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    Portland mayor battle will be hottest in years

    The primary results have set up a faceoff between experience and barely restrained energy. Losing out: the sustainability candidate. Oh, Portlandia, how could you?
    Jefferson Smith campaign portrait

    Jefferson Smith campaign portrait Portland Afoot/Flickr (CC)

    Charlie Hales

    Charlie Hales Charlie Hales for Mayor


    Portland KaCey97007/Flickr (CC)

    The candidate with the most money, early endorsements and what should have been a classic Portlandia pitch faded. She was passed by one contestant described by a political observer as “the wild-eyed kid,” while the “grey-haired man” in the field held on a steady course and locked up the other spot in a runoff to become mayor of Portland in November.

    It will be the hottest mayoral race in the city since Vera Katz defeated Earl Blumenauer in 1992, launching two terms at City Hall and turning Blumenauer’s attention to a successful run for Congress.

    Moving forward after wins Tuesday night are former City Commissioner Charlie Hales, 57, and state Rep. Jefferson Smith, 38. Fading at the last and conceding defeat Tuesday night (May 15) with only 23 percent of the vote was Eileen Brady, who spent some $1.2 million and was considered the front-runner in the race for most of the last five months. Cast as the “green” or “sustainability” candidate, she gained an early lead but faltered in public appearances and with newspaper editorial boards.

    Smith with 31 percent and Hales with 38 percent (at a point where roughly four-fifths of the ballots were counted) move forward to a general election runoff in which the political equation of liberal Portland is likely to shift with a presidential election on the ballot. Portland is hard-core Obama Land and Smith, in particular, should benefit from younger voters in the fall. Despite attention to the city race, voting turnout was only 39 percent in Multnomah County.

    Statewide, voters participated at only 33 percent. Mitt Romney won a presidential primary in which he didn’t campaign in the state, with 72 percent; Ron Paul had 12 percent. Oregon is expected to go Democratic in the fall, but it should be closer than 2008, when President Barack Obama swept the state.

    Oregon Democrats certified their liberal reputation in the race for state attorney general, giving state Court of Appeals Judge Ellen Rosenblum a solid win over U.S. Attorney for Oregon Dwight Holton. Rosenblum won 63 to 37 percent with 64 percent of votes counted, despite (or because of) solid support from the state’s marijuana-legalization community. Medical-marijuana supporters put up about a third of her campaign funding (nearly $200,000) after Holton termed the state’s marijuana law a “train wreck.”

    Democratic primary voters are traditionally liberal, but Republicans won’t have a chance to pick up any fallout from this contest; no GOP candidate ran for attorney general this year. Oregon hasn’t elected a Republican to the post since 1980: future University of Oregon President David Frohnmayer.

    Even more pronounced is Democratic control of the state’s largest city; it’s been three decades since a Republican could find a friendly legislative district in Portland, as environmental and social issues overcame GOP economic arguments. All three of the top mayoral candidates are Democrats, although Hales was a Republican in his early career as a lobbyist for homebuilders in the 1980s.

    Hales subsequently saw a light on his left and, after winning election to the City Council as an independent in 1992, switched to Democratic in 1998. His views on most key issues are similar to Smith’s; his hope is that voters want a period to cool off from the city’s activism under current Mayor Sam Adams, whose personal life at times overshadowed some genuine accomplishments as mayor.

    Hales served 10 years on the City Council, resigning in 2002 and entering private business with a company selling streetcar systems. That played on his prominent role in establishing the popular Northwest Portland-to-Portland State University line, which has become a tourist “must” as well as serving thousands of Portlanders.

    Smith will bet that this is a good year not to be an insider; although he is serving his second term as a legislator from Southeast Portland, his career has been built as an insurgent and political organizer. His only executive experience is running The Bus Project, which was a huge political success but revealed no managerial skills on the part of Smith.

    The Bus began in 2002 after Smith abandoned a legal career (he graduated from Harvard Law School), bought some used school buses, and found that a lot of young people were eager to “get on the Bus” and work in legislative campaigns. Most were Democrats, and in a decade Smith built an impressive political machine that is still the heart of his support.

    But Smith is more than The Bus, just as Hales is more than an ex-councilman. Both are thoughtful and in the Portland progressive mode. Smith raised more than $500,000 in the primary, Hales topped $640,000. With Brady’s $1.2 million, this was the most expensive mayoral primary in Portland history.

    There is a difference, at least in approach, to the important Columbia River Crossing, the proposed new bridge across the Columbia connecting Portland and Vancouver, Wash. Smith has been a vocal opponent of the entire project as designed; Hales is critical but believes it can be worked out and built.

    Beyond that, personality contrasts may decide the race in November. Smith is barely restrained energy, certainly not a “wild kid” but with the enthusiasm of youth; he is prone to popping off and more a man of ideas than execution. Hales is not really “an old dude,” but a mature candidate with both public and private experience and a record as someone who can get things done.

    Smith clearly has momentum, and his gains in late campaigning came largely from Brady; he will need to pick up some of her votes and some of her financial support as many Portland business leaders and older Democrats place their chips on Hales.

    Portland’s “weak mayor” system puts the office only slightly above that of the five city commissioners; nearly any major action requires commission approval and each commissioner runs a major bureau. Successful mayors have lobbying skills necessary to rally a majority Council vote.

    Regardless of November’s outcome, Oregon is welcoming an interesting new face with Jefferson Smith, who many friends believe has his long-range sights set on higher office. Even if Hales, with his seven-point advantage Tuesday, wins in the fall, Smith will be around.

    As if often the case, elections reward those who persevere. Remember Steve Novick, the 4-foot-9 activist who ran for the U.S. Senate in Oregon in 2008, losing a primary to now-Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.? Well, perhaps you don’t remember our profile of Novick, the guy whose TV commercial featured him opening a beer bottle with the metal hook that serves as his left hand.

    Novick, a very bright man with a Harvard law degree and service in several public jobs, considered other races in the interim, but this year filed for a seat on the Portland City Council; Tuesday night he won more than 50 percent to move to the general election unopposed.

    Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades. Recipient of a DuPont-Columbia Broadcast Award for documentaries, and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he is also a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He resides in Bellingham and can be reached at floydmckay@comcast.net.

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    Posted Thu, May 17, 7:49 a.m. Inappropriate

    All three frontrunners were sustainability candidates.

    Charlie Hales has been promoting transit-based development for a decade. Jefferson Smith helped launch the "Cool Schools" program to retrofit Oregon public school buildings for energy efficiency and is the only candidate to oppose the Columbia River Crossing, a proposed $4b investment in single occupancy car commuting.

    Portland is a sustainability city - so it makes sense that all the candidates support a shift toward smarter resource use and environmental sustainability generally.

    The only way Brady was the "green" candidate is that she lacked the political experience of her rivals, and she raised and spent more "green" ($1.2m) than any candidate in Portland history.

    Posted Thu, May 17, 9:24 a.m. Inappropriate

    Eileen Brady refused to increase funding for the city's bureau of transportation overall or towards a greater share of the existing dollars to go bike/ped improvements. Without reservation she supports the $4billion dollar highway megaproject known as the CRC despite universal opposition from 1000Friends, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance and the Coalition for a Livable Future.

    Charlie Hales has accepted $15,000 in contributions from an out-of-state conglomerate that is contracted to build major portions of the KeystoneXL tarsands pipeline. While on the Council, Charlie abandoned Mayor Katz's coalition to enact a street maintenance fee. as a candidate he is now pledging to halt systems development charges altogether.

    Jefferson Smith earned an "A" rating from the Oregon League of Conservation Voters (90% or better) in his two sessions - something only 7 other legislators have accomplished. He also campaigned for Measure 49 with the 1000 Friends of Oregon as a core speaker/listener on their Envision Oregon project. He is the only candidate to reject the CRC as designed and welcome a complete reprioritization of area transportation needs.

    There's a reason why so many green endorsements have gone to Jefferson Smith and not to the other two main candidates.

    He's the greenest by far in both his words and his deeds.


    Posted Thu, May 17, 10:10 a.m. Inappropriate

    One of the interesting pieces of this is your comment about lobbying skills of the rest of council.

    Smith has demonstrated a remarkable ability to get things done in a difficult Oregon legislature. In 2009, as a freshman legislator, Smith partnered with an Eastern Oregon Republican to bring amount the most sweeping changes to Oregon water law in 25 years - a change supported by farmers and environmentalists, as well as significant majorities of each chamber. Eastern Oregon water management had vexed the legislature for years, and been a source of huge contention. Smith and Jenson were able to figure it out.

    Smith also was able to move things through the tied Oregon House in 2011 - as mentioned above, he moved the Cool Schools bill through, helping create jobs, protect the environment, and invest in schools.

    His legislative record is impressive beyond the environment, and he was moving up in party leadership in his second session before deciding to run for mayor.

    Moreover, the idea of The Bus Project was pooh-poohed by many as unrealistic. He made this organization of grassroots democracy happen, and it's been copied across the U.S. as well as now in Liberia.

    Hence, I would say Smith's both a man of bold ideas, and of executing them.

    Posted Mon, May 21, 11:33 a.m. Inappropriate

    Living across the river from Portland, I see a clear choice: If the voters chose Charlie Hales, they chose someone who "gets thing done" while Jefferson Smith offers a "vision thing." Personally, given the crime problems, the police bureau challenges,the deteriorating streets, and the marginal schools, "taking care of the basics" is more important.

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