Could Black Lives Matter affect City Council election?
The historic movement against systemic racism is reshaping the City Council special election set for Aug. 11.
Former Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith has jumped on the police accountability issue, releasing a five-point reform plan before the council first voted to eliminate four controversial tactical units, including the former Gang Enforcement Team. She also has announced an endorsement from the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Her opponent, longtime public school advocate Dan Ryan, has listed "Police Reform and Real Accountability" as his first priority in the Voters Pamphlet page he filed for the runoff election. It also features a prominent endorsement from Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who led the push to eliminate the units that have repeatedly been accused of discriminating against Black Portlanders.
At first glance, the political momentum would seem to favor Smith, a Black woman, over Dan Ryan, a white male. She has long talked about the difficulties of being a single mother raising a Black son in Portland. Smith's election could even pave the way for a majority Black council if African American candidate Mingus Mapps defeats incumbent Commissioner Chloe Eudaly in the Nov. 3 general election.
"We have to address what has become a national police accountability issue," said Smith, who supported cutting the Portland Police Bureau budget by $50 million.
But the choice is not that simple. Even though Ryan supported the smaller $27 million police cut approved by the council, he defies expectations as an HIV-positive gay man who has long fought for better educational opportunities for students of color. He is the former CEO of All Hand Raised, a nonprofit advocacy organization with a focus on racial equity in Portland-area school districts. Under his leadership, it pushed to close the achievement gap and ensure equity in school discipline.
"I have experienced hate and violence as a gay man. The next City Council will be the most diverse ever. But it could have the first HIV-positive queer," said Ryan, who describes himself as a longtime ally of traditionally underserved communities
Ryan has also had a former African American partner and is currently engaged to a gender fluid indigenous Mexican.
"I am very aware of how differently they are treated than me when we are out in public together," said Ryan, adding that he is healthy today because of medical advances since his diagnosis in the 1995.
Election to fill unexpired term
The election is being held to fill the unexpired term of the late Commissioner Nick Fish, who died of cancer in early January. The runoff is required because no candidate received more than 50% of the vote to win the Position 2 seat outright. Smith came in first with 19% of the vote and Ryan finished closely behind her with 17%.
Although the Portland-based DHM research firm has not polled on the race, political director John Horvick said support for the Black Lives Matter movement in Oregon historically has been highest in the Portland area and among voters between ages 18 and 34. Horvick said he is not convinced that Portlanders will cast their votes solely on the basis of racial or police accountability issues. However, given all the other serious problems in the region, including the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, homelessness and the lack of affordable housing.
Smith and Ryan have both qualified for the Portland's new public campaign financing program, giving each of them the opportunity to receive up to $240,000 in city funds if they raise a maximum of $60,000 in contributions of $250 or less by July 21.
Smith lost to Jo Ann Hardesty in the 2018 council race that was very personal by Portland standards. Despite that, Smith has nothing but praise for Hardesty now, saying her three decades of civil rights activism is critical.
Ryan wonders how Smith would get along with Hardesty on the council, however.
"We need the best team we can get right now," Ryan said.
Smith and Ryan both worry that many if not most Portland voters are not yet aware of the upcoming election. Each of them talked about calling potential contributors who thought they would be on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.
Horvick said the movement also will impact the November runoff elections for other two council positions. One is the race for mayor, where incumbent Ted Wheeler is being challenged from the left by Sarah Iannarone. The other race is between Eudaly and Mapps.
The influence might be stronger in the August election, Horvick said, because it is that much closer to the death of African American George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police, which inspired the weeks of protests.
Previous problems remain unsolved
How suddenly and completely the issue has come to dominate state and local politics is revealed by reading the official Voters Pamphlet for the May 19 primary election. Although it was held only a little more than a month ago, hardly any candidates even mentioned racial justice or police accountability in their statements, which were mailed to every registered voter. Instead, the biggest problems mentioned by most candidates were homelessness, the lack of affordable housing and climate change.
Smith and Ryan were among the vast majority of candidates who did not directly mention the issue at all.
Although Smith included a quote from state Sen. Lew Fredrick (D-Portland), a leading police accountability advocate, that statement praised her for fighting climate change.
The results of the primary election are equally revealing. Mayor Ted Wheeler, who now is being vilified by protesters for not cutting the Portland Police Bureau more, came within a few tenths of a percent of winning reelection outright with more than 50% of the vote. His general election opponent, Iannarone, repeatedly accused the police of unfairly targeting Blacks and other people of color during the primary. But she only squeaked into the general election with 24%. And the most outspoken police critic, Don't Shoot Portland founder Teressa Raiford, did even worse with just 9%.
Just outside of Portland, voters in Washington County and the city of Tigard passed measures to fund law enforcement agencies. The county levy to continue enhanced sheriff's services was approved by 55% of voters — much of Washington County is urban but not within any city limits; in those areas, the Sheriff's Office asks as a municipal police agency.
A measure to pass a Tigard levy to fund neighborhood police patrols passed with 54% support.
Both Smith and Ryan said the previous issues are still unsolved and critically important. The COVID-19 pandemic that swept the country in March only made them worse by destroying jobs and forcing more people onto the streets, the two candidates said.
"This no time for on-the-job training," said Smith, citing her previous work for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, in addition to her two terms on the commission.
"These are the effects of a public health crisis, and I have experience living through that," Ryan said.
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