The two candidates in the upcoming City Council special election faced off before the City Club of Portand on Friday, July 31. Longtime school activist Dan Ryan and former Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith agreed on most issues, including the need to reform the Portland Police Bureau and achieve racial justice.
The online debate took place less than two weeks before ballots must reach Multnomah County election officials by 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 11.
In their opening statements, Smith described herself as "a fighter" for the community, while Ryan said living with HIV has driven his commitment to serving the city. Both said the council needs to do more for underserved communities.
Smith and Ryan also said they have a history of bringing people from different backgrounds together. Smith cited programs she created at the county to help communities of color, while Ryan cited his work as director of All Hands Raised, an advocacy organization that pushed to close the achievement gap in public schools.
The debate was moderated by Oregon Public Broadcasting senior political reporter Jeff Mapes.
The only sparks that flew occurred when the candidates were allowed to question each other. Ryan noted that Smith has been cited for mismanaging campaign and public funds, asking how she can be expected to manage city bureaus. Smith replied that the city has professional money managers and she supports changing the form of government so commissioners do not oversee bureaus.
Smith, who is Black, asked why Ryan fired a Black woman after seven days on the job and settled a wrongful discrimination suit at All Hands Raised in 2013. Ryan responded that she was the wrong person for the job, and it was the only time that has happened in his career, during which he has hired and overseen hundreds of employees.
Ryan and Smith both supported the police oversight measure referred to the Nov. 3 general election ballot by the council earlier this week.
"That is so important and we have to have that," said Smith, who said her Black son has been racially profiled by the police.
"We need to be able to do true accountability," said Ryan, pointing out that Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who wrote the measure, has endorsed him in the race.
In response to a question, Smith said she is willing to stand up to the Portland Police Association, despite being endorsed and financially supported by the police union when she ran unsuccessfully for the council in 2018.
Ryan and Smith also supported the current version of the Residential Infill Project intended to increase density in existing single-family neighborhoods. The council is scheduled to adopt the final amendments on Wednesday, Aug. 5, and will take the final vote at a future date to be determined.
Both also said Portland's form of government is dysfunctional because commissioners manage bureaus and that it needs to be replaced with a council more representative of the community. Ryan praised the City Club study that recommended a city manager position be created to oversee all bureaus and a larger council with commissioners elected by districts.
Neither candidate directly answered a question about where the city budget should be cut because of a revenue decline caused by the pandemic. Instead, Ryan and Smith both said affordable housing should be prioritized, with Smith warning of a looming eviction crisis because so many renters have lost their jobs. Ryan said he is concerned that publicly-funded affordable housing projects cost so much and take so long to build in Portland.
In response to a question, Ryan said more needs to be done to protect Black transgender women, saying one was murdered in Portland two days ago and expressing surprise that so little is being said about it. Smith also supported additional protections.
Both also supported opening the former unused Multnomah County Wapato Jail as the Bybee Lake Hope Center to serve the homeless with addiction issues.
The election is being held to fill the council vacancy created by the death of Commissioner Nick Fish in January of this year. The winner will serve until the end of 2022 and can run for a full term that year.
Ryan and Smith are facing each other because they received the most votes in the crowded May 3 primary election, which no candidate won outright by receiving more than 50% of the vote. Smith received 18.8% and Ryan received 16.6%.
Both candidates are participating in the city's public Open and Accountable Election campaign financing program. As of press time, Ryan has outraised Smith in small contributions and city matching funds in both elections by $466,108 to $279,010.
Smith lost to 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 to the council.
"My sense is the issues are far too great right now to have any petty differences," Smith said in response to a question about whether she could work with Hardesty.
The City Club is Portland's oldest civic organization. It has 1,300 members and is currently conducting its events online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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