Notes from a Mayoral Candidate Forum

On January 21st, Cash Carter, Sarah Iannarone, Teressa Raiford, and Ozzie Gonzalez took to the stage at the Sunnyside Community Center for the first Mayoral Candidate Forum of the 2020 race. (A candidate forum is like if a debate were tolerable.) Just as notable for his absence was incumbent Ted Wheeler, who was unable to attend as he was in Washington DC for the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

The room wasn’t particularly excited about Wheeler’s track record—perhaps inevitable with a panel of candidates looking to unseat him and an audience full of voters open to replacing him. There was a clear consensus on the stage that the city was facing many issues that weren’t being properly addressed. A few that came up repeatedly during the event were police accountability, gentrification, lack of representation in governance and that terrible mass of problems known as housing.

And so it was appropriate that housing issues garnered the most discussion. The moderators, Sydney Scout and GM Garcia, asked questions about Portland’s inability to keep up with its affordable housing plans—the city is currently 2300 units behind schedule—and later about how to best help our houseless population. The topic came up again in an audience question about how the candidates felt about using a vacancy tax to combat real estate speculators who keep homes empty while driving up prices. (It was my question. Don’t do this, investors.)

Law enforcement issues were particularly salient, since the city’s contract with the police union is up for renegotiation and renewal this month. When the moderators asked about what the city should do to increase oversight, it opened a floodgate of criticism, with candidates sharing their experiences with racial profiling, discrimination and a lack of preparedness among police responding to emergencies.

They also discussed giving City Hall more options for dealing with the Portland Police Department when intervention might be needed. It’s currently very difficult for the city to get rid of officers who are known to be abusive or problematic. Even in a question about how to raise new revenue, candidates repeatedly came back to the issue of how law enforcement spends its resources, criticizing police for their recent surge in arresting houseless people.

The third major theme of the night was diversity and representation. Dissatisfaction with our city government’s use of a commissioner system (where one mayor and four commissioners are elected by the whole city, rather than using district representation) is not a new story, but repeated efforts over the years to change it have always fallen short. But the appetite is still there and the commissioner system has demonstrated real shortcomings. Candidates criticized it, arguing that it reduced transparency in city hall and made it more difficult for the mayor’s office to get diverse perspectives and keep in touch with the people’s needs.

Diversity came up a final time in an audience question about how Portland should welcome immigrants, refugees and other people of color from around the country. In some other year, this could have led to a tepid lovefest, but instead it sparked an intense discussion about white supremacy and the street clashes in recent years between antifascist activists and far right groups like the Proud Boys.

This forum was the first major event of the mayoral race and provided a good snapshot of the issues that are hanging over the city in 2020, but it’s still an incomplete story without Ted Wheeler being in the room to defend his record. His presence will also bring more focus, as he came up shockingly little during Monday’s forum.

It’s going to be exciting to see Wheeler on stage with his challengers at the next event. Look forward to it!

Thank you to East County Rising and BerniePDX for helping MultDems put on this great event!

This post has been updated.