Portland's rather flawed election

Portlanders are stuck between a rock and a hard place with their mayoral choices this year.
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Portland mayoral candidate Jefferson Smith.

Portlanders are stuck between a rock and a hard place with their mayoral choices this year.

The buzzword in the hotly contested contest to lead Portland through the next four years is "flawed." Voters have reconciled themselves to a mayoral race in which both contestants are, well, flawed.

With only days left to cast mail ballots, flamboyant populist Jefferson Smith appears to be the most-flawed due to a continual series of disclosures about a past that reveals a hot temper that at times turned rough. Not to mention serial driving violations and serious lack of attention to detail.

Yet the 39-year-old state representative from Southeast Portland may yet pull the race out of the hat. He has a committed band of followers who like his bold ideas and activist past and view his opponent, Charlie Hales as, well, flawed.

Personal issues are important in the race because Smith and Hales agree on almost all issues Portlanders consider important: transit, schools, the environment and the city's progressive image and culture.

Hales, 56, is a former city councilman who got bored with the job and left to work for a transit company with which he had formed links during his Council years. As he toured the nation to promote its products, he moved into a house owned by his new wife across the Columbia River in Clark County. But he continued to vote in Portland. This is a touchy issue with Portlanders because Washingtonians don't pay an income tax, as Oregonians do. In effect, Hales wanted it both ways — stay an Oregon voter but pay Washington tax rates.

The winner (or survivor) of the contest will succeed Mayor Sam Adams, retiring after a single term, in large part because of controversy over his relationship with an under-age young man, which Adams attempted unsuccessfully to dodge. He was also judged, well, flawed. As for the young man, Beau Breedlove this week opened his hotly anticipated restaurant, French Dance Cafe, on the city's south waterfront.

Smith and Hales seemed equally flawed as autumn campaigning opened, with Smith primarily tagged for numerous driving violations and lack of attention to such details as renewing his attorney's license and Hales battling the tax vs. voting matter and some dodgy statements taking credit for past exploits.

But an October surprise cost Smith endorsements from some top labor unions and others when a series of stories emerged about a coed Smith allegedly punching a young woman at a college party, sending her to the hospital. It seemed to reinforce other reports that Smith, a large man, played too rough on the basketball court. Polling by KATU-TV in early October showed Hales pulling into a 7-point lead at 37 percent to Smith's 30 percent. The number of undecided voters is unusually large, however, so the race continues to be volatile. No polls have been released since Smith lost the key endorsements.

Polling shows Smith with a big margin among young voters, who respond to his vigorous speaking style and his promotion of new ideas, environmental policies and political activism. Smith made his reputation by building a Bus Project that involved thousands of young voters in local campaigns, overwhelmingly Democratic. His House district is largely made up of low and middle-income voters. The race is nonpartisan but both candidates are Democrats.

It's not the first time Portlanders have rolled the dice on a mayoralty election. In 1984 they cast their lot with a colorful tavern keeper, Bud Clark, who greeted friends with a basso "whoop whoop" call and poled his canoe along the Willamette River long before standup water propulsion was popular. Clark stayed for eight colorful and sometimes-contentious years, but the city survived just fine under his stewardship. Clark was above all a decent and honorable guy with deep roots in the city.

Oregon has its usual plethora of ballot measures in November, but one of the most contentious collapsed Tuesday shortly before mail ballots were ready to send. Backers of a non-tribal casino at Wood Village (east of Portland on the site of a former greyhound track) announced they had folded their hand and halted their $5 million advertising blitz. Most of the money in opposition is coming from tribal casinos, which have raised $1.6 million; they pledged to continue their efforts to be sure that Measures 82 and 83 are defeated (they remain on the ballot). Most of Oregon's leading political figures, including Gov. John Kitzhaber and three former governors, opposed the measures, which were trailing in polls; Oregonians have rejected similar proposals in the past.

Only one statewide office is on the ballot, and Republicans are making a strong challenge to regain the office of Secretary of State, which Democrats have held since 1984. Kate Brown, the incumbent, faces Republican Knute Buehler and two minor-party candidates. Both will spend about a million dollars on the race. Buehler is a political newcomer, a Bend physician. Brown, a Portland lawyer and former legislator, was elected in 2008.


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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.