Despite months of protests in the streets demanding radical change, Portland voters elected the most moderate City Council in years.
But the split between urban and rural voters in the state grew larger, with Republicans picking up three Oregon House seats on the coast, allowing the minority party once again to stage walkouts that bring legislative business to an end — as happened in 2019 and early 2020.
"The message from the election was relative moderation in Portland and increasing division across the state," John Horvick, the political director of the DHM Research firm, said.
Horvick spoke during a Portland Business Alliance Live Forum titled "November election debrief, the highs & lows of a historic election year" on Wednesday, Nov. 18. Appearing with him were: Jon Isaacs, the PBA's vice president of government affairs; Paige Richardson, co-founder of the Springwater Partners political consulting firm; and veteran Willamette Week reporter Nigel Jaquiss.
All of the panelists agreed that the election would be the story of the year in normal times, especially because of the defeat of an incumbent president whose party still picked up seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and may retain control of the U.S. Senate. But this year has been shaped by series of unprecedented crises that are their own big stories, both nationally and in Oregon. They include the COVID-19 pandemic, the recession caused by the response to the virus, the racial equity and social justice movement sparked by the death of Floyd George, and the devastating wildfires in the western parts of the state.
Against this backdrop, Portland voters chose competence and stability, Isaacs said, beginning with the May 19 primary election. Latino Network Executive Director Carmen Rubio, a well-respected, pragmatic progressive, won the race to succeed retiring Commissioner Amanda Fritz with 67% of the vote.
Longtime collaborative school advocate Dan Ryan squeaked into a runoff election against divisive former Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith, then defeated her in the Aug. 11 special runoff election.
Likewise, moderate Mingus Mapp edged controversial former Mayor Sam Adams out in the primary to face Commissioner Chloe Eudaly in the runoff, and then easily defeated her. And, after just barely failing to be reelected in the primary, Mayor Ted Wheeler fell behind in the polls to left-wing challenger Sarah Iannarone before battling back to win reelection, albeit with only 46% of the vote after 13% of voters chose write-in candidates.
With Iannarone and Eudaly losing, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty will have an even harder time achieving her goal of cutting the Portland Police Bureau budget disproportionately more than other city agencies in the future.
"I do believe that my job on council just got much harder," Hardesty said in a statement the day after the Nov. 3 election.
"The voters desire stability and less drama, and that also played out nationally," said Issacs, noting that President Donald Trump was defeated but his party's congressional candidates did much better than expected. They won almost all of the heavily contested seats in the House and will control the Senate if they win just one of two special election races in Georgia, come January. Republican control of the Senate would prevent the Democrats from passing the most liberal parts of their agenda.
Jaquiss said the results of the Oregon House races are still playing out, pointing to the leadership challenge being mounted by Democratic state Rep. Janell Bynum, a Black woman from Happy Valley, against Speaker Tina Kotek of Portland. Most of the House Democrats support Kotek for another term, but she reportedly does not have the majority of all 60 representatives necessary to win on the first vote.
Bynum, a strong criminal justice advocate, is preparing to challenge Kotek for speaker on the House floor, which would require her to win the support of all Republicans and seven Democrats. The 2021 session begins on Feb. 1.
"The BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) community wants a seat and the table, and they are asking for a seat at the table," Jaquiss said.
Richardson said she was not surprised that racial issues are roiling Portland politics, despite the city's progressive reputation. She said local Democrats have repeated promised change and better outcomes for communities of color, but have never delivered. She said that was why Portland voters approved the Clean Energy Fund ballot measure in November 2018. It taxes large retailers to fund local energy project aimed at benefiting traditionally undeserved communities.
It has been widely reported that the next council will be the most racially diverse in Portland history, with two Black commissioners and a Latina out of five members. But Richardson noted that people of color won more offices than ever in the communities outside of Portland as well. Travis Stovall is set to be Gresham's first Black mayor (pending the results of a recount) and joins African American Vincent Jones-Dixon on that city council; Ricky Ruiz, 25, won an Oregon House seat out of Gresham; and Nafisa Fai will be the first Black member of the Washington County Board of Commissioners, and the first Muslim member.
"Things are shifting," Richardson said.
And the campaigning isn't over. In fact, the 2022 election started the day after the general election, Horvick said. He noted that Oregon Gov. Kate Brown cannot run for reelection because of the two-term limit, setting up the most wide open race for the top office in the state in years.
Horvick also said that Oregon is expected to receive another congressional seat after of population growth after the 2020 U.S. Census is completed, requiring all congressional boundaries to be withdrawn. The existing Democratic incumbents — who first began serving in 1987 and will average 72 years old in 2022 — will all have to decide whether to run again or allow a new generation of party members a chance to succeed them.
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