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A Less Than Optimal Choice for Portland City Council

Updated: Oct 29, 2022

Portlanders face a less than optimal choice in the city council race between incumbent Jo Ann Hardesty and challenger Rene Gonzalez. I discussed long-standing reservations about Hardesty in some detail as well as aspects of Gonzalez's agenda that give me pause prior to last May's primary (Why I Will Vote for Vadim for City Council). My candidate came up short in May, where no one received 50 percent of the vote, thus triggering the November run-off. What followers touches on areas of greatest concern about the two candidates and their campaigns.

Hardesty was missing in action when the largely peaceful protests of 2020 were accompanied by property destruction and violence that resulted in millions of dollars in property damage. She reportedly told the police chief that she did not want to hear about good protesters and bad protesters until he was willing to acknowledge police misconduct. It was appropriate to scald the chief for evading his responsibility to hold officers accountable for misconduct, but his dereliction in no way justified a pass on multiple rampages downtown and in North Portland where fireworks and assorted objects were directed at police, where public monuments were defaced, damaged, or pulled down, where public restrooms in a park block were damaged and a historic elk statue had to be removed after protesters set fire to the base for reasons that will escape any rational being, when Multnomah County Justice Center and the federal courthouse downtown were attacked and vandalized. We needed Hardesty to say that this garbage was wrong and counterproductive. She chose silence.

On another occasion she blurted that she did not think protesters were setting fires or causing a crisis and went on to charge that police were responsible for sending saboteurs and provocateurs into peaceful demonstrations. No evidence was offered to support the allegation. Hardesty had second thoughts, or maybe cooler heads on her staff prevailed, and she soon walked it back. The rhetorical firebomb only further inflamed a volatile situation. Hardesty has a penchant for this kind of thing.

When asked about this incident during two debates, she ignored the question and changed the subject. David Molko, KGW evening news anchor and moderator of the debate sponsored by City Club of Portland, and Dave Miller, host of OPB's Think Out Loud, both let her skate without follow-up. Miller's failure to press Hardesty on this was typical of OPB's kid gloves approach with her.

To hear Hardesty tell it in the City Club debate, she plays well with everyone. Yet she presents herself as "the only person today on Portland City Council that consistently speaks up for working people and for people who’ve had no voice at City Hall."

While most of her colleagues prefer to do their wheeling and dealing behind the scenes, Hardesty has no problems speaking bluntly about her fellow commissioners and their proposals—even if it might cause tensions down the road. In an hour-long interview, with a recorder just inches away, she critiqued the mayor’s recent string of emergency orders ("an illusion of activity"), Commissioner Mingus Mapps’s push to fund the Frog Ferry ("I wish he would do more of his homework before he would come up with his proposals.") and Commissioner Dan Ryan’s slow roll-out of his six outdoor homeless camps known as safe rest villages (an issue, she says, of "leadership, honestly, because I would not have that kind of problem.") (Ellis, Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty)

She labeled Mapps arrogant for criticizing the city charter reform measure placed on the November ballot by the charter review commission and developing an alternative proposal to be put on the ballot next year if the charter review commission's proposal fails to pass. There is widespread consensus about the need for charter reform, but considerable difference of opinion about elements of the commission's proposal, notably provision for a weak mayor with no veto over city council decisions and use of ranked-choice voting in multi-member districts, which creates some iffy possibilities quite distinct from ranked-choice voting for a single position.

Hardesty hides neither her elevated opinion of herself and her role on city council nor disdain for her colleagues: "Without me, then we will have a council that will go back to 'Kumbaya and everything’s fine. Nothing to see here. Nothing to worry about,'" she told Rebecca Ellis of OPB (Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty). This is preposterous. There is no basis to claim that any of her colleagues has the attitude that everything is fine nor to imply that they are not decent people who care about our troubled city and work to make it better. Hardesty's suggestion otherwise is facile demagoguery. Again, she has a penchant for this kind of thing.

Rene Gonzalez brings his own share baggage in the form of questionable judgment, obtuseness, and indifference to the appearance of impropriety. Since May the Gonzalez campaign has paid $250 a month to rent downtown office space owned by Jordan Schnitzer, a supporter who also donated the maximum, $250, allowed by the city's Small Donor Elections program in which both Gonzalez and Hardesty are participants. For this the campaign was fined a whopping $77,000 for violation of restrictions on in-kind contributions. The program's director argues he should have been paying fair market value, which she claims is $6,900 per month, the amount Schnitzer had advertised for the space. The Gonzalez campaign contends that the listing price alone is not enough to determine fair market value for a space that has been vacant since 2020 and given the current glut of vacant office space downtown.

To bolster its position, Gonzalez’s campaign detailed a recent rental agreement reached by the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office and a nearby office building on Southwest Harvey Milk Street and Ninth Avenue.

A copy of the lease, reviewed by The Oregonian/OregonLive, shows the county prosecutor’s office pays $0 a month in rent and another $475 a month in operating costs for the 1,460-square-foot space owned by a Chicago-based real estate firm. (Kavanaugh, Gonzalez fires back)

The Gonzalez campaign has formally requested that the elections office waive the fine. Gonzalez has indicated the intent to pursue administrative appeal if the request is denied, but says he will pay the fine if a final ruling goes against him.

With the proviso that what I know about real estate could be written on the back of a postage stamp with room left over for critique and commentary, Gonzalez seems to have a point about using the list price as the fair market value for a property that has been vacant for two years. How the price the owner wants can be the de facto fair market value when there is at present no market for the property at that price is baffling. On the other hand, $250 a month looks like a pretty sweet deal. One would have to be completely tone deaf or blithely indifferent to fail to recognize the appearance of impropriety and be better prepared to deal with it than Gonzalez has been. There is something of a pattern here.

Hardesty blasted Gonzalez in debates for his affiliation with ED300, a political action committee he co-founded in 2020 to push state agencies, public officials, and elected leaders to reopen schools with in-person instruction and resume sports programs. On Think Out Loud she declared herself terrified by what she has learned about ED300. "It appears," she told him, "that you support very extreme school board members who are anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-real education." More than half of school board candidates endorsed by ED300 were reportedly also endorsed by right-wing groups "fundamentally at odds with reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights, progressive sex education in schools, or all three" (Peel, Rene Gonzalez Would Return Portland to a Simpler Time). The endorsements allegedly included a "a pro-Trump conspiracy theorist known for online trolling and anti-Muslim statements" and a woman who "disrupted school board proceedings and harassed board members of color" (Teigen, Chase-Miller, When Someone Shows You).

In the past week Hardesty's campaign has zeroed in on ED300. It may be only coincidental that this comes as poll results show her trailing by a substantial margin (Kavanaugh, Gonzalez holds commanding lead).

Gonzalez called the closure of schools "one of the greatest public health failures of our lifetimes." He defended ED300, citing the "absolute necessity to reestablish children's access to school, to sports, and to the arts" as the reason he focused entirely that issue of agreement and ignored areas of difference while forging alliances with individuals and groups whose broader agendas might charitably be dubbed problematic. "And so that was the necessity of the moment. I would do it again in a heartbeat," he said, adding that he is pro-choice and supports gay marriage and families of all lifestyles (Think Out Loud debate).

Concern about the effect of school closures is legitimate (Thompson, School Closures). So too is concern about the health and welfare of students and teachers that led to school closures in early stages of the pandemic. Gonzalez and ED300 began their campaign to reopen schools when those with expertise were still very much in the learning stages about the virus and vaccines were not yet available. It would be interesting to know their position on vaccination requirements, mask mandates, and other safety protocols. An admittedly cursory search did not turn up any information about this.

Gonzalez and ED300 do not acknowledge very real risks, at the time unknown in scope, associated with reopening schools or give any indication that they weighed the risks of reopening against the effects of closure. Nor did they appear to give any thought to harm apt to be inflicted by blockheads and dingbats they hoped to put in positions of authority in order to advance their agenda. And heaven forfend that sports should suffer disruption. As Shapiro the dentist used to say as he put his hands in my mouth, don't get me started.

There is in general terms more agreement between the two candidates about crime and homelessness than one might think. Both speak of the need to provide safe shelter for the homeless, care for people with mental health and substance abuse issues, and affordable housing. Sophie Peel at Willamette Week accurately nutshelled contrasting perceptions of their approaches:

Gonzalez, 48, [who says he voted for Hardesty in 2018] is Hardesty’s polar opposite. With a placid demeanor and a closet full of sweater vests, the lawyer, small-business owner and soccer club founder promises to restore calm to a city that’s been ravaged by the pandemic, record gun violence and civil unrest.

In some ways, Gonzalez’s platform is simple: more police, more homeless camp sweeps, more law and order. He argues Hardesty’s positions have made Portland less safe, both by alienating the police force and indulging camping in parks and on sidewalks.

That’s a strong pitch for residents reaching their breaking point. (Rene Gonzalez Would Return Portland)

Hardesty and Gonzalez both acquitted themselves reasonably well in the City Club and Think Out Loud debates. Hardesty has genuine accomplishments to point to from her time in office. She also has a deserved reputation as a hothead whose adversarial relationship with the police bureau may be counterproductive to implementation of needed reform and for reluctance to take any forceful measure that might have an impact on street camping in the short term while the city works to provide needed shelter and services. Gonzalez does place unfounded faith in a law and order, "tough love" approach to crime and street camping that appeals to some people, but what really seems to resonate with the city at large is the sense of urgency he brings to these problems that we just do not get from Hardesty.

When asked the biggest difference between Gonzalez and herself with respect to homelessness, Hardesty replied, "The biggest difference is, I’m not a millionaire. I’m a renter and…I am living the experience that he is being philosophical about." She characterized his position as "just will lock people up, and then the world will be a pretty place" (Think Out Loud debate). There is an element of this in Gonzalez's message, and I have no doubt that it appeals to Portlanders of a certain sensibility and social/political bent, but he comes across as more thoughtful than that. The suggestion that he is the candidate of the wealthy while she represents the dispossessed is disingenuous at best.

Gonzalez strikes a chord when he speaks of the city's "anything goes" reputation and "a component of our unsheltered population that are using our unsanctioned camps as this form of sanctuary for some really bad criminal behavior." He invokes a vision of Portland the city had when I came here in 1998, when our downtown was

a source of tremendous civic pride for, really, a generation plus. It’s been centered on the arts, the music and sports, drawing people down there, a phenomenal restaurant scene. And I think that’s gonna be a big part of the future as well. We need to protect those institutions that open up the city to the beauties of music, to the beauties of art, and make sure they’re really thriving. And some of them are struggling right now with the same issues of crime and homelessness that other parts of the city are. And we really just need to protect them.

I’d say, last but not least, we have, for a good part of our history until recently, been one of the safest cities in the country. Downtown thrived as a result of that. It was welcoming. It was relatively clean. And that has to be part of the future. I mean that it’s a safe place to get to, it’s a clean place to get to, whether you’re taking the Max, riding a bus or riding the train, and you feel safe and welcomed there. And right now, despite being better than it was a year ago, in terms of no longer feeling like "Mad Max," it doesn’t feel safe to a lot of visitors. So I think that has to be a component to attract and retain people there.

I go downtown regularly by Tri-Met bus and feel perfectly at ease in areas where I habitually wander around. There are, however, other areas I am wary of venturing. It was not always that way. Some of what is lost will not be gotten back, for all sorts of reasons, many of them beyond the power of city council to affect. Despite the well documented troubles, there remains much that is good about our city. And a legacy to draw on.

Hardesty has endorsements from prominent and respected political figures and organizations, among them Senator Jeff Merkley, Congressman Earl Blumenauer, Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, and former governor Barbara Roberts.

Gonzalez has endorsements from The Oregonian, Willamette Week. and a host of other organizations, civic and business leaders, and ordinary citizens. Mingus Mapps has also endorsed Gonzalez:

This election will determine whether we will recover quickly or continue to struggle…I need colleagues who use debate, reason and logic to solve our many crises. I need colleagues who understand that public safety is the foundation for a healthy city. I need colleagues who value our city employees despite the color of their uniforms.…Rene Gonzalez is the colleague I need on City Council. (Peel, Mapps Endorses Gonzalez)

I voted for Rene Gonzalez despite reservations because he strikes me as more the kind of colleague Mapps describes and the city needs than Hardesty does. And, for the record, I am a "no" on the city charter proposal on the November ballot. Mapps has a better idea.

Memo from the Editorial Desk, Oct. 27, 3:45 pm. A state administrative law judge revoked the $77,000 fine imposed on Rene Gonzalez by the city's Small Donor Elections program. The judge ruled that "The City failed to prove that Appellants received prohibited contributions or in-kind contributions in the form of discounted office space because the City did not show the fair market value of the office space in issue was something other than what Appellants paid." The city withheld $77,000 in city funding due the campaign as part of the small donor program while the appeal was pending. Gonzalez said, "While we are pleased with the decision, the damage to the campaign has been done. We look forward to receiving the $77,000 the program has withheld as a preemptive enforcement action and putting it to work in the short time we have left." (Rebecca Ellis, Judge revokes $77,000 fine against Portland City Council candidate Rene Gonzalez, OPB, October 27, 2022)


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