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Analysis: Potential challenge to Mayor Ted Wheeler by Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson roils field

MULTNOMAH COUNTY - Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, 44, is reportedly mulling a run for Portland mayor. Because of the county charter, any declaration before January would require she resign her post.The recent news that county Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson may run for the Portland mayor's job in 2020 amounted to an only-in-Multnomah political trial balloon.

So far, the mayor's race features a potential candidate who can't declare that she's running and a seemingly declared incumbent who may not run — along with an activist who's definitely running, but may not win.

But despite the uncertainty, the race is one to watch. Next year's Portland primary has all the makings of "one of the most interesting and historic elections" in the city's history, lobbyist and political analyst Len Bergstein said.

On April 10, the news broke in The Oregonian/Oregonlive that Vega Pederson is "strongly" considering a run for mayor, according a source familiar with her thinking. She recently confirmed to the Portland Tribune that "I'm thinking about how I can best serve my community in the future and where my skills and strengths can be best used."

If the former lawmaker indeed jumps in, she will constitute the first establishment candidate to potentially face Wheeler. She would enter a race already featuring Teressa Raiford, a community organizer and leader of Don't Shoot Portland who has set up a campaign committee with the Secretary of State's office.

Raiford, who previously ran for Portland City Council, has been polarizing. In 2016 she was blasted by Jo Ann Hardesty, now a Portland city commissioner, for what Hardesty called unproductive tactics when it comes to police oversight.

And the news of Vega Pederson's reported interest comes at a time when Wheeler is widely perceived as weak, sparking widespread speculation about possible challengers. "If the election were this week, even voters who are paying attention will be hard-pressed to identify a strong reason to reelect," Bergstein said.

County charter looms

One of the interesting wrinkles of Vega Pederson's possible candidacy comes from the fact that she draws a $112,699-per-year salary from Multnomah County. The county's charter, or guiding document, says "no elected official of Multnomah County may run for another elective office in midterm without resigning first," until they enter their final year of office.

That could mean Vega Pederson can't declare — or potentially make significant moves toward running — before January 2020 without losing her current job.

When Commissioner Loretta Smith declared her candidacy for Portland City Council in September 2017, for instance, she was hit by a lawsuit from local campaign activists demanding her immediate resignation and that she reimburse the county for her salary. The case is still active.

Three Oregon election law experts last year told the Tribune that it's not just a declaration of candidacy that could trigger the Multnomah charter requirement. A judge, one said, likely would use a "walks-like-a-ducks" standard to determine whether a county commissioner had begun running for another office. If that's true, then retaining a political consultant, raising large amounts of money and registering a website could all lose Vega Pederson her current job. So if she wants to keep drawing her Multnomah salary for the next eight months, any efforts toward a mayoral run may need to be covert.

Vega Pederson said she hasn't ruled out running for reelection to the county. "We have big issues that we need to be working together on, that we need to be moving forward on," she said. "And figuring out the best place that I can do that is part of the process."

Wheeler will or won't?

Adding to the strangeness of a potential candidate who can't declare that she's running is a seemingly declared incumbent who may not run.PMG FILE PHOTO - Mayor Ted Wheeler

In November 2018, Wheeler famously muttered in a moment of unguarded frustration that he "can't wait" for his term as mayor to end in two years — seemingly alluding to the heckling and criticism he'd been facing as mayor.

Over the next few weeks, he scrambled to walk those comments back, telling the Tribune that, while he hadn't made a final decision, people should assume that he's running again.

"I'll make a decision sometime in the next year with my wife about whether or not I'm running for re-election, he said at the time. "But people should assume that I'm going to run a very aggressive reelection campaign, with an equally aggressive forward-looking agenda."

In December he added an exclamation mark by raising $58,500 in one three-day span, and lately he's begun posting campaign-style videos on his Twitter account, one of him having coffee with Police Chief Danielle Outlaw.

"The mayor hasn't made an official announcement yet, and this decision will ultimately be made with his family, but he is leaning on running for reelection," his spokeswoman, Eileen Park, said last week.

Tony DeFalco, executive director of Verde, said that frustration with Wheeler's office is creating an opportunity to make the Portland City Council more diverse. People are saying "maybe it's time to bring in some new voices," he said. "I always think that's good for the democratic process."

Bergstein agrees the city's political trendline is toward more diversity. But despite Wheeler's current vulnerability, the mayor still has time to mount a strong reelection bid, he added.

"Lucky for Ted, the election is not now," Bergstein said. "By May he may have found his footing and be able to drown out a challenge with a heavily financed narrative."

The 2020 election could be historic in that it will deciede whether the council shifts into a more consensus-driven style, or spin off into contention and stalemate, Bergstein said

Other questions abound

In March, state Rep. Diego Hernandez told The Oregonia/Oregonlive he might consider a run for mayor if asked.

On Monday he said in a text that while he's focused on legislating, "I'm not ruling anything out. I am really concerned with our current leadership and I do want a mayor that wants to be in the job and that has a track record of standing up for East Portland and equity."

Beyond that, there are plenty of other wild cards — not the least of whether some potential mayoral aspirants may instead seek to run for the seat being vacated by Commissioner Amanda Fritz, political observers say.

But Vega Pederson's potential entry seems to be helping clarify the race.

Many political observes are interpreting Vega Pederson's potential interest in the mayor's job as a clear signal that Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury will not run for the post.

A Vega Pederson candidacy also could mean that other Commissioners don't feel compelled to challenge Wheeler.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty and Wheeler have often clashed and speculation about whether she'd run continues — though in the past she's pooh-poohed the idea, saying she is focused entirely on her present job.

Last November, after the news that Wheeler might not run came out, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly said on Facebook she might consider a run for mayor under the right circumstances, such as if a "viable progressive candidate" did not do so.

Last week, asked about her current thinking about a run for mayor, Eudaly's chief of staff Marshall Runkel, said "The conditions she laid out in the post have not been met, it appears that the Mayor is running for reelection and if he doesn't, another great candidate has expressed interest."

Then there's Jules Bailey, the former lawmaker who ran against Wheeler in 2016. Asked whether he's considered a run for city council, Bailey replied "I have not."

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