For voters concerned about the ongoing humanitarian crisis on the streets of Multnomah County, the most important race on the May primary ballot isn't the contest for governor or city commissioner. Instead, it is the race for the Multnomah County chair. That candidate will determine whether Portland and Multnomah County will start acting with the urgency needed to move thousands of houseless people out of tents and into safer and healthier places to live.
The county has the greatest control over the city and county Joint Office for Homeless Services. It's the county that is responsible for human services in general, and that administers massive contracts with nonprofit providers. So, if voters are unhappy with the status quo — as we know many are — they should vote for a disrupter, Dr. Sharon Meieran, in hopes she will move forward to a November runoff election for Multnomah County's top job.
Meieran is one of three incumbent county commissioners vying to replace county Chair Deborah Kafoury, who can't run again due to term limits. Also in the race are Commissioner Lori Stegmann, who has been an effective advocate for her East County district, and Commissioner Jessica Vega Pedersen, who currently represents East Portland. A fourth candidate who we interviewed, Sharia Mayfield, is particularly impressive on the issues but lacks observable experience as an elected official.
To be clear, Meieran isn't the only one among this qualified group to recognize the need for a different approach at the county. But her experience as a commissioner and her willingness to ask and answer difficult questions gives her the edge. An emergency room doctor with a law degree, Meieran understands that the Multnomah County chair wields vast power within the local government. The chair's office writes the county budget, oversees county department heads, and sets short-range and long-term agendas.
So what would Meieran do with all this power if elected? Her first priority is to address "the crisis of unsheltered people living in squalor on our streets." Meieran outlines a three-part plan that includes a network of microsites with restrooms and trash collection, a network of safe parking sites, and much-needed coordination to ensure that the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on homelessness and treatment are not wasted.
Some of her proposals and criticisms of current practices have offended service providers. However, we suspect any ruffled feathers would be smoothed over quickly if Meieran is in charge of the county's revenue streams. That's not to say she is the perfect candidate. She still needs to sharpen her message, but of the incumbent commissioners running for this seat, she is the one who clearly states that this region faces a "humanitarian crisis and we are not addressing it like it is."
The other candidate who reflects the current public mood is Mayfield, an attorney and law professor. She advocates using "enforcement as a last resort" to move people off the streets and argues the Portland area is absorbing more than its share of the national homeless problem due to — among other things — a permissive drug culture that draws people here. She could make a terrific chief of staff for whomever ultimately gets elected chair.
Our close second choice among the sitting commissioners is Stegmann, who is best at articulating what the county already is doing to address the issues of homelessness and mental health. Our ideal scenario would be for Meieran and Stegmann to advance to a November runoff, which would give both candidates more opportunity to define their agendas and viewpoints.
However, Vega Pedersen has substantial backing and could be considered the frontrunner in the primary. Unless she gets more than 50 percent of the vote, no candidate will win outright in May. Therefore, our endorsement of Meieran comes with the expectation that this race will carry over to November when voters can reassess which candidate is the best to handle the most important job that few people think about.
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