City Council Candidates Forum - impressions

T.A. Barnhart

City Council Candidates Forum - impressions

Moderator Don Gavitte & the five candidates at PSU

The five candidates for Portland City Council met in a forum at PSU Monday afternoon. A very revelatory two hours, despite few attacks on the incumbent. This isn’t a complete recap – that would be boring – but my takeaways.

Qualified Citizens

(I feel a bit cruddy that the only two women in the race are in this category. As someone who has supported many women candidates, and still does, I’m not happy about that. But this is what I saw and heard.)

I wish Portland had more citizens like Chloe Eudaly and Susan Stahl. Both are committed to the city, to the people they know and love, to those who need partners and advocates. I don’t know their work, but I’m guessing they have made an impact over the years as activists and citizens. I hope the kids from Grant High School who provided the questions (and the majority of the audience) at this forum learn from their example. Hell, I need to learn from their example.

But the qualifications for City Council are more demanding than for citizen. Neither Eudaly nor Stahl provided any depth of response. That’s not to say they didn’t have something to offer. Stahl advocated that services be taken to those on the street rather than waiting for them to show up and ask for services. Yes, of course. Let’s make more services easier to access for those in need. Eudaly commented that city councilors face the same challenge as teachers do: on top of their “regular” work, they have a ton of issues that impact that work. A message of compassion for elected officials that we rarely hear during elections.

But far too often, neither had an answer of any depth. When asked “is affordable housing Portland’s most important issue,” Eudaly said yes – and little more. Stahl reflected that the impacts on those facing housing struggles are enormous – and little more. At one point, Eudaly brought up Vanport out-of-context and to no visible point. Stahl said that to address gentrification, we need to keep people in their homes. Ok, how? She didn’t say.

I admire both for their long years of service and their courage in running for public office. But I cannot say either is qualified to be on the City Council. But if I was on the Council, I’d probably want to sit down and have coffee with each of them; I bet I’d learn a lot of value from them. They are great citizens.

Not Ready for Prime Time

Stuart Emmons’ professional background is one of those that leads to public service. A prototypical white collar guy, an architect, but one who has worked with various governments many times over the years. And he’s doing the politician thing fairly well: raising money, hiring staff, producing 10-point plans. And many of his answers had the depth I felt was missing from Eudaly and Stahl.

But he had no response of depth on how to handle gentrification; you would think a housing advocate in Portland who is running for City Council would have a solid answer ready for that. He didn’t. On the proposed street fee (gas tax), he attacked the process that led to the proposal that will be on the ballot. That wasn’t about the tax; that was about city government and transparency. On the rental crisis, his answer was “more affordable housing” to which a succinct rebuttal would be, “No duh”.

What bugged me, though, was his overall behavior. After Novick provided an answer on one question, Emmons, the next respondent, said, and I quote, “Bla bla bla”. That’s pure junior high school. Rather than answer the question, he was trying to gin up outrage over Novick’s failures, including a snarky comment about sidewalks in the Pearl (so far out of context, I don’t think anyone knew what he was referring to).

Then there was this, after the forum. I was talking with an acquaintance, and Emmons came by. I shook his hand and said, much to my chagrin, “You were the second most qualified person up there”. Yes, I said that to a person I had met for the first time. I can be an insensitive, impolitic jerk. But I’m not running for office (I will never be running for office, for obvious reasons). He is.

And his response? After asking who I thought was – Steve Novick – he said, “He’s not qualified”. Then he added, “I’ve talked to friends of him, and they’re saying, What is he doing?” Yes, I was a jerk, but when you are a candidate or an elected, you will be faced with jerks all the time. My jerkiness was minor, and incorporated a semi-compliment. His job was to gloss over my lack of manners and speak to his own qualifications. Something like “I feel like I’m the most qualified” and bla bla bla from there. Not to attack the person I said I thought was the most qualified.

Between his childish “bla bla bla” and this, along with a number of questions to which he gave weak answers, I can’t see myself supporting his candidacy. He’s got a lot to offer the city, but he’s not ready for a seat at the big table. If he is elected, I’d expect him to stumble through his first two years and maybe, maybe, get his act together at some point. But the candidate I saw today? Nope.

Same old, same old

I unfriended Fred Stewart on Facebook several years ago because I had gotten tired of his refusal, or inability, to engage in disagreement in a civil manner. I grew tired of him pounding on me over something, not listening, arguing a point to the death. And not in a friendly manner. I also got very, very tired of his calling Sam Adams a pedophile. Sam was stupid, and then he got extra-stupid and betrayed friends with his defense, but he was not a pedophile. But Fred threw that term around endlessly. I don’t have the energy for people like that, so I unfriended him.

Sadly, that Fred Stewart showed up at the forum a few times. At one point, he interupted Eudaly’s answer and would not stop despite the efforts of the moderator, Willamette Week’s Aaron Mesh (who did an excellent job) to get him to obey the rules all five participants had agreed on. Stewart had to make his points, so rules and civility be damned.

Not the kind of behavior that will lead to a functional City Council. Just think back to the Multnomah County Commission’s “Bad Girls” days and recall how destructive this kind of behavior can be. Portland can’t afford this.

He was also willing to play the reverse race card: He’s the only person who can possibly know what black Portlanders are thinking. That’s patent nonsense. I have a pretty good idea what many black Portlanders are thinking because I pay attention, I read, I listen, I have conversations. I don’t presume to speak for them, or for any community of which I am not a member, but I do understand a lot of what’s going on. And of course, I have no idea what it’s like to live in black skin; I can never fully understand that, but I can know enough to be an ally.

Government has no need of people who set themselves apart from their peers or fellow citizens. Stewart did that, several times, and with a harsh tone to his words. He scolded Eudaly. He attacked Emmons’ leadership on the school bond which he said, without providing the slightest bit of evidence, that it had led to hundreds of people being put onto the streets.

Portland has a wealth of leaders of color, and we’re way behind in supporting their advancement into political leadership. Roberta Phillip-Robbins could soon be in the State House, and Lew Fredericks in the State Senate. Jessica Vega Pederson is moving from the Leg to Multnomah County, and Diego Hernandez is likely to take her House seat. Cameron Whitten has moved from performance artist to solid leader with a great future. Anita Yap is a kickass leader. Teressa Raifford is someone I admire a lot. And there are many others I don’t even know. We do need more people of color moving into leadership positions, but Fred Stewart is not one of those people.

And that leaves…

I came to the event already supportive of Steve Novick. I’ve known him for quite a few years, and I’ve had numerous chances to talk with him, listen to him speak on various topics, and, like everyone else, see how he handled his first elected office. Yes, he made a hash of certain things, but almost every one of those – the Uber meeting, the street fee mess – was led by the Mayor. Me, I’m gonna blame Charlie Hales for most of Novick’s problems. He needs a better mayor to work with.

I can’t say he blew me or anyone else away with passion. He was far more reserved than I’ve seen him in the past; only once did his sense of humor kick in. Perhaps it’s three-plus years of learning how to be city councilor and how to become a really good city councilor. But he not only had more answers of depth than anyone else, he addressed issues no one else touched on.

He implored the Grant students recognize the value of labor and unions with all the passion of an old-time socialist. He threw in a plug for Bernie Sanders. He qualified the urgency of the housing crisis as an “immediate” one with global climate change being the biggest challenge humanity faces – and he was proud of his work to prepare Portland to survive The Big One when it finally his. He noted several times that on issues like raising money to fix Portland streets, politicians from Earl Blumenaeur to Sam Adams had “kicked the can” down the road – not only was he not going to kick that can anymore, he told the high school students, “the road is yours”. No more dumping problems on the future.

What was shocking is that he was the only one of the five to get it right on the air toxins problem. Steward blamed the city for failing to monitor the glass companies; Stahl followed in the same vein. Then it was Novick’s turn, and he noted that monitoring was the state’s job and, not only that, neither glass company had violated any regulations. He said he hoped the Leg would give the City and Multnomah County the authority to create their own environmental regulatory body, something they do not have legal authority to do at this point (nothing with teeth, that is). And funny enough, after that, both Emmons and Eudaly stopped blaming the city (well Eudaly did; Emmons could help but say Novick was shirking responsibility by blaming the state) and both endorsed the regional authority.

Steve Novick still has a lot to prove in office. I am hoping, like other councilors before him, that his various stumbles and screwups in his first term have educated him. I know he’s a compassionate person; I know he has a passion for democracy. He’s also very smart, thinks in creative ways (possibly too creative for elected office at times), and refuses to settle on easy answers. I found no reason to support any of his challengers, as I laid out above. I’m going to vote for him in May with the hope that he’ll hit his stride. Working with a much better Mayor than we currently have – is this where I put in a plug for Ted Wheeler? – I think Steve Novick will change a lot of minds.

I hope so. Portland could really use the Steve Novick many of us voted for in 2012.

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