We check in with the frontrunners for Portland’s open city council seat.
Four women are leading the race for Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman’s open seat.
Andrea Valderrama, an aide to Mayor Ted Wheeler for six years, is a city hall insider. Jo Ann Hardesty, a 28 year veteran of the NAACP, is a vocal civil rights advocate. Felicia Williams comes from a military background in Air Force command and control. Loretta Smith worked as a staff member for Sen. Ron Wyden for nearly two decades. In 2010, she was elected Multnomah County commissioner for District Two.
With a little more than 20 days left until the May 15 primary, we checked in with the four frontrunners. We grilled them on some of the key issues facing the city. (Responses were edited for brevity and clarity.)
The city is facing an affordable housing crisis. Leaders are contemplating a number of solutions. Do you support inclusionary zoning?
“I’m excited we now have that tool, but it has not been going the way folks wanted. We thought it would incentivize affordable units, but in fact it did not. We need to recalibrate. I want to be honest with this. Where did this go wrong? What can we do better?”
“We have to have a mix of housing in every neighborhood. We have to think, ‘How do we use the land we have in a way that’s much more productive?’”
Williams: It needs to be more flexible.
“We need to streamline the Bureau of Development Services process. Permitting takes too long. The City Council shouldn’t be second guessing projects not even approved by the Design Commission. If we’re going to have the inclusionary housing mandate work, we’re going to have to be flexible on things like heights.”
Smith: Not sure.
“We’ve had a huge drop in permits since inclusionary zoning has been in effect. I don’t think we have enough information to know if it’s been effective or not.”
Jo Ann Hardesty
What about residential infill projects — building multifamily dwellings in areas zoned as single-family residential?
“I live in a multigenerational house with eight people. That’s the only way it can be affordable for a family like mine.”
“I think we have to be really creative. We’re never going to build our way out of the housing crisis.”
“We need new revenue streams for affordable housing. A good model I’ve looked at is the Urban Wealth Fund. It’s used in Copenhagen. The city kept lands public, but they’re privately owned and managed.”
“It takes so long to build new affordable housing. If we put more money into land banking and land purchasing of existing multiplexes, we could really move the dial on the number of affordable units. I am also a small plex owner. That allows my friend and his family to live affordably.”
In his state of the city address, Mayor Wheeler called for more police. That night, a police shooting at a homeless shelter raised questions about the bureau’s response to mental illness and other crises. Do you think Portland needs more police?
“I’m leaning toward yes, but I have a lot of concerns. Officers are responding to calls overworked. When that happens implicit biases are more likely to impact decisions. But as someone who has been profiled, who knows my relationship with police is difficult, I worry about adding more overworked police officers into this environment.”
“I don’t think we’ve made the case for needing more police. What we need is to get police back to policing. Policing is about solving crime and preventing crime. It’s a mistake to put them as first responders to mental health issues. We need more mental health professionals and firefighters. Every person killed by Portland police since 2012 had a mental health issue. Let’s get police out of the mental health field, out of the social work field.”
“The police have a behavioral health unit with two cars per precinct. That includes social workers and trained cops. But during the shooting, the behavioral health unit was out on other calls. Every time we don’t staff the police, we don’t get good core function programs like that. If we don’t fund police as a whole, none of those speciality units get funded.”
“Portland has grown up. We have more people than we had 10 years ago. We need more public safety officers in our community. That said, we need to have additional cultural diversity training. We need to make sure folks understand how to support our community members in crisis.”
Portland congestion is skyrocketing. Do you support congestion pricing, the policy of charging cars to enter downtown during rush hour?
“We’ve seen it work in other cities. I do have concerns about affordability when we’re adding to people’s overall transportation costs. Transportation is most peoples’ second highest expense after housing.”
Hardesty: Not right now.
“Ultimately we may need to get to congestion pricing, but there are a lot of things we could do before that. We’re saying ‘we’ve pushed you to the edges, now we’re going to charge you for the privilege of coming back into the city.’”
“I need to have more information on that one.”
“I don’t think that’s helpful to low income communities. We have to be very clear how we tax folks to support transportation projects. We need to support equity projects to make sure those who live East of 82nd have a variety of transportation projects.”
Another proposed solution to congestion is widening freeways. How do you feel about the 1-5 expansion at the Rose Quarter?
Valderrama: Not good.
“I’m not sure why they got to the conclusion widening freeways was a good idea. But the resources are already allocated. Whether we like it or not this is coming. I’d like to allocate the resources for local street improvements.”
Hardesty: Not good.
“I do not believe that expansion fits with the city’s vision for reducing fossil fuel use and by 2050 being a new green economy. I would love to see us take that $450 million and invest in the public transit infrastructure system.”
Williams: Not good.
“We’re not going to knock down buildings. We’re not going to make the roads wider.”
“I want to see a feasibility study done that includes a multimodal approach that includes pedestrians, biking and rail. There might be other opportunities we could put in place to help with congestion.”
What sets you apart from the other candidates in this race?
Valderrama: “We have to have someone who’s going to hit the ground running, who’s going to build relationships in the building, who already knows who to call in what bureau. I don’t think we need more politicians. We need folks from the community who are already invested in public works projects. I go home everyday to my neighborhood and I see the inequities. I see that we don’t have sidewalks, I see that we don’t have lighting. I know we can do better, and I know how to do that.”
Hardesty: “This race started because I had a meeting with Dan Saltzman to look him in the eye and let him know I was running against him. None of the other candidates were willing to take him on. I have 28 years of experience developing public policy. I have more knowledge about policing in the city of Portland than any of my opponents. I’ve been involved on the front lines in these communities since the 90s. When I brought the NAACP almost back from extinction I did that as a volunteer. I am a master at bringing people with diverse perspectives together.”
Williams: “As a neighborhood advocate, a lot of what I’ve been doing over the past decade is problem solving. I know what a lot of city bureaus do because I’ve been working with them for years. From my experience in the Air Force, I understand that actions have consequences on people I will never meet.”
Smith: “I have a track record of success helping the most vulnerable, and directing hundreds of millions of dollars into affordable housing and homeless programs. I’ve made sure that women who were in recovery had an option that served them. I’ve spent most of my political career trying to create opportunities for young people to have jobs in the community.”
Three women of color are leading this race. Portland has never elected a woman of color to city council. What would that mean for Portland?
Valderrama: “I’ve seen the importance of having someone coming from a working class immigrant background, someone who understands what it means to have community driven processes, and is from an area that’s never been represented.”
Hardesty: “I will bring all that lived experience and all those communities with me. It will make a difference who shows up to testify. But this election has never been about race; it’s been about the qualifications I have.”
Williams: “Vera Katz said anyone who loves Portland should run. It’s very difficult for a first time candidate to run. You need somebody to vouch for you. That’s up to the media to determine how they present the race. I’m going to go with Vera Katz. I don’t think our democracy is very well served by discouraging people from running.”
Smith: “You can give voice to people who have been voiceless. It would give people access to City Hall, whether you be a small business person, a senior or someone who is developing housing. Much has been said about women of color. I’m not running because of that, I’m running because I want to give voice to people in City Hall who haven’t had voice in the past.”
What’s your other big idea for Portland?
Valderrama: Offer reciprocal licensing for immigrants.
“Some immigrants are doctors, for example, but their degrees aren’t valid here. If someone has worked hard all their lives and made a career for themselves, they should have the opportunity to continue that here.”
Hardesty: Reform campaign finance rules—in 2020, the city should match $50 donations six times over.
“We need to make sure we’re hearing from places like East Portland. It matters who has the privilege to run for office for City Hall. When I started the race I was told I needed $250,000 to run.”
Williams: Put the city on a two-year budget cycle and scrap the commission form of government.
“Portland uses something called the Galveston plan [where commissioners control agencies instead of representing neighborhoods]. Every other city got rid of it in the 1980s. The system is ripe for corruption and political patronage. I would divide the city into population-based areas, not unlike the Multnomah County model. It’s basically what every other city in the country does.”
“The state is on a two-year budget cycle; the city is not. That promotes cronyism and pet projects. Effectively it’s just creating priorities.”
Smith: Ensure access to capital for minority and women owned businesses.
“Less than two percent of capital goes to women or people of color. I partnered with Charlie Hales to create the Inclusive Startup Fund, which helped tech startups run by women and people of color. It helped to stabilize small businesses who wouldn’t be able to access capital.”
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