Mayor Ted Wheeler and challenger Sarah Iannorane presented starkly different versions of the city's condition during a debate hosted by the City Club of Portland on Thursday, Oct. 15.
Wheeler repeatedly said that under his leadership, Portland is making progress on the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the recession it triggered, and the racial justice movement that has included both peaceful and violent protests.
Repeatedly using phrases like, "We know what we need to do, and we're doing it," Wheeler said his administration is implementing a downtown revitalization plan, opening additional emergency shelter beds for people living on the streets, reforming the Portland Police Bureau, and mostly managing the protests well.
Iannarone, a former small business owner and university administrator, disagreed, charging that Wheeler was leading a "failed administration" incapable of making things better.
"We hear from him about success, but does it feel like we're succeeding?" Iannarone asked.
Much of the hour-plus debate focused on the protests.
Wheeler said the police had worked hard to keep those with competing sides peaceful. He also cited several police reform steps taken by the city council, including referring a new police oversight system to the Nov. 3 general election ballot. And he said that, as police commissioner, he had banned the use of tear gas and benched some officers who violated bureau procedures during the protests.
"We are making good progress," Wheeler said.
Iannarone disagreed, charging that Wheeler was unable to control the police, whom she accused of protecting right-wing demonstrators and brutalizing peaceful protesters "night after night."
"The protests are continuing because he hasn't given them what they want," said Iannarone, who noted that Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty had withdrawn her endorsement of Wheeler over the police bureau's handling of the protests.
Wheeler responded by reading several previous quotes from Iannarone, saying they showed she had not denounced violence by the protesters. They included her telling KGW TV "Straight Talk" host Laurel Porter, "'I'm not the person setting the fires. I'm not the person here to tell them how to protest."
Iannarone replied that she was tired of having her quotes taken out of context and repeatedly referred viewers to her campaign website for a detailed version of her policy plans, including police reform, economic development, and climate action. When asked how much it will cost to implement them, she said they were not all intended to be accomplished in four years but insisted Portland cannot afford to wait on her progressive agenda.
In response, Wheeler said it was important to fix what is broken now, saying the pandemic-related recession is reducing city revenues, requiring additional spending cuts in the future. He said experience in the office better qualifies him to lead the council on the next budget, which prompted Iannarone to say she will hire qualified staff and rely on the City Budget Office to assist her.
Iannarone also took the opportunity to criticize Wheeler for not complying with a voter-approved campaign contribution limit during most of the primary election, even though they were on hold while the Oregon Supreme Court determined their legality. Wheeler promised to comply with the $500 maximum limit when the court upheld a similar voter-approved Multnomah County limit on April 23, less than a month before the May 19 primary election.
Although the City Auditor's Office has repeatedly fined Wheeler's campaign, Wheeler insisted it has not broken the law. It is challenging the fines in court.
Despite their other disagreements, Wheeler and Iannarone both said they favor changing Portland's form of government by no longer having council members manage bureaus, hiring a city manager, increasing the council's size, and electing some members by districts and some citywide.
The City Club is Portland's leading civic organization and is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
The debate was co-sponsored by the Pamplin Media Group, the owner of the Portland Tribune, and moderated by the newspaper's managing editor, Dana Haynes. It was streamed live on the City Club websites and broadcast by XRAY.fm radio. It is available on the City Club's YouTube page.
Several recent polls show a majority of Portland voters disapprove of the job Wheeler is doing as mayor, including his handling of the ongoing political protests. A poll conducted in mid-September by DHM Research showed Iannarone leading Wheeler by 11 points but with less than 50% of the vote. The poll was conducted for the Portland Business Alliance and had Iannarone with 41%, Wheeler with 30%, and the remaining 29% of surveyed voters split between writing in a candidate (16%) or still undecided (13%).
A different, later DHM Research poll commissioned by Oregon Public Broadcasting showed the race virtually tied with Iannarone at 34% and Wheeler at 33%. Six percent said they are going to write in Black activist Teressa Raiford. The poll was taken between Oct. 7 and Oct. 11.
Wheeler served as Multnomah County Chair and Oregon State Treasurer before being elected mayor at the May 2016 primary election with 55% of the vote. Former state legislator Jules Bailey came in second with 17%, and Iannarone finished third with 12%.
Wheeler was forced into a runoff at the Nov. 3 general election because he received just under 50% of the vote in the primary. Iannarone came in second with 24%.
Wheeler had reported raising $487,702 in cash and in-kind contributions in 2020 by Oct. 15, including a personal loan of $150,000. His campaign has a cash balance of $129,915.
Iannarone participates in Portland's new public campaign financing program, which uses city funds to match up to $50 of each maximum $250 contribution on a six-to-one basis. She can raise and spend up to $570,000 in the runoff election — including the city funds — unless Wheeler raises more than that, in which case there would be no cap on her spending.
Iannarone has reported raising nearly $$263,247 in contributions and qualified for $784,876 in matching funds. Her campaign currently reports having $195,225 on hand.
The debate can be replayed on the City Club's YouTube page, which can be found on its website (pdxcityclub.org).
The next City Club debate co-sponsored by the Pamplin Media Groups will be between the candidates for State Treasurer, incumbent Democrat Tobias Read and Republican Jeff Gudman, at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 21.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.