“To me, this place symbolizes Portland’s willingness to pursue the common good. You can do the big, bold thing here.”
On a weekend afternoon, the community center at Gabriel Park is mobbed with kids and families, but there’s a vacant lap lane for the man who claims a large share of credit for building the place.
The pool is one result of a $58.8 million bond measure Charlie Hales proposed and fought for in 1994, when he was a first-term councilman running a budget-squeezed parks bureau. In Hales’s telling, the bond, which passed with more than 55,000 votes to spare, provides a small but telling profile in political courage: “I’m willing to stick my neck out.” In a larger sense, Hales’s campaign for mayor, a decade after he left City Council, rests on his argument that he is the one candidate who knows how to get stuff done.
In his days on city council, Hales quickly developed an appetite for the grand (and lasting) gesture. He pushed through the nation’s first modern streetcar, supported light rail, and oversaw bond-funded renovations of more than 100 parks. Even his minor projects showed a physical bent, like the briefly controversial Chinese bronze elephant statue he helped install on the North Park Blocks. When he left the council, it was for a private-sector job developing streetcars and light-rail lines.
Political observers say the 56-year-old is attempting what might be called a “Kitzhaber”: positioning himself as the race’s lone grown-up, the veteran who now wishes only to serve. Hales himself says,
“I don’t need to worry about my political career or my next elected job, because I won’t have one. I’m not on the political ladder anymore. This is it.”
“This place is a statement about the power of local people to take destiny into their own hands.”
After 15 minutes at Zenger Farm, the mayoral race’s current frontrunner wears a splotch of mud on the right knee of her jeans like a badge of earthy honor. The chicken-coop scene suggests nearly irresistible political metaphors. But suffice it to say that Eileen Brady, a 50-year-old rookie candidate, is likewise trying to charm voters, with an appeal based on the green values and public-minded, entrepreneurial spirit she finds at Zenger.
The farm occupies city-owned land but is run by an education-oriented nonprofit. Brady sat on Zenger’s board as it blossomed in the mid-’00s, playing a role in key hires and important grants. “When I first got involved, Zenger had no greenhouse, no farmhouse, and maybe 100 kids a year for educational events,” she says. “Now the programs serve over 5,000 kids a year.”
Brady’s campaign is attempting a similar barn raising, built on the foundation of the part she and husband Brian Rohter played in creating the beloved New Seasons grocery chain, backed by a hefty war chest. (The exact nature of her former role at New Seasons is a matter of some dispute.)
Brady uses the word “entrepreneurial” like a mantra. Her definition of the concept is broad, including public-private partnerships like Zenger, high-tech start-ups, and more traditional businesses. Brady puts great emphasis on straightening the “bureaucratic maze” faced by new businesses and curbing city fees. As to the latter, she cites potential reductions in cutting costs for start-ups in neighborhoods that need economic boosts.
“I want a livable city, but we have to have jobs. Sustainability involves economics and equity, as well as the environment.”
“Too often, we forget the width and breadth of the city. If we don’t make Portland a better place for more people, there won’t be too many more seasons of Portlandia.”
In a parking lot next to David Douglas on a winter Sunday, Jefferson Smith carries himself—at 6’4”, there’s a lot of him—with somber focus. The lot fronts a diverse and poverty-plagued school at Portland’s fast-growing eastern edge, the area Smith represents in the state House, and the unlikely staging ground for his battle to capture the city’s top political job.
Alone among the major candidates, Smith is a Portland native, and finds himself very much at home in intricate discussions of how the city works. When he really gets going, one sentence barely escapes before the next begins. Today, he’s in a lower gear—perhaps because the legislature’s February session has him working in Salem and running for mayor at the same time—but he still manages to weave tight-knit analyses of seemingly disparate elements of the city. For example, he sees the outer east side’s zoning for high-density housing, plus its relative lack of basic amenities like parks and paved streets, as part of a potent recipe for social change when combined with two decades of urban renewal in inner Northeast.
“That’s meant 10,000 low-income and minority folks moving from Northeast to the outer east side over the last 10 years,” he says. “What happened didn’t just happen. It was done, and often without anyone considering all the ramifications.”
In Smith’s outlook, comparable stories could be told about many places in Portland, and demand a holistic vision.
“It takes an ethic and a discipline of seeing the whole picture.”
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“Of the candidates, I’m the one who has devoted a whole career to cities,” Hales says once he’s toweled off. “That’s been my focal point, whether in government or not: great cities in general, and ours in particular.”
When asked what voters don’t yet appreciate about her political approach, Brady sounds like the former HR director she is. “I’m a whole-systems thinker,” she says, “and that’s a significant value-add for the position.”
Smith promises to knock over the apple cart of local politics. “We don’t need to simply make the status-quo trains run on time,” he says. “The conversation needs to change if we’re going to build the city we want.”
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Given his emphasis on “place,” it’s no surprise that Hales’s fundraising relies largely on donations from developers, rail builders, and prominent real estate figures.
Brady has raised and spent much more than her rivals. Large donors include New Seasons cofounder Stan Amy, business execs, and members of the feminist organization Emily’s List.
Despite being banned from fundraising during the legislative session, Smith stockpiled scores of small-to-medium gifts at the end of January, keeping pace with Hales.