatedly shown she does not automatically follow the wishes of the leadership — or even the majority. She has repeatedly clashed with Chair Deborah Kafoury and was the lone voice for opening the former Wapato Jail as a homeless shelter and service center.
Bergstein says it's a mistake to assume that either Eudaly or Fritz would automatically vote with Hardesty on controversial issues. Eudaly has already shown a willingness to work with Wheeler and Fish to pursue her priorities, including renter protection. And although Fritz was considered a neighborhood activist during her first council race in 2008, she also had served on the Portland Planning Commission, where she immersed herself in the formalities of the rule-making process. Fritz was the only council member to vote against increasing building heights in the RiverPlace area along the west bank of the Willamette River when the council updated the Central City Plan earlier this year.
"Fritz is a progressive who doesn't like change," says one City Hall lobbyist.
The bigger question might be what new programs or policies Hardesty and Smith would seek to initiate.
Hardesty has repeatedly said that she will not limit her activities to the bureaus she is assigned to oversee.
She has already demonstrated a willingness to give the council new responsibilities by helping to put the Portland Clean Energy Fund measure on the Nov. 6 ballot. Although Smith supports the measure, during the campaign, she has talked about how much she has been able to accomplish working in the system, including creating a county youth jobs program.
She has also proposed expanding existing city programs, such as offering property tax breaks to existing apartment owners who make some of their units affordable.
Previous mayors have struggled against three of the five council members who had their own priorities. Most famously, former Mayor Tom Potter stormed out of a council meeting about renaming North Interstate Avenue after labor leader Cesar Chavez in October 2007, saying he was not a "voting member of the council anymore."
Although the hearing was about renaming a street, Potter had been frustrated by a series of previous votes where then-commissioners Sam Adams, Randy Leonard and Eric Sten seemed to be pursuing their own agendas. Potter eventually grew so frustrated with the council that he did not run for reelection.
Even Vera Katz, the former three-term mayor widely considered the most politically savvy city leader in living memory, found herself outmaneuvered from time to time.
For example, in late December 2000, then-Commissioner Charlie Hales led a charge to repeal a ban on skateboarding and in-line skates in downtown. Katz publicly opposed it. But, in spite of her lobbying to maintain the ban, she lost on a 3-2 vote.
"Over the past few months, Katz has lost a string of battles as City Council has defied her wishes and moved in the completely opposite direction," the Portland Mercury reported at the time.
Bergstein also notes that any coalition that forms after the election might not last long. Wheeler, Eudaly and Fritz are all up for reelection in 2020.
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