Perspectives on Portland: Jeff Cogen

Kyle Curtis Facebook

"...these companies came to Portland because of the values of our community. We have chosen to live by the values that are important to us and, also, important to them. Portland’s sustainability ethos is laying the groundwork for economic development. Our region is exploding in green jobs, and that bodes well for the future."

Perspectives on Portland: Jeff Cogen

Jeff Cogen shows off his causal Friday attire.

Jeff Cogen is such a fixture in local politics, it’s hard to believe he hasn’t been an established officeholder for decades. However, it’s been roughly ten years since his first government staff position with Multnomah County Commission Chair Bev Stein. Followers of Portland politics know Cogen’s career: a stint in City Hall as Dan Saltzman’s chief of staff; elected County District Two commissioner; filling Ted Wheeler’s vacated County Commission Chair in April 2010. This past November saw Cogen winning his first election outright as County chair, earning a four-year term overseeing Multnomah County’s billion-dollar budget and thousands of employees. (Oh, and I might add, the County is also entering its second decade of annual budget deficits.) Jeff is a supporter of Multnomah County’s CROPs program which grows food for the Oregon Food Bank, so it would be fitting to say that he has “gotten his hands dirty” through his meteoric rise in local politics. Cogen’s political experience provides an insightful perspective on the future of the Portland region, one he shared with me in a recent discussion.

Jeff, you’ve been County Commission chair for a year and some change now. How is that going for you? Would you be able to provide a couple of the biggest successes you’ve accomplished as County chair, along with the biggest disappointment you’ve dealt with?

JC: I think the biggest accomplishment I’d like to highlight is the new mental health crisis assessment center built at the Hooper detox site. It is a desperately needed facility for mentally ill people to decompensate in a safe environment. As a result of this facility, there will be less jail time, less expenses, less run-ins with the police, and less threat of harm to themselves or others committed by those suffering from mental illness. This mental health facility is an example of collaborative governance at its best, as Multnomah County worked with both the city and the state to make it become a reality.

Another accomplishment I’d like to mention is the new Sellwood bridge. The County has approved funding for it, and we have reached a deal with the city to identify ninety percent of the funding. The rest of costs for a new bridge currently lies in the hands of Clackamas County voters, who I hope make the right decision. This bridge desperately needs to be replaced. The current bridge ranks 2 out of 100 on a federal sufficiency scale. It has been needed to be replaced for decades, and now it appears that it will finally happen.

I’d also like to mention the new East County courthouse, which has been 40 years in the making. The ground has been broken on this courthouse, and the frame is up. Construction should be completed six months from now.

As for a disappointment, I’m disappointed that the federal government has stepped away from its stimulus efforts to ease the burden on local governments caused by this nightmarish economic recession. I know the stimulus was designed to be temporary and get us through the recession, but the recession has turned out to be deeper and longer than was initially expected. I had hoped that the depths of the recession would be realized by the federal government, but as it doesn’t appear this will happen, local governments are going to be forced to take extraordinarily deep cuts into services.

Regarding the recession, the main reason I’ve wanted to talk to you is to address some concerns I’ve had about Portland’s economy. It seems like a lot of cities have an association with a particular industry that serves as an anchor for its local economy. Pittsburgh and the steel industry, for example, and Detroit’s association with auto manufacturing. Portland has never really has such a similar association, and I’m trying to figure out whether such a lack of an anchor industry is a positive thing as it results in a diverse economy, or a negative thing as it makes the area vulnerable to economic downturns. What are your thoughts on that?

JC: Well, I’d be willing to challenge you a little bit on that. I don’t necessarily agree. Portland really does have a strong emerging identity, which is made clear through the area’s progressive nature and commitment to sustainability. We know how to make a livable community, and are being recognized for doing so. When I travel around the country and people find out where I’m from, they say “I’ve heard of Portland!” And it’s true. To them, Portland is not just a city on the map- they’ve heard of our bike paths, our local food, our microbrews. This commitment to sustainability and livability wasn’t necessarily designed as a community marketing effort, but it has resulted as such. I grew up in Miami, and I remember when Mt. St. Helens blew up. I remember the reports of the ash covering Portland, and I was surprised that it had reached Portland, Maine. Twenty years ago, nobody in Florida knew where Portland is, but now everyone does. Without a doubt, Portland is definitely “on the map” and is in people’s consciousness.

But at a time when Portland’s unemployment is ten percent, is being nationally recognized for “livability” enough to anchor the economy?

JC: Well, the unemployment rate is actually down to nine percent. Not great, mind you, and certainly not where it should be at. But we’re definitely doing better than other parts of the state. And yes, I do believe that being leaders in livability is a good source of economic support for the region. We now know that renewable energy companies will provide several thousand jobs. I mean, SolarWorld- the largest solar power manufacturing company in the country- employs more than a thousand employees. Vestas wind energy, 500 employees. Iberdrola, a Spanish utility that purchased a part of Pacific Power, employs 500. These are high wage, great jobs in Portland. And these companies came to Portland because of the values of our community. We have chosen to live by the values that are important to us and, also, important to them. Portland’s sustainability ethos is laying the groundwork for economic development. Our region is exploding in green jobs, and that bodes well for the future.

It sounds like you believe renewable energy and green jobs are going to form the backbone of Portland’s economy of the future. Is Portland doing everything it can to maximize it opportunity in this sector, or can there be perhaps more efforts to develop this economy locally?

JC: Yes, I believe Portland could be doing more to develop this economic sector. We could really be doing a better job supporting local start-ups in the region. All of the companies I have mentioned, they are headquartered elsewhere and are bringing their North American offices to Portland. We need to create an environment that is supportive of local entrepreneurs to develop and thrive here in Portland. Definitely, the local lack of access to capital is a problem to develop this environment. A lot of prominent companies want to come here- they say that Portland is the perfect place for them to set-up their business- but end up locating to Silicon Valley where they have easy access to easy capital.

A few years back I helped guide a tour of international visitors who came to check out Portland’s sustainability leadership and innovation. They were greeted by then mayor-elect Adams who described a vision for Portland as the “most sustainable city in the world.” You have pointed out this sustainability ethos and how it creates a character that’s appealing for renewable energy companies. How do you think Portland has come towards accomplishing this goal?

JC: Portland has a long way to go to earn the title of “most sustainable city in the world.” But it’s probably the most sustainable city in the United States- and that’s a big deal! Our community has been shaped by its values, but now we are seeing how these values are helping shape other cities. In Chicago, there is a huge push for investment towards its sustainability efforts. Seattle and San Francisco are also competing with each other and are trying to be the capitol of sustainability on the west coast. And this is great, as Portland needs to continually be pushed. But, as for “most sustainable city in the world” its hard to compare Portland to northern European cities. For its bike-loving reputation, just 8% of daily trips are conducted by bike. Just eight percent. In Copenhagen and Amsterdam that number is close to fifty percent. Still, Portland is able to show the rest of America a set of values for livable, sustainable communities, and that’s a great thing!

Earlier you described how Portland was now “on the map” for folks due to its bike-friendliness, local food and microbrews. There are some people who identify with Portland for completely different reasons. I once had somebody tell me they moved to Portland because The Decemberists are from here. Portland has some irresistible appeal for young people who continue to come here despite, as the Willamette Week pointed out, an unemployment rate that stubbornly refuses to go down. How can Portland address this influx of young people who come each year to a city with such a current job shortage?

JC: We do need to make sure we grow our job base. No doubt about that. We may have gotten complacent in that department. We know that are great things happening, and if we make the mistake of believing our own press clips, we can make the mistake of taking our eyes off the ball. However, at the same time, the high rate of unemployment is misleading simply because we’re not creating enough jobs to keep up with the influx of people who keep coming here. Remember, people are coming here because they want to be here regardless of job prospects. And that is what makes the unemployment rate misleading. For other cities, when jobs decrease, people leave. Here, when jobs go down, people still come here. So, as a result, the high unemployment rate is artificially inflated.

It might be one thing for young creative twenty-somethings to come to Portland and spend some years “finding themselves” as they tend bar or work as a barista. But if economic opportunities don’t materialize in the green jobs sector quickly, we are going to have a bunch of thirty-somethings who would like to start a family and own a home, but lack the means to do so. When we talk about livable communities, just how livable can they be when it is such a struggle to make a living?

JC: Clearly, that’s too much of a trade-off, and not a sustainable balance at all. Communities won’t be livable if you are unable to make a living. The essence of livability requires the ability to pay rent, eat food, pay bills. At the same time, livability also translates itself through a particular culture as well- the city’s independent nature, the stores, the ability to get around easy on bike and transit. But it is essential for us to be able to provide jobs to young people. Portland all ready attracts young people- we need to do what it takes to keep them, provide them with the work they need to get their lives started here in Portland. Portland’s young people is a tremendous asset for the city, and we need to make it so they don’t just “get a job” but instead start companies and generate value for this community.

Okay, so those are kind of the macro-level questions about Portland I wanted to ask you. Now I have a couple of questions I want to ask you on an individual level. First, as you are now into the first year of your first official term as County Commission Chair, I want you to do a visioning exercise and describe what the outcome of your first term is going to look like. What do you want to see in the County at the conclusion of Chair Cogen’s first term?

JC: I would like there to be a better understanding of the role that Multnomah County plays in the lives of everyday citizens, and not that its just “big government” interfering with people’s lives. Some people have an idea of the responsibilities that the County takes care of- running elections, animal control, bridges. But most importantly perhaps what the County takes care of are vulnerable people and public-safety related concerns in the community. The County is stuck in a huge problem, caused by the inability to raise property taxes more than 3% due to Measure 5. Multnomah County has cut its budget for eleven years in a row now. My goal is to take the dollars we have and use them as effectively as possible. My goal is to increase the County’s connection with the community and have the community understand the connection with how the County is funded and the services that the County provides. Because if we continue along this unsustainable path of cutting… cutting… cutting, we will result in unlivable communities.

Finally, while I have you, I gotta ask about these rumors of you possibly running for mayor next year. Any truth to these rumors? Do you care to address them?

JC: It’s a part of human nature, I guess, as people like to speculate on such things. I love this job I have now, and I’m completely focused on this job. I have no idea on the future, but right now I have no time to think about a possible mayoral run. I have a budget due next week and that’s going to require intense negotiations. I need to cut $4.5 million out of the budget while mitigating hardships and service cuts as much as possible. Elections a year from now are currently not on my radar.*

*NOTE: After the interview was concluded, Jeff Cogen sent me a message which stated in part: “I told you I haven't been spending much energy on [a possible mayoral run] as I've been working on balancing the County's budget. What I don't think I mentioned is that after my budget is released next week I will be talking with some close friends and people whose judgment I trust to discuss my options.”

Take from that what you will.

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    As for the discussion on economic development, the narrow focus on “sustainability” seems to overlook that Portland’s best economic opportunities are abroad where economic growth is the greatest. Places like China, India, Indonesia, Brazil and other emerging market are growing economically far faster than the US economy. We need to sell more of our goods and services in those markets. We do not need to give up our “sustainability” focus to add an greater international trade component.

    Part of adding that international trade component is to change our educational system. We need to improve our foreign language programs and offer students who want it a high school year abroad. When the teachers unions oppose school districts paying for such high school years abroad, such unions are limiting our economic future. When, year after year, Portland Public Schools fails to enlarge either the Mandarin or Japanese immersion programs in spite of sufficient parent/student demand, PPS is limiting Portland’s economic future.

    I wish Jeff had mentioned this. Sam Adams does speak of Portland as “a small, but scrappy global city” (here).

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    It would be a giant disappointment to see a good leader like Jeff Cogen put personal ambition ahead of the needs of Multnomah County - a place that needs strong leadership - and resign to run for mayor.

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      I am quite certain that if Jeff Cogen decides to run for mayor, it will have nothing to do with personal ambition -- and everything to do with the needs of Multnomah County (the place and people, not the government.)

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        I'm quite certain Multnomah County the government needs good leaders who actually want to serve there and don't just see the county as a stepping stone to another office. It isn't that I think Jeff would be a bad mayor. It is that I think the county would lose a good leader and the county needs good leaders. He was only elected a year ago. Maybe he could at least serve a term before running off to do something new.

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    Love the button on Chair Cogen!

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