Wheeler defends record in three-way debate
Ted Wheeler on Wednesday was forced to do something that no Portland mayor has done since Vera Katz — publicly defend his record against challengers while running for reelection.
The event was a Wednesday, Feb. 26, debate between Wheeler and two opponents before the Columbia Corridor Association, which represents mostly industrial businesses along the Columbia River in Portland. Wheeler is the first mayor to seek a second term since Katz. Former mayors Tom Potter, Sam Adams and Charlie Hales all declined to run for reelection.
In exchanges with architect Ozzie Gonzalez and community activist Sarah Iannarone, Wheeler repeatedly said he was proud of the progress his administration has made on the two biggest problems facing the city, homelessness and the affordable housing crisis. Wheeler pointed to partnerships forged by the city, Multnomah County and social service providers that have increased funding for homeless services, and he said the Portland Housing Bureau is on track to exceed the number of units to be funded by the $258 million affordable housing bond approved by voters at the November 2016 general election.
Wheeler also praised Metro for passing a $653 million affordable housing bond two years later. He said the $250 million homeless services measure Metro recent referred to the May 19 primary election ballot will fund programs that will keep the chronically homeless housed in many of the units funded by both bonds when they are built.
"We have the right strategies, we just need to scale them up," Wheeler said.
Gonzalez and Iannarone were not impressed. Both of them accused Wheeler of being slow to grasp the magnitude of the problems. Gonzalez said the problems will not be solved until everyone who works in Portland can afford to live here, while Iannarone criticized the Portland Police Bureau, which Wheeler oversees, for sweeping homeless camps when the people who live in them have nowhere else to go. She suggested allowing people to live in their cars, where they can lock the doors to protect themselves.
"I want people experiencing homelessness to be safe," Iannarone said.
The situation was the same when the subject turned to economic development. Wheeler said he was proud of what Prosper Portland — formerly known as the Portland Development Commission — had done under his administration to support the creation of well-paying jobs.
Gonzalez and Iannarone said not enough is being done to create more environmentally responsible, green jobs and to train people for them. Gonzalez said the city needs to be prepared to support the new businesses that will be created by the Portland Clean Energy Fund that voters approved at the November 2018 general election.
"The opportunity will require leadership," Gonzalez said.
All three candidates agreed that the city's form of government is outdated and needs to be changed. Portland is the last major city in the county without a city manager who oversees all bureaus, allowing the mayor and council members to spend their time on legislative matters instead of managing bureaus. Wheeler also said the commissioners should be elected by districts to give historically underserved community more power.
Wheeler said that he supports allowing the citizen charter review commission, which must be appointed by the end of the year, to lead the public discussion on how to reform the charter. The commission, which must be appointed at least every 10 years to recommend charter reforms, can refer measures directly to the ballot without council approval.
Wheeler told the Portland Tribune that he hopes all of the organizations currently discussing charter reforms will participate in the commission process, including the City Club of Portland, the League of Women Voters and Communities of Color.
All three candidates criticized TriMet, including Gonzalez, who serves on the regional transit agency's board of directors. They said TriMet is not providing enough service to meet the needs of the growing region. Wheeler questioned whether TriMet should remain an independent agency, calling for an "all hands on deck" discussion of whether it should be merged with an agency with land use and planning responsibilities, presumably Metro.
A fourth candidate, civil rights activist Teressa Raiford, had been invited to participate in the debate but did not show up. According to KOIN 6 News, her campaign said that due to an alleged attack on Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty over the weekend and the "threat of anti-black violence," they made the decision to not attend. Willamette Week reported that Hardesty was harassed by right-wing protesters near City Hall on Saturday. Only environmental protesters were outside the Holiday Inn near Portland International Airport where the debate was held.
Columbia Corridor Association Executive Director Corky Collier said the four were chosen because they had easily raised more campaign funds that any of the other candidates who have filed for the office.
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