Labor's own Randy Leonard vies for Portland City Council seat

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Of the 16 candidates running in the Sept. 17 special election for Portland City Council, two have had labor support in previous races: Multnomah County Commissioner Serena Cruz and State Representative Randy Leonard. But it was very clear very early which would get labor's endorsement this time.

"Randy Leonard isn't just 'pro-labor,' he is labor," says James Hester, a member of the Executive Board of the City of Portland's largest union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 189. "He understands labor issues," Hester said. "He understands what we go through in bargaining."

As president of the Portland Fire Fighters Local 43 from 1986 to 1998, Leonard himself sat across the bargaining table from city managers. And he didn't always like what he saw.

"The dirty secret around Portland is it's an anti-union city," Leonard says. "It's run by 'limousine liberals' who pontificate about what's good for working people but are out of touch with working-class Portlanders." Leonard accuses the City of Portland of an anti-union bent for:

* adopting anti-union lobbying positions at the State Legislature;

* supporting a class-action lawsuit to reduce contributions to the public employee retirement system;

* using legal maneuvers to delay for years an organizing campaign among low-paid seasonal workers in the Parks Bureau; and

* playing hardball in bargaining with its unions.

The tone was particularly acrimonious during the last contract negotiations with a coalition of the city's major public employee unions. The unions appealed to City Council members for some support and were largely rebuffed. Leonard says that's unacceptable, because the negotiators were following the wishes of the council.

Local union leaders agree with Leonard. They feel labor has no real allies on the current City Council.

And they see Leonard as a labor stalwart who has a chance to make it.

"He's a stand-up guy, a straight shooter," Hester says. "He doesn't mince words."

"He's not a stereotypical politician who's going to forget who supported him once he's in office," declares Bruce Dennis, president of Carpenters Local 247.

Leonard stands out, says Oregon AFL-CIO Political Director Steve Lanning, because of his reputation for arguing forcefully on the floor.

"He's more like a real person than a politician," says Ty Kovatch, Leonard's 24-year old campaign manager and legislative aide.

Leonard, 50, is a lieutenant in the Fire Bureau's river patrol, responsible for the Columbia River and Northeast Portland. It's the best job in the Bureau, Leonard says. His unit is called on in boating and swimming accidents, and when people jump from bridges.

Leonard was born and raised in Portland, the son of a merchant marine union member. He graduated from Grant High School, served a stint in the Marines, and earned a bachelor's degree in history from Portland State University (PSU). He got his start in politics as a PSU student interning for State House Representative Ed Lindquist. It was Lindquist who encouraged him to become a firefighter. After seven years in the bureau, Leonard was elected president of Local 43. In 1993 he was appointed by the Multnomah County Commission to fill the vacant position of State Senator Frank Roberts, Leonard's former speech professor at PSU. He's served in the Legislature ever since, first as a senator and later, after term limits, in the House.

The Oregon AFL-CIO gives Leonard a 91 percent lifetime rating for his votes in four legislative sessions. There have a been a few times when he's voted against labor's position on an issue.

Leonard, for instance, was instrumental in winning a tax incentive for anti-union Nucor Steel to locate in Coos County - a position at odds with the recommendation of the Oregon AFL-CIO. He says he was swayed by the argument that it would provide jobs to working families in an economically devastated area. Leonard says he told Irv Fletcher, then-president of the state labor federation, "My job is to bring jobs to Oregon. Your job is to organize them." As it turned out, Nucor did not come to Oregon.

Leonard said the legislative accomplishments he's proudest of are fighting off the worst aspects of a public employee collective bargaining rollback in 1995, and working to clean up the Willamette River. Leonard introduced legislation in the 2001 session to halt the dumping of toxic sludge from the Port of Portland in the Ross Island lagoon. He said his bill passed the House without a single no vote, but was stopped in a Senate committee because of a personal grudge. Still, Bob Pamplin, owner of Ross Island, was persuaded to halt the dumping voluntarily. Today, Pamplin is a Leonard supporter; the conservative owner of Ross Island Sand and Gravel and the Portland Tribune wrote a check to the Leonard campaign for $2,500.

And in the most recent special session, Leonard voted to uphold Governor John Kitzhaber's veto of the Republican funding proposals, which he called "Enron-type" financing schemes - borrowing on future tax revenues to pay for today's services.

On May 30, he stepped out of his campaign for re-election to the House in order to devote himself full-time to the race for city commissioner.

Boiled down to the most basics, Leonard's platform in the council race focuses on job creation. Job creation, in Leonard's view, is the key not only to economic prosperity and adequate tax revenues, but also to the problem of crime, substance abuse, and unaffordable housing.

And the key to creating jobs, Leonard says, is making Portland city government more friendly to business by lightening regulatory burdens and sweetening the pot for out-of-town businesses to locate here by offering tax abatements tied to specific job and wage commitments.

"A lot of people misunderstand," Leonard says. "They think being union means being anti-business."

Quite the contrary, Leonard says, to a responsible, ethical business, a union can be the number one ally.

In campaign appearances Leonard frequently brings up Columbia Sportswear as an example of city government that alienates job-creating businesses. Columbia Sportswear was looking for a larger headquarters in Portland. First it was outbid by Multnomah County for the vacant U.S. Bank building at SE Grand and Morrison. Then it looked at a piece of property near OMSI and Channel 12. An executive at Columbia told Leonard that city planners told them they couldn't add parking; wouldn't tell them how much of a setback they needed; and said they couldn't build there at all because a light rail stop was planned for the location - a north-south line that had been defeated by voters. But the real deal-killer, Leonard was told, was an arrogant demeanor on the part of city officials.

Leonard calls it "bureaucracy run amok." He says if he's in charge, citizens and developers will leave city bureaus with smiles on their faces. He would insist on courtesy among city employees, simpler rules, and a speedier process.

Leonard says development is good for the city; what others call gentrification he calls safer, cleaner neighborhoods. The problem, he says, is not so much that housing prices are going up but that workers wages aren't going up similarly.

Leonard says he wants to help schools, but rather than handing cash to district administrators, proposes to help the districts by having city workers maintain school buildings and grounds.

He's skeptical of the idea of a public takeover of PGE/Enron, in line with the position of Electrical Workers Local 125. Earlier this year, he supported developer Robert Ball's failed ballot measure that would have reworked city government and elected council members by district rather than city-wide. Now Ball is supporting Leonard's campaign with donated office space.

Leonard has picked up an enormous list of endorsers, including Governor John Kitzhaber and nearly every local legislator.

And nearly every local union and union council, including AFSCME Local 189 and Municipal Employees Local 483, Portland Association of Teachers, the Northwest Oregon Labor Council and Columbia-Pacific Building Trades Council. The only union to endorse Cruz over Leonard was the Portland Community College Faculty Federation, which Cruz used to belong to.

Public employee unions, in particular, are showing real enthusiasm for Leonard's campaign by mobilizing members as volunteers and working to turn out the vote in Leonard's favor. Hester is taking a leave of absence from his job at the Police Bureau to work on the Leonard campaign full-time. Every night since early August, as many as a dozen union volunteers staff a union-organized Leonard phone bank.

Leonard says the current race is the hardest campaign he's run, but he thinks a labor turnout will make the difference in the race.

The ballots, which were mailed Labor Day weekend to all voters in Portland, will be counted Sept. 17.

September 6, 2002 issue

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