Multnomah County union backs Wheeler for chair

The union that represents most workers at Multnomah County announced Feb. 18 it will back Ted Wheeler for county chair. Wheeler is running against incumbent chair Diane Linn.

In her two previous races for chair, Linn had the support of the 2,800-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 88. But a series of decisions she made upset union workers, said Local 88 President Becky Steward, and in the union’s meetings there was a clear majority of support for Wheeler, an investment manager with in an interest in public policy.

Local 88 is also endorsing Gary Hansen for District 2 of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, and Steve March for county auditor.

The election is May 16, and ballots will be mailed April 28.

With the Wheeler pick, Local 88 members are in effect saying, “We want a new boss.”

The county, which has an annual budget close to $1 billion, is responsible for bridges, jails, libraries and an array of social services for the aged, sick, disabled and mentally ill. Commissioners set policy and pass the $300 million portion of the budget that is discretionary; the auditor evaluates the performance of county programs; and the chair is the chief executive officer of the county — the top boss for county workers.

Steward said Chair Linn didn’t consult county workers or the union before embarking on major departmental reorganizations, including the now-scrapped “shared services” model borrowed from the business world.

“Part of communication is you’ve got to listen,” said Local 88 Vice President Shelley Immel, “and she doesn’t listen very well.”

Linn has the endorsement of several unions — Portland Fire Fighters Local 43, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757, and the Portland Association of Teachers — but none represent county employees. Local 88 is by far the largest of the eight unions representing county workers, and the only one to make endorsements so far.

In the race for the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, the current office-holder, Serena Cruz Walsh, can’t run for re-election because of voter-approved term limits that bar more than two full consecutive terms in county office. Four candidates are vying for Cruz Walsh’s seat — District 2, which covers North and Northeast Portland. They are Jeff Cogan, an aide to Portland Commissioner Dan Saltzman; Lew Frederick, a former television journalist and spokesperson for Portland Public Schools; Gary Hansen, a four-term state representative; and Xander Patterson, executive director of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Steward said all four seemed worthy of the local’s support, but Hansen was the clear favorite, as an experienced office-holder with a history of support for unions. Hansen, a former journeyman plumber with Plumbers and Fitters Local 290, was county commissioner for the same district from 1990 to 1998, before leaving to serve in the Oregon House of Representatives. During his four terms in the Oregon House, he voted in accord with the recommendations of the Oregon AFL-CIO 94.5 percent of the time.

“We have a strong tradition in labor of supporting people that have supported us,” said Local 88 Vice President Immel.

Multnomah County auditor Suzanne Flynn is leaving because of term limits and is running for a similar position at the Metro regional government. In the race to replace her, Local 88 endorsed State Representative Steve March. March is a former senior management auditor in the Multnomah County auditors’ office, and is running against LaVonne Griffin-Valade, a senior management auditor. Steward said Local 88 was impressed with both candidates, but favored March because he has a labor background. As a part-time professor of urban studies at Portland State, March is a member of American Federation of Teachers-Oregon. The Oregon AFL-CIO gave March a 100 percent rating in each of the three legislative sessions he served.

Local 88’s endorsement process included a questionnaire to candidates from its political action committee and a candidates’ forum.

Based on their answers to the questionnaire, the PAC made recommendations. Local 88 then held a candidates forum at its Feb. 15 general membership meeting, giving members a chance to ask questions of candidates before debating and voting on the PAC recommendations.

At the PAC and among the more than 150 members at the standing-room-only forum, Wheeler, Hansen, and March had clear majority support.

But one PAC recommendation failed to win member approval — endorsement of Bernie Giusto, who is running unopposed for re-election as Multnomah County sheriff. A majority of members objected, some simply because he is unopposed, and others because of concerns about his personal life raised in newspaper accounts. Employees in the sheriff’s office said Giusto has failed to address union requests that he do something to reduce tension between civilian staff and sworn officers.

It’s still possible others could enter the race; the filing deadline is March 7.

As the campaign progresses, Local 88’s endorsements are likely to lead to further support by AFSCME for the candidates, including campaign contributions, phone-banking, and other volunteer work. 

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