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Four years ago, Washington County voters sent a powerful message by electing Kathryn Harrington as county chair.
The retirement of Andy Duyck made the contest for county chair an open-seat race. After Harrington and the much more conservative Bob Terry emerged as the top two vote-getters in a crowded primary field, Harrington trounced Terry in November to become the new county chair.
Unquestionably, Harrington's election changed things.
Washington County became the first county in Oregon to ban the sale of flavored tobacco and vaping products last year.
The county has also taken a more aggressive tack on homelessness, using grant money to convert old motels and inns into shelters and even low-income apartment housing intended to get families off the street.
Most recently, the county adopted what it calls an "equity charter," establishing an advisory committee made up of diverse members of the Washington County community to advise the county commissioners through the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion.
"It really is a new day at Washington County," Harrington told this editorial board, with evident pride.
And perhaps there is no greater sign of the changing times in Washington County politics that virtually none of the progress Harrington touts is threatened in this year's election.
Four years ago, county voters faced a choice in the primary between three registered Democrats and one registered Republican in what is nominally a nonpartisan election.
This year, two candidates qualified for the primary ballot: Harrington and Hillsboro City Councilor Beach Pace.
Both Harrington and Pace are registered Democrats. Both describe themselves as progressive. While Pace considers herself to be "more moderate" than Harrington, and Harrington is officially endorsed by the Washington County Democratic Party, voters essentially face a choice between two women who line up very similarly on the issues and use similar rhetoric when they speak about the challenges facing Washington County.
For voters who generally support progressive policy positions — and they're decidedly in the majority in Washington County, which favored Joe Biden for president two years ago by more than a two-to-one ratio — this election represents an interesting opportunity.
For voters who don't — and in a county of more than 600,000 people, even as a decided minority, there are still a lot of them — they may feel like they don't have a dog in the fight, with no standard-bearer for politically conservative views in the running.
We'll come back to that last point. But as to the first: Harrington doesn't come from the school of "Getting to Yes," to borrow the title of Roger Fisher and William Ury's famous 1981 guide to negotiating and reaching agreement. She hasn't always made friends during her term as county chair, and while she chalks that up to a few different reasons — the pandemic, philosophical differences, the fact that she's a strong progressive woman in a position of authority — she makes no apologies for it.
Notably, nearly all of Washington County's mayors — several of whom backed Harrington in 2018 — have endorsed Pace this year. Among local mayors, Harrington is endorsed only by Jaimie Fender, the new mayor of King City, and Lacey Beaty, the Beaverton mayor who has long been allied with Harrington's husband, Marc San Soucie, on the Beaverton City Council.
"They may not like me as a person," Harrington told us, "but they have to respect the job and the title that I hold."
Harrington has also drawn sharp criticism from Roy Rogers and Jerry Willey, her colleagues on the Board of Commissioners who are typically on the losing side of 3-2 votes.
Both conservative commissioners were unhappy last year when Harrington embraced Commissioner Nafisa Fai's push to broaden the proposed tobacco ordinance, expanding it to become a full ban on the sale of flavored products rather than imposing some relatively light restrictions, saying they felt blindsided.
On a personal level, Rogers has also accused Harrington of treating her conservative colleagues with disrespect, disrupting the comity the board enjoyed under Duyck's chairmanship.
Harrington has even ruffled the feathers of some of Washington County's most prominent liberals — such as Dick Schouten, her ally in the board's new liberal majority after Harrington was elected in 2018. Harrington snubbed Schouten when he ran for state Senate and sought her endorsement, instead backing former Multnomah County prosecutor Kate Lieber. Lieber ended up winning the Democratic primary easily, leaving Schouten out of a job.
Harrington is unapologetic about her advocacy for people she sees as more progressive, more diverse candidates for office — working to "smash the patriarchy," as she put it a Facebook post two years ago that grabbed the attention of Harrington's supporters and detractors alike.
"I'm not going to stop fighting against the old status quo," Harrington told us.
Harrington's sharp-elbowed approach has not been confined to the political arena, though.
Last year, KOIN 6 News — our television news partner — broke the news that Washington County had paid out close to $80,000 as part of a settlement with Harrington's former chief of staff. That settlement was reached after the ex-employee threatened a lawsuit against Washington County, accusing Harrington of creating a hostile work environment.
KOIN also obtained a copy of a 2015 memorandum to Harrington, while she was a Metro councilor, from then-Metro Council president Tom Hughes. In that memo, Hughes admonished Harrington for mistreating staff and creating a "climate of fear" at Metro, writing that employees reported "feeling bullied, shamed, intimidated and scolded without the ability to speak up or defend themselves."
Hughes told KOIN that Harrington's behavior improved afterward, and he endorsed her in 2018 when she ran for county chair. This year, he's backing Pace.
"Having listened to what some of my friends at the county have been saying, it doesn't appear that the problem entirely went away," Hughes conceded.
Last month, a third-party investigator hired by Washington County to look into Harrington's workplace conduct turned up a laundry list of complaints about the chair's behavior, with one unnamed witness describing it as "way beyond unprofessional." Another claims some employees quit rather than continue working with Harrington.
For her part, Harrington told us that she regards negative feedback as "a gift" and has been working to try to change her behavior. But she also offers a litany of excuses in her defense: Her expressions and body language don't translate well over Zoom, which the county commission has used for meetings during the pandemic. She hasn't been accused of "unethical" conduct. It is her "passion" that causes her tone to change.
To say the least, we find this record of interpersonal issues to be troubling.
Pace told us that she was drawn to run because she kept hearing from people about Harrington's mistreatment of employees and combative relationship with mayors and other local leaders.
"There is a deep hunger for connection and collaboration," she told us.
Pace is finishing up her first term on the Hillsboro City Council. She has no previous government experience, although she served in the U.S. Army and works as chief executive officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters' Columbia Northwest chapter.
That's the major knock against Pace, really: She doesn't have Harrington's résumé in public life.
Harrington was a three-term Metro councilor when she ran for county chair four years ago, and she's running for re-election with a term's worth of experience — during a global public health emergency, no less — under her belt. There is no question she is the more experienced candidate in this race.
Pace argues her experience shouldn't be discounted just because she hasn't held office for as long as Harrington. She's served on the City Council of the county's largest city for nearly four years, she's been active in the League of Oregon Cities, and she has management experience at a large organization from her job at Big Brothers Big Sisters.
In our interview with her, Pace answered virtually every one of our questions by talking about her intent to work collaboratively with other people — fellow commissioners, county staff, state officials, local leaders, community members, employers like Intel Corp., etc. — to solve problems and find solutions that work for the people involved.
Pace is particularly frustrated by how the county, under Harrington's leadership, handled the placement of a homeless shelter in a part of Hillsboro often considered the city's Latino business district. With little notice and not nearly enough public outreach, the county purchased the former Econo Lodge and converted it into what it calls the Hillsboro Bridge Shelter.
"I believe in checking in with a community before you do something in, around, near or with that community," Pace told us. "I would have had a lot more outreach to the Latino community before I put a shelter in the middle of their business district."
Pace doesn't fault county staff — at least they were at the meetings that were held, she said. Harrington was not.
We understand the dilemma. Homelessness is a massive issue in Oregon right now — a recent survey by the Oregon Values & Beliefs Center, a partner of Pamplin Media Group, found that a majority of Oregonians say they want their leaders to treat it as a top priority — and addressing it often feels like a Sisyphean task. While most people say they want the homeless population to have shelter and access to the services they need to be healthy, get clean and hopefully become self-sufficient, few actually welcome them as neighbors.
But we also sympathize with those who feel they weren't heard when the county moved quickly to set up a shelter in the midst of a neighborhood with many minority-owned businesses, and now feel their continuing concerns still aren't being addressed. And it's alarming that a county government that now pats itself on the back for using an "equity lens" was so cavalier in steamrolling unhappy Latino business owners and community members.
Pace said she would bring a brand of personal leadership and community engagement she doesn't see coming from Harrington, and she will work with the Latino community in particular to make sure its voice is heard.
"It takes longer, but the outcome is always better," she told us.
On the issues, Pace and Harrington don't sound so different. Both view affordable housing as a top priority for the county. Both talk about the need to reinvest in the business community and assist in recovering from the pandemic. Both say they want Washington County to emerge from this crisis with a different outlook and a new approach to tackling societal problems.
But for those voters who may be turned off by a Democrat-versus-Democrat contest, there is a clear contrast between Pace and Harrington.
Pace told us that she considers it an honor to represent her constituents in Hillsboro, even those who didn't vote for her. If she wins, she said, she plans to reach out after the election to people who didn't endorse her and work to build those relationships. While most of Pace's endorsements are from progressives, she's also backed by a few prominent conservatives, something she said speaks to her collaborative approach.
"I think I do appeal to those voters who could feel left out," Pace told us.
While Harrington vociferously defends the change in philosophy and values she has brought as chair, she argues much of it shouldn't be seen as political. If it is, then so be it.
"I do not shy away from this being hard work, and the political realities of this work. This is how our democracy, our republic that is the United States of America, is intended to work," Harrington said.
She's right: Voters had a choice four years ago, and they chose Harrington. And voters have a choice this year.
They should choose Beach Pace.
While this editorial board did not endorse Harrington in the primary four years ago, it was an easy decision for us to back her in the general election. Compared with her conservative opponent, her views aligned most closely with Washington County's values. Her approach was forward-looking.
Now we join the bevy of Harrington's 2018 backers who have concluded, comparing her now with a smart, capable, moderate-liberal opponent, that she is not the best choice for Washington County this time around.
We respect what Harrington has done to reorient Washington County, but we can't look past a pattern of bad behavior and her my-way-or-the-highway approach to politics.
This time, this election, there is a better path forward, and it's with Pace. She will build on the work of the past four years without Harrington's baggage. We trust that she will do much more than Harrington has done to include people and truly listen to people in making decisions about the county's future. While she will have a learning curve, going from a council seat to the full-time work of county chair, we have confidence in her ability to adjust and become an effective, respected leader for the county government.
We urge a vote for Beach Pace for Washington County chair.
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