Coming into 2020, people expected a monumental election year. What they didn't anticipate were the truly historic developments of the past eight months: a deadly global pandemic, a devastating recession and a national racial-justice reckoning that resulted in 100-plus days of protest in Portland.
These events shuffled voters' views of the world. At the start of 2020, no one talked about how our communities could climb out of a deep economic hole, or how they should respond to a virus that has infected millions of people. And the centuries-old issue of systemic racism was certainly present, but frankly not at the very forefront of discussion.
All of this is to say that voters' priorities have shifted in Portland and elsewhere. Investments they might have willingly made in schools, libraries or transportation, for example, are now more difficult to support for those whose personal or business finances are suffering. Candidates themselves also have adjusted midstream as the COVID-19 coronavirus, racial justice, and the economy displaced other top issues.
This week, the Portland Tribune kicks off its fall 2020 election endorsements, and our Editorial Board is taking a different approach in light of the pandemic, which has limited our ability to have meaningful, in-person conversations with many candidates running for office. For several years now, we've been slowly moving away from making endorsements in high-profile partisan races. Due to COVID, we are moving even further in that direction this year.
With limited time and access, we will concentrate on more local races, where we have the most in-depth knowledge and can deliver the most value for our readers. These include mayoral and city council races, county commissioner races, ballot measures and the occasional legislative race, where we still think an objective voice can make a difference for voters and encourage responsible outcomes.
There may still be times, now or in the future, when we feel compelled to make a recommendation in a statewide partisan race. What we've found in most cases is that endorsements in those contests often pull us into the partisan muck. For instance, if we endorse a Democrat for governor, as we have done in the past, we get labeled part of the "liberal mainstream media." If we endorse a Republican for that office, as we also have done in the past, we get called a tool of corporate interests, or more colorfully "a right-wing rag." Those are actual quotes, by the way.
Gone are the days when people value a moderate view in a partisan race. Things are just too divisive now. But our readers still look to us for guidance in local races, where they may have less information — and where we have unique insights into offices that we've observed up close for many years.
To that end, here is our endorsement in the Portland mayoral race, which is a runoff between incumbent Ted Wheeler and challenger Sarah Iannarone.
Portland Mayor: Ted Wheeler
Our endorsement of Wheeler must come with the obvious caveat that his first four years in office haven't always lived up to Portlanders' hopes — or Wheeler's promises in 2016. The politician who displayed such competence as Multnomah County chair and as Oregon's treasurer has now bumped up against the reality that being Portland's mayor is an even harder job, perhaps an impossible one.
But impossible or not, someone has to do it. And we believe Wheeler, who is the first Portland mayor even to attempt a second term since Vera Katz left the position in January 2005, still has the right experience and skillset for the role.
Wheeler's top issue in 2016 was homelessness and the need to address both the humanitarian and community-livability problems that stem from that intractable problem. Wheeler now argues that before COVID, the city and Multnomah County had made good progress over the past four years to bring on new beds for the homeless. That expanded capacity, in turn, would allow for more assertive efforts to get people off the streets and into shelters and transitional and permanent housing. With the pandemic, however, the homeless numbers have continued to increase and the visibility of the problem has, if anything, become more apparent.
Wheeler has worked with others to enlarge the available resources, with two navigation centers, the Bybee Lakes Hope Center, which creates 500 new beds, and Wheeler's pledge, partially fulfilled already, to find 300 additional short-term beds. He also has indicated a willingness to end the city-county Joint Office of Housing Services if necessary to provide more shelter space.
We agree with Wheeler that both the city and the county can do better on this issue — we hope that the joint office is intact. But we also believe it is essential that Wheeler's work with public and private partners continue uninterrupted, which is one reason to re-elect him.
Back before the May primary, and despite displaying some frustration with the job, Wheeler appeared to be on cruise-control toward re-election. Indeed, he almost won the election outright in a crowded May primary, when he received barely under 50 percent of the vote. But since then, his popularity has suffered as a result of his handling of the racial-justice protests in downtown Portland.
Wheeler has been criticized on the one hand for not going far enough with police reform and, essentially, being too supportive of the Police Bureau he oversees and the tactics they have used. He has faced equal criticism, though, for not being assertive enough in stopping acts of vandalism and violence among a small number of protesters. Could Wheeler have handled the situation better? Quite possibly. But it's worth pointing out that whichever direction he went — cracking down on police or cracking down on protesters — would have resulted in even more intense criticism.
We believe Wheeler understands two things quite clearly: First, that the protesters are correct that systemic racism is a real and deadly problem. And second, that criminal acts — as opposed to civil disobedience — are not an acceptable part of protests. More and more supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement and racial justice also have spoken up to say that violence is a distraction from their core message. As of this writing, it appears the nightly violence has begun to subside and we hope a calmer form of protest will continue to push the city forward in rooting out racism in the Police Bureau and elsewhere. Mayor Wheeler has shown he's open to both listening and acting on those voices.
Related to the protests is the future of downtown Portland after the pandemic. Portland's city center suffered reputational damage due to intense media focus on violent acts. Wheeler understands that aggressive action is needed to clean up graffiti and litter, to provide a sense of safety and to support small businesses. He further comprehends that these problems extend far beyond downtown and into many of Portland's business districts and neighborhoods.
Portland's mayor must confront these massive issues of recovery from the pandemic and recession, while championing a larger vision for what Portland should become. Wheeler is well-positioned to do that. He sees the ambitious Broadway Corridor development — centered around the former post office site in Old Town — as an opportunity for the "next great place" in Portland. He wants Portland to capitalize on its leadership in the green economy. In general, he wants to restore a city brand that's been tarnished by images of violence.
Wheeler is competing in this runoff against Sarah Iannarone, who runs to the left of Wheeler on many issues. A former small business owner who previously managed the First Stop Portland program at Portland State University, Iannarone also ran for mayor in 2016, finishing third in the May primary of that year. She is smart and well-versed on the issues, but we have observed little in her background that would qualify her to move immediately into the position of mayor of Oregon's largest city. The substantial events that have emerged since the primary gave Iannorone a chance to establish herself as a credible alternative to the incumbent. She failed to do so.
Supporters of another May primary candidate, Teressa Raiford, have mounted a write-in campaign for her, but without her name on the ballot, she's not likely to have a large effect on the outcome.
In this tumultuous year that has brought forth unexpected challenges for Portland, voters' wisest course is to re-elect Ted Wheeler for a second term.