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Three current commissioners are competing for the top county seat, but face a challenge from a state staffer

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - A sign showing Multnomah County's logo is attached to the wall of the County's Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard building. Multnomah County Commissioners Jessica Vega Pederson, Lori Stegmann and Sharon Meieran have both announced plans to run for chair of the board of commissioners.

Vega Pederson was the first out of the gate in the race to become the chief executive of Oregon's most populous county.

A two-term commissioner whose district covers Southeast Portland from Cesar Chavez Boulevard to 148th Avenue, Vega Pederson told the Tribune that if elected county chair, she would work collaboratively to solve problems and bring different groups to the table.

"Housing, houselessness, climate change, racial inequality," she said in an interview Sept. 2, "these issues demand strong and bold leadership, and that's exactly what I've shown as an elected official for a really long time."

As first reported by Willamette Week, Meieran, who represents District 1 on the west side of the county, also announced her bid for the position. Current County Chair Deborah Kafoury can't run again because of county term limits.

Observers are expecting a free-for-all after announcements from Meieran, Vega Pederson, and Stegmann, who announced after the Connection went to press.

Only Commissioner Susheela Jayapal is said to be a definite no.

As for Vega Pederson, she is perhaps best known for spearheading the campaign to bring free universal pre-school to all county residents, a program that will begin in September 2022 and eventually serve as many as 15,000 early learners. She also championed a pledge to transition the county to 100% renewable energy by 2050 soon after taking office in 2017.

In Salem, Vega Pederson was noted as Oregon's first Latina state representative when elected to District 47 in 2013.

She passed bills removing coal from the state's energy supply by 2030, mandating paid sick leave for smaller employers as well as a "domestic workers bill of rights" requiring overtime, rest breaks, paid personal time and harassment protections for housekeepers and nannies.

"All of these things are about fighting for those who can't fight for themselves," the 46-year-old said.

Though sometimes overshadowed by the Sturm und Drang at Portland City Hall, the county's nearly $3 billion budget has an enormous impact over public health and safety through the independently elected county sheriff and district attorney.

Vega Pederson said her approach to law and order would be informed by her own experiences. As she sat down to play Minecraft with her two middle school-aged children recently, a man jumped out of a car and opened fire at another person running into the park across the street from her home in the Hazelwood neighborhood.

"That sort of experience is happening more and more," she said. "We have to have a public safety system that recognizes that people have to be safe … (but) we have to reimagine it in a way that reflects the disparities of Black and brown communities who have been negatively impacted by the police."

She offered little critique of Kafoury's "strong leadership," saying only that she would seek to repair the relationship with Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.

With the election for county chair not until May 2022, Secretary of State Shemia Fagan has already endorsed Vega Pederson.

Meieran wants county to prioritize homelessness

Meieran, an emergency room doctor, said the county faces a number of substantial issues.

"I have been committed to the core work of the county — public health — for my working life," said Meieran. "Multnomah County is facing multiple crises. I have the background and skill set we need to triage them and address what's happening with a sense of urgency."

Meieran is the only member of the commission who has questioned its current strategy of prioritizing permanent housing over alternatives to end the homeless crisis. She laid out her position in a March 7 op-ed in The Oregonian, in which she said, "It is clear that urgent solutions are needed. But in order to provide the right solutions, we need to be asking ourselves the right questions, and acknowledging up front that our region currently does not have the capacity to provide housing, or even indoor shelter, for everyone living on our streets."

Meieran had yet to file election paperwork as of Sept. 14.

Governor's staffer files for chair

Aside from Vega Pederson and Meieran, Shannon Singleton, who works in Gov. Kate Brown's office as director of equity and racial justice, also filed to run for county chair. Singleton, who lives in Portland's St. Johns neighborhood, has a background in social work and nonprofit executive leadership. She previously worked for the Portland Housing Bureau.

"As a clinically trained social worker, I've dedicated my entire life to public service, always putting people first," Singleton said in a campaign statement via Facebook. "From moving more than 5,000 people out of homelessness into permanent housing as a nonprofit CEO to ensuring that racial equity is centered (in) state budgets and programs, I have the practical human services experience that makes me the right leader at the right time for County Chair."

Stegmann in the running

East Multnomah County's representative on the County Commission is eyeing the top seat in the upcoming election.

Commissioner Lori Stegmann, District 4, announced her candidacy for county chair Monday afternoon, Oct. 4, after mulling the decision in the wake of Chair Deborah Kafoury being unable to run for reelection with term limit restrictions.

"Let's face it, we've been through hell this past year and a half … and every challenge we had before the pandemic has only been exacerbated," Stegmann said. "As the commissioner from East Multnomah County I have championed and guided many of our efforts to provide critical support during this pandemic — but we can and must do more."

Stegmann said her focus is on supporting the homeless community, providing rental assistance to keep people housed, and expanding support for small businesses.

"As the only commissioner from outside of Portland, I have a different and broader perspective that is much needed now, as we tackle some of the toughest challenges our county and our region has faced in our lifetime," Stegmann said.

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