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?
Crosscut archive image.

Charlie Hales

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

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.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.