When I came to Portland in 1998 and for well over a decade thereafter the city was celebrated for its vibrant, pedestrian friendly downtown, a lively arts scene, a public transportation system used by people from all walks of life, not just those who could not afford an auto, a book city boasting one of the nation's foremost bookstores and a host of smaller independent stores, a film city where the NW Film Center, its Portland International Film Festival, and an array of independent cinemas routinely screened low-budget, off the beaten track, foreign, and classic films, a city whose neighborhoods and parks invited running, bicycling, hiking, and the wanderings of the semi-wild flâneur. The city was not without problems. No urban area is. But there was among the citizenry and across the country a sense that this was a good, indeed desirable place to live.
Today Portland is a troubled city. Poster child for the homeless crisis. Downtown battered by pandemic and the largely peaceful protests of 2020. Skyrocketing home prices and rents. Soaring rates of gun violence and homicides, although it should be noted that Portland Police Bureau crime statistics indicate assault rates in the city have remained relatively constant since 2018 and sex offenses appear to be trending down. Burglaries and robberies have been up and down since 2020, with a slight increase toward the end of 2021 (Levinson, Some Oregon midterm candidates focus on crime). Public perception does not always correlate with data but it still matters.
Anarchist, antifascist, neo-nationalist, and white supremacist contingents feel at home here and free to have at each other in periodic clashes more akin to the brawls of rival gangs fighting over turf than anything to do with political ideology. The citizenry displays a dismaying willingness to rationalize or downplay property destruction and violence when committed by individuals and groups that fall on one's own side of the great social, political, and cultural divide. City Council is widely considered to be dysfunctional and not competent to deal with the city's many problems. And so on.
A mess of factors contribute to Portland's transformation from beautiful swan to ugly duckling. Many of our problems and their sources are common to other cities. Assault on the American experiment in liberal democracy casts an ever widening and darker shadow on the national landscape that magnifies discord everywhere.
Two city council positions are on the ballot for the Oregon primary election on May 17. A candidate receiving the majority of the votes in the primary will be elected commissioner. If no candidate wins in the primary, the top two vote-getters will be placed on the ballot for the November general election.
Today's sermon focuses on commissioner position 3, where incumbent Jo Ann Hardesty is running for reelection. Vadim Mozyrsky and Rene Gonzalez are considered to be the other main contenders among the eleven candidates on the ballot. The three of them participated in a debate sponsored by City Club of Portland on April 7 and another on Oregon Public Broadcasting's Think Out Loud April 15. The debates were civil. No one got into personal attacks. Issues associated with homelessness and public safety dominated both debates. They differed markedly on the issue of police staffing. Mozyrsky and Gonzalez maintain that the police bureau is dramatically understaffed for a city of Portland's size, with additional officers needed to address gun violence and provide the kind of community policing Portlanders want, a point Commissioner Mingus Mapps emphasizes over and over again. Hardesty appears to believe the problem lies within the bureau. She resists new funding for additional positions until a staffing study is done to determine how current officers use their time.
Jo Ann Hardesty is US Navy veteran who has been a fixture in the Portland political arena as a state legislator (1997–2000), activist (executive director at Oregon Action 2002–2010 and president of the NAACP Portland branch 2015–2018), and fierce critic of the Portland Police Bureau. In both debates she was at pains to portray herself as an effective leader who works well with others, contrary to public perception in some quarters, including this one, and somewhat at odds with her declaration elsewhere that the status quo must go. Like her opponents, she presents herself as someone running against City Hall. Just what she has in mind by status quo, of which she is presumably not a part despite being the incumbent, is not clear.
Hardesty has made Portland Street Response a centerpiece of her campaign, repeatedly touting the program and crediting herself with its creation. Portland Street Response is an unarmed emergency response program within Portland Fire & Rescue's Community Health Division that assists people experiencing mental health and behavioral health crises. The program has indeed been successful. It began a year ago in a single SE Portland neighborhood and was recently expanded to cover the entire city after research at Portland State University's Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative demonstrated its effectiveness.
Hardesty was indeed a driving force behind Portland Street Response. As commissioner in charge of Portland Fire & Rescue she would be expected to take the lead. The council may not have moved as fast as she wished when Mayor Ted Wheeler and commissioners Mingus Mapps and Dan Ryan voted to delay funding to extend the program citywide until data demonstrating its effectiveness was available, but it is not as if she was bucking her colleagues on the council or public sentiment.
There is broad consensus on the present city council, among Hardesty, Mozyrsky, and Gonzalez, and throughout the city about the need to reevaluate the role of police and how the city provides for public safety. That consensus breaks down when the conversation turns to defunding the police. Different factions have different things in mind when they speak of defunding. Some really do want to abolish the police. Others explain that what they have in mind is shifting responsibility for certain functions away from police departments and reallocating funding accordingly.
Hardesty belongs to the latter faction, although she shows no inclination to disavow the slogan or take exception to its advocates who would go further. She did state forthrightly that 2020 cuts to the police bureau's budget and proposed reforms were not about abolishing the police (Jo Ann Hardesty On Changes to Policing). Police are still needed to deal with murders, domestic abuse, and other crimes of violence, but the police imprint will be smaller and policing will be done differently as resources are shifted elsewhere. Much of Hardesty's criticism of the police bureau is on target. Her proposals for reform merit examination and trial. Portland Street Response already appears to have borne fruit.
Against this must be weighed Hardesty's long record as a progressive firebrand whose intemperate rhetoric is not conducive to constructive engagement with individuals whose views do not line up with hers. Her adversarial relationship with the police bureau and the police union is not pretty. Responsibility for this state of affairs runs both ways, but the bureau and the union are not on the ballot. Hardesty is.
During the largely peaceful protests of 2020 Hardesty reportedly had a conversation with the police chief where she told him she did not want to hear about good protesters and bad protesters until he was willing to acknowledge police misconduct. The chief would not do so. End of conversation (Jo Ann Hardesty On Changes To Policing). It was by all means 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 is wrong and counterproductive. She chose silence.
On another occasion that summer Hardesty stated that she did not believe any protesters in Portland were setting fires or creating a crisis. The police were responsible, she claimed, sending saboteurs and provocateurs into peaceful demonstrations (Bernstein, Hardesty slams Wheeler). This kind of rhetoric only further inflamed a volatile situation. Even Hardesty soon realized this bizarre allegation without a scintilla of evidence, and in the face of photographs and video to the contrary, was ill-advised and walked it back with an apology.
Like many comrades on the left Hardesty is reluctant to speak out against property destruction and violence that occur during demonstrations of behalf of causes she supports. In 2017 I attended a City Club of Portland forum on the effectiveness of protest where Hardesty was one of four panel members. She and a Portland Community College professor declared themselves advocates of nonviolent protest. The other panelists trotted out the usual rationalizations for protester violence: protesters feel themselves powerless, victims of oppression and systemic racism, ignored by the establishment, and anyway violence is almost always the fault of the police. One panelist questioned whether property destruction is really violence and suggested that we should all understand these things and refrain from criticism of those who choose to protest in ways different from how we think it should be done. Not quite an endorsement of violence but not far from it. Hardesty refrained from criticism. This is not the kind leadership the city needs.
Vadim Mozyrsky is a Jewish refugee from Kyiv, Ukraine, whose family came to the US in 1979, fleeing antisemitism. He is an administrative law judge in the field of disability law with a record of civic engagement and public service as a member of the Portland Committee on Community Engaged Policing, the Citizen Review Committee, created in 2001 to help improve police accountability and promote higher standards of police service, and the Charter Commission, an independent body convened every ten years to review and recommend amendments to the City of Portland Charter (the city's constitution). He serves on the board of directors for the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization and the Public Safety Action Coalition.
Mozyrsky recognizes that Portlanders across the city want both an effective police response to crime and police accountability. They feel compassion for the homeless and for individuals suffering from substance abuse and mental health disorders. They also believe something must be done about public camping and accompanying disorder that blights downtown and neighborhoods throughout the city. He supports reform to Portland's commission style of government so it can operate more efficiently and provide better service (see Charter Commission unanimously advances proposal to reform Portland’s elections and form of government; voters will get final say). His experience on various volunteer committees provides familiarity with these issues and the challenges that go with addressing them.
Mozyrsky says the right things in broad, sweeping strokes. The statement of priorities on his website is an example:
As City Commissioner I will prioritize increased transparency of how the City of Portland and Multnomah County work to address the critical issues facing our community. I will work with all stakeholders to address the public safety crisis and I will push forward Charter Reform so government can begin to work and serve the people. (Vote Vadim)
Two more bullet points from the website offer a taste of his thinking and approach:
Our city is facing several crises which have been exacerbated by the political dysfunction in City Hall. Portland has historically prided itself as a model of good governance, cleanliness and environmental stewardship, with innovative solutions to community problems. Together, we can revive that pride. We need to restore basic services such as public safety for all Portlanders, ensure clean streets and open spaces, and provide effective and compassionate care for those in need.
We need a bold and hopeful vision for Portland’s future, but also practical and common-sense measures to ensure that vision is achieved. I have a proven record of listening to community needs and responding with effective solutions through my service and leadership on multiple commissions, committees, boards and community organizations. I will bring that community-driven, pragmatic, and results-oriented approach to City Council.
Mozyrsky strikes me as a natural ally with Commissioner Mingus Mapps, elected to city council in 2020 when he ousted then incumbent Chloe Eudaly, with his rhetoric balancing hope, vision, and pragmatism.
Rene Gonzalez is a business lawyer, owner and managing partner in a firm he opened in 2012, and owner and managing partner of Eastbank Artifex, a technology consulting company. Gonzalez served on the boards of the Library Foundation (2017–2021) and Portland Children's Museum (2012–2015). He led school and sports reopening efforts during the pandemic. His website features strong language about the state of the city: "Portland can and should be a beautiful, livable, and thriving city filled with promise. But under the current City Council it has become violent, filthy, and ideologically driven."
Gonzalez is the most right-leaning of the three candidates. I say this advisedly because Hardesty and her campaign are given to throwing the charge of conservatism, a smear here in the People's Republic of Portland, around pretty freely at political opponents who are generally liberal. Like Mozyrsky he speaks of the need for police accountability and compassionate treatment of the homeless, but his tone has a harder edge, as when he says that the city has become violent and filthy under the current city council and when he speaks of eliminating the "anything goes" attitude with respect to the unhoused (Rene for Portland ). While this has elements of truth, just as Hardesty's criticism of the police bureau has merit, it is lurid, a wee bit over the top, and more apt to be divisive than productive.
The situation is not as grim as might be inferred from some of what is written here. There remains much to like about Portland, much worth the effort to restore, preserve, and build upon, and many people here are dedicated to just that. I am not apprehensive about my safety as I go about daily life, which includes a fair amount of wandering around a variety of neighborhoods, although there are areas where I am wary and do not venture without reason. Of greater concern is the threat to the continued existence of the nation as a liberal democracy playing out on many levels throughout the country.
No one has the lightsaber that will wondrously whack away injustice, inequity, and the host of other social ills that afflict the diverse, disputatious, frequently cantankerous communities and factions that make up this city and bring back a grand past that was always in part mythical. Whatever progress is made in addressing the city's troubles is bound to be frustratingly incremental and always tentative. As Brooklyn Judy used to say, sometimes things just be that way.
Vadim Mozyrsky is the candidate best positioned by virtue of experience, perspective, and temperament to work with colleagues on City Council and the people of our city to point Portland in a better direction. I will vote for Vadim.
References and Related Reading
Maxine Bernstein, Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty slams Mayor Ted Wheeler, blames Portland police for fires being set during protests, OregonLive/The Oregonian, July 20, 2020
Rebecca Ellis, Portland Street Response expands citywide with new answer for mental health, addiction-related 911 calls, OPB, March 28, 2022
Jonathan Levinson, Some Oregon midterm candidates focus on crime — even when the data disagrees, OPB, April 21, 2022
Anthony Macuk, Portland City Council race features 20 candidates across two seats, the largest slate in more than 50 years, KGW8, March 9, 2022; updated March 17
Dave Miller, Jo Ann Hardesty On Changes To Policing, OPB Think Out Loud
Christine Pitawanich, Hardesty debates two challengers in race for Portland City Council, KGW8 News, April 7, 2022
Amelia Templeton, Jo Ann Hardesty Resurrected Local NAACP, With Scant Attention To Fiscal Oversight, OPB, September 17, 2018
A Forum on Protest, March 20, 2017
Jo Ann Hardesty, police reform, and protester violence, July 11, 2020
My Ballot Dilemma, October 31, 2018
Portland as Viewed by a Faction of One, July 24, 2020