Nine Candidates Focus on Economic Issues and Inclusive Politics.
One important message stands out from the Portland Mayoral debates that took place on Thursday at the Oregon Historical Society: Inclusiveness. All nine candidates have their brand of community-driven politics. All of them envision a bountiful, prosperous future for Portland, so it all comes down to how they want to spend the money. Topics were driven by a panel of experts and moderators, hosted by Hispanicpros in the foro abierto style (open forum).
As late as December last year, a momentary threat came to pass that the mayoral race would be decided in state Treasurer Ted Wheeler’s favor with a Clinton-like stride to City Hall. His campaign worth $400,000 can weather all competition, but it won’t be so easy in a democracy like Portland. Thanks to some good citizens who want significant engagement, there is a real spectrum in this fully liberal mayoral race.
Multnomah County Commissioner Jules Bailey is a certain challenge to the Wheeler campaign. He provides the charisma and energy it takes to push out a seasoned politician like Wheeler. He brings sophisticated policy to the table and he speaks thoroughly, if not rapidly. In a show of faith, he was the only candidate to file his candidacy by petition, versus a $50 fee, until punk rocker Bim Ditson entered the race. Yet Bailey doesn’t satisfy the mass call for anti-establishment politics.
Assistant Attorney General David Schor doesn’t have a loud campaign; it’s a whimper, comparatively. He is formally dressed in suit, seriousness exuding through his face as he listens attentively to the remarks of any speaker. He is an outsider candidate working at high levels, in the department that Governor Kate Brown was the head of, until she was appointed to the highest state office post-Kitzhaber resignation, last year.
Schor presents radical policy in a way that actually sounds implementable.
Schor understands the philosophy and mechanisms of progressive economics. Compared to him, the well-financed candidates are talking about cup and ball tricks. They speak quickly and rhetorically. Schor presents radical policy in a pace that you can grasp and actually sounds implementable. He discusses social-economic problems without placating us. And he plays bass for a local band that actually makes original sounding pop music, Babel Echo.
As a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist, Schor is the Mayor I would want when Bernie Sanders is President. And considering that Portland is home to one of Sanders’ strongest turnouts, I think if every Bernie supporter in town knew about him, he could take City Hall.
A rainbow primary race
At the table, Schor is sandwiched between two real characters: drummer-artist Bim Ditson to his right and activist Steven Entwistle to his left. Ditson is decked out in proper punk rock attire and clearly speaks the anarchist agenda, the economic signature being public financial sectors and community-oriented policy. Ditson doesn’t proclaim that identity, but I would guess that he is well read. Anarchy is sort of like socialism but without central authority. It is about democratizing the workplace. It’s about neighborhoods having a say in who moves in and who moves out, by creating support beams for the foundation of our economic structure: the working class.
Steven Entwistle was relegated to the panel’s table, hidden behind a speaker post, forcing him to get up and walk around it. He was actually the first candidate to officially enter the race. The sixty year-old man’s long flowing hair, beard, and slow deliberate speech exudes the native Portlander vibe. I expect him to say something mystical at every moment. “Everybody needs safety, security, and they need love,” he said, to close the opening remarks.
Entwistle is one of two candidates who don’t really have policy to offer per se, rather they offer their Self as the sole bulwark against corporate influence. It’s kind of fatalistic.
The other is definitely activist Jessie Sponberg, only he is truly devoid of policy. He is unfocused, asking for questions to be repeated, looking spaced out with a grimace of amusement while others speak. He jokes throughout his responses. He defers his point of view, stating that he would simply hire the moderators to resolve their own questions. He is a caricature of a politician, like Trump, feeding on attention, mocking the established political process. However, I believe that he would take at least one thing seriously if he were mayor: Sticking it to the rich.
He is a caricature of a politician, like Trump, feeding on attention, mocking the established political process.
To Sponberg’s right, capping the other end of the table was Deborah Harris, a diversity consultant and the only African-American candidate — actually, the only candidate of color. Her approach focuses on corruption and building direct lines from neighborhoods to City Hall. Her core message of transparency and engagement offers a certain integrity, and a lack of experience isn’t something she runs from either.
Sarah Iannarone brings grassroots experience as a community organizer and business owner. Her attire, spunky glasses and hairstyle offer a “weird” quality about her. Although elected office isn’t in her history, she really is not a political outsider either. Her answers are rapid fire, as if her brain never stops churning over politics. She works as Assistant Program Director directly for the Mayor’s wife, Nancy Hales, at First Stop Portland, a sustainability-promotion program of Portland State University. Her campaign has raised at least $25K thus far, after publicly boasting that she would secure $100K in one month (that was almost two months ago).
And finally there is Iraq war veteran, activist, author, and teacher, Sean Davis. He represents the true working class hero and is a man in the periphery of politics via community-organizing. His life sounds varied and remarkable, seemingly impervious to corporate influence. Along with Sponberg and Schor, he helped to push for these all-inclusive debates early in the primary race.
So what did they talk about?
The open forum focused on issues pertinent to the Hispanic population: housing, employment, infrastructure, diversity and political inclusiveness. I was late to the debate and missed most of the opening remarks per candidate.
Plus, I had to eat the Mixteca catering before sitting down. I was famished and the yummy Oaxacan tostadas offered brain food for the debate. But I’ll run down some topics and highlight a few answers.
The hosts, Jorge Guzman and Eva Rojas, put the first question to all candidates. “What plans do you have for community development and minority communities [in those plans]?”
Davis provides a lucid vision that taps employment, housing, and infrastructure in one swoop. He wants to classify “complete neighborhoods” from incomplete ones, to build sidewalks, pave dirt roads, and fill other infrastructure gaps throughout the city. He wants the unemployed and homeless living in communities to be working on their own neighborhoods. He can see the radiating effects of that kind of localized engagement.
Iannarone said, “We need to think about the people who live in places as the expert of those places.” Building connectivity into the political dialogue is repeated throughout her responses.
Schor believes that “municipal banks” would also have radiating effects. Schor notes that it is not just about providing funding to programs, it’s looking at how that funding is raised. Municipal banks guarantee a financial flow that recycles within local economies. Community participation in bank investments and the allocation of profits to its members only enhances democracy. Ditson said nearly the same thing in his simple manner, while calling them “public banks.”
From the panel, Manuel Foucher asked candidates how they will fight against economic displacement, citing issues in bureaucratic dialogue and educational gaps between long standing residents of communities and the new homeowners hedging into them.
Ditson was first to respond by proposing a fee system against developers, pooling into an affordable housing fund, guaranteeing a place for longstanding residents of changing communities.
Bailey wants to “fast track workforce housing” and invest in small business. He also boasts the supply solution to increase the speed of new development.
From the panel, Nitin Rai asks the candidates how infrastructure will be improved under their administration, giving everyone a minute to answer.
Schor wants to bring ADA accessibility throughout the entire city, effectively mandating the “complete neighborhoods” program proposed by Davis. He wants to build connectivity through the parks, making a greener infrastructure. He also pushes for municipal broadband. He wants to divest from Google Fiber and follow the lead of other cities with municipal fiber internet.
Ditson flat out agreed with Schor. He added the point of improving communication between communities and their bureaus, and the importance of the public bank as part of the entire solution.
Davis reiterated the bureaucratic engagement strategy and stressed that housing is the number one issue in Portland, yet it’s only 2.9% of the budget. Bailey wants to tap new revenue streams dedicated to the transportation system.
Wheeler pointed out that the maintenance backlog is now in the billions. “Small ball isn’t going to solve this problem,” he said. He brought up a “dedicated sales tax.”
From the panel, Peg Malloy points out that housing is $360K in Northeast Portland while few renters qualify for anything more than $200K. Homeownership is essential to building wealth and families are essential to communities. She asked how important housing and homeownership was in particular to each candidate.
Sponberg finally had useful information, addressing neighborhoods that basically have absentee ownership, so that the renters occupy a place but have no long standing investment or wealth.
Iannarone wants to build pathways to homeownership for renters, but also wants to think beyond property ownership for wealth development.
Bailey feels that more citizens owning a slice of equity is important. It isn’t just for families and investors, citing co-op ownership. He wants regulation against financial speculation, citing the urban growth boundary as a cause.
Schor didn’t think it was the first issue to take head on. He favors pathways to providing easier access to homeownership, including bank foreclosure redistribution, but he thinks there is a bigger picture to tackle that would level the economic playing field for everyone, which his economic policy addresses.
An audience Q&A followed, but I am going to skip that and go straight to closing statements.
Harris offers the tag line, “Honest, Ethical, Fair.” Another good line was “Doing the right thing by everybody in every community.” She is about public data and engagement.
Sponberg admits that everyone but him holds the answers to managing the city, and thinks government gets in the way of the solutions. He wants to stay out of our way.
Wheeler appealed to the concept of having the citizens drive the discussion. He reviewed the issues discussed over the night and reminded us of his experience, saying that he is “eager to serve.”
Iannarone speaks of “bold vision” for a city on the brink of “global greatness.” It is about how we come together, how we work with new residents so that they aren’t the problem but part of the solution. “Keeping Portland Portland.”
Bailey calls this election a turning point against a future that is exclusive to the wealthy. He says no mayor can do it alone and only through engagement can an inclusive future be realized.
Davis admits, “I might be a weird politician,” but reminds us that the mayor works for the people, urging us to know who we’re electing and to participate more. Davis also pointed out rebuilding projects all over the world, including Haiti, New Orleans, and stressed his work as a community organizer.
Ditson wanted to model a campaign that stands against campaign trends. He only accepts donations from those “with a pulse.” He wants to fight for the culture of the city.
Schor also takes contributions exclusively from people, stressing how campaigns eat up the real policy work of politics. He also promises that as Mayor, he’ll enact an open-door policy so that anyone desiring an appointment will be scheduled for one.
Entwistle thinks no candidates will make bold choices over safety, security, and love. Safety: law enforcement. Security: housing and human needs. Love: everyone treats everyone as family.
My Closing Remark
Attendance was fairly sparse at this debate, yet 20,000 people showed up for Bernie Sanders last year. Relying on the media to give us thorough coverage of this primary race is no good. Paying attention after the primary is worse.
In early February, the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) started this cycle of narrow, partial coverage by hosting a talk on arts policy, shutting out all but Wheeler and Bailey as participants. Then the Oregonian attempted it, limiting their sponsored debate. This incited Schor, Davis, and Sponberg to call for real discussion and the newspaper-sponsored debate was cancelled. It was replaced with these all-inclusive formats. It was a solid victory.
There comes a time when candidates need to move aside and give the floor to those ready for it. Sponberg has accomplished his task, but a place for him at the table isn’t useful anymore, because I could not imagine him conducting himself well in office. Entwistle is humble and wise, but he also would benefit the debate by leaving it.
Harris and Ditson both have valuable input for this dialogue. And I like them. I realized how hard it would be to get up there and do that. Nevertheless, I think there would be more clarity in the race without them. If all of them can endorse someone at the table, they should.
I could actually see Davis handling himself in office. He’s been under pressure before, in war and in disaster. If he didn’t die in the big earthquake, he’d probably be the best mayor for it. A serious race between Schor, Iannarone, Bailey, Davis, and Wheeler would make for nuanced policy discussion, and to limit the forthcoming debates to them would be helpful in finding the best candidate.
Because the only certainty that all of these candidates have about Portland’s economic future is that it will be awesome, we need to be even more vigilant about who we trust with the highest office. I will need to hear them all out again to be sure, but I do not trust every candidate’s values. Not yet.