A union guide to the Portland mayor’s race

THREE WHO WOULD BE MAYOR. Northwest Oregon Labor Council hosted the season's first mayoral debate in November 2011.

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

In the May 2012 primary, all three leading candidates for Portland mayor have some labor union backing, reflecting the diversity of the union movement — and the differing strengths of each candidate.

To help working people make an informed choice, the Labor Press interviewed each candidate about jobs and economic justice, talked to union political coordinators about the reasons for their endorsements, and reviewed candidates’ answers to a questionnaire from the Northwest Oregon Labor Council (NOLC). [NOLC interviewed the candidates, but didn’t endorse because no one candidate had support from the necessary two-thirds of delegates.]

Portland’s City government provides police, fire, water, sewer service, as well as roads, parks, 911 service, and zoning, planning, and permitting development. Under its unusual commission form of government, the mayor and the other four members of City Council are put in charge of certain city bureaus. The mayor chairs council meetings, proposes the overall budget, and decides which bureaus go to which commissioner.

Ballots in the non-partisan race are due May 15, and it’s likely the top two vote-getters will face off in the November election. To win outright, a candidate has to receive a majority vote (50 percent plus one).

The names of 23 candidates will appear on the ballot, but only three contenders have union backing: Eileen Brady, Charlie Hales, and Jefferson Smith.

Eileen Brady

Businesswoman Eileen Brady is endorsed by the Columbia-Pacific Building Trades Council, and by Bricklayers Local 1, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 48, Operating Engineers Local 701, and Sheet Metal Workers Local 16.

Of the three leading candidates, she’s the most ardent supporter of the Columbia River Crossing — the proposed two-state transportation project that includes a new I-5 bridge and light rail between Portland and Vancouver, plus upgrades to six nearby highway interchanges. And more than other candidates, she has pledged as mayor to focus on private sector job growth.

“The biggest problem we face right now is the need for jobs,” says Local 48 political coordinator Joe Esmonde. “Portland needs to attract business, and she can speak the same language as the business people.”

Brady is best known for her association with New Seasons grocery chain, though there’s been some dispute about the extent to which she was a “co-founder” alongside her husband Brian Rohter and two other investors. Brady says she’s proud that New Seasons provides health insurance to even part-time workers and their families. In 2007 and 2008, Brady served as vice chair of the Oregon Health Fund Board — which met to work out details of a proposed health insurance reform. She’s currently board chair of Chinook Book.

 

Charlie Hales

Former Portland City Commissioner Charlie Hales has the endorsement of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757, Teamsters Joint Council 37, and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555. They like the fact that he’s been in City Council before, and has a working knowledge of city transportation and land use policy.

“He has a better grasp of the policies of the city as it relates to urban planning,” says Local 555 Secretary-Treasurer Jeff Anderson. That’s important to Local 555 because it represents grocery workers whose jobs are under threat from expansion plans by nonunion Walmart. Hales also has been a big proponent of light rail and street cars, and had a hand in major urban renewal developments during his time on City Council from 1993 to 2002. Hales resigned half-way through his third term on City Council to take a job with an engineering firm promoting street car development in other cities.

 

Jefferson Smith

Oregon State Rep. Jefferson Smith is endorsed by AFSCME Local 189 and 328, as well as Oregon AFSCME Council 75, Communications Workers of America Local 7901, Portland Association of Teachers, Portland Fire Fighters, and the Portland Police Association. They credit his solid pro-union record during two two-year terms in the Oregon Legislature. He’s also founder of the Oregon Bus Project, which gets young people involved helping to elect progressive candidates to the Legislature.

“Smith actually understands workers’ issues,” says Local 189 PAC Chair Mark Gipson. “We speak the same language.”

UFCW asked Brady to support a commitment to card check neutrality at New Seasons. She demurred, saying she is no longer associated with the company and has no say.

None of the three candidates has ever been a union member. Brady had a role developing HR policies at nonunion New Seasons. Hales put himself through college working nonunion as a framer on apartment construction in Virginia; he later owned a nonunion construction business. Smith briefly practiced law before going to work full time directing the Bus Project. But all three say they support workers’ rights to unionize without interference or coercion from employers, and they pledge to publicly challenge employers who interfere with workers’ rights to unionize.

 

Other areas of agreement:

  • When budget shortfalls make staff cuts necessary, the cuts should focus as much as possible on management and overhead, not on the front-line workers who provide the City’s services. A state law Smith helped pass in 2011 sets a goal of 11 workers for every manager at large state agencies. The ratio in Portland is estimated to be 6 to 1, and all three candidates thought that was too high.
  • The City should discourage bureaus from over-using temporary, seasonal, contracted out or prison labor.
  • The City should buy goods and services locally when possible.
  • All three said they would support a requirement that employers provide paid sick leave. [Seattle adopted such a measure in 2011.]
  • None are in favor of Walmart-style big box development.

 

Some differences:

The Economy

Brady has made private sector job development the center of her campaign for mayor. She says she would spur jobs by making city permitting easier, getting the city to buy local goods and services, and persuading employers from elsewhere to locate in Portland.

“I’m a recruiter by nature,” Brady said. “I’m a business person. I know how to read a balance sheet and profit and loss statement. So I will be on the phones every week recruiting start-ups and other organizations, both for-profit and non-profit, to move to Portland.”

Brady said she would also work to reform the city’s “job-delaying permitting process.” She says she wants to consolidate permitting into a single bureau, create a “no-surprise” permitting system, and make it more affordable.

Hales, on the other hand, says the best thing the City can do for the local economy is return its attention to what it’s supposed to be doing: providing good public services at a good price.

“The city of Portland is a great big blue-collar service operation,” Hales said. “We pave streets and mow grass and teach kids how to swim and put out fires and respond to 911 calls. We’re not Congress. We’re not the Legislature. We’re not an issues debating society.… If we occasionally want to have a debate about recycling, the public will put up with that, but what we’re really supposed to be doing is paving their streets and putting out the fires.”

Hales said he’d like to adopt a paperless permitting and inspection system along the lines of what Salt Lake City has: Permits can be filed online, and inspectors come out with iPads, making reports in real time that are accessible online.

Smith’s favored approach to economic development is “economic gardening,” — helping existing small and medium-sized businesses to grow — rather than “hunting” big companies to get them to relocate. He also wants to establish 311, a one-stop phone number that citizens can call when they have non-emergency questions or issues with local government. And more than the other candidates, Smith says he wants to focus on the problems of Portland’s less affluent outer east side, including greater light rail safety, more parks, putting in sidewalks, and paving streets.

 

Columbia River Crossing

“It’s the biggest public works project that we’ll have here for the next decade,” Brady said, “and if we don’t proceed with it, it may be another 10 years before we can even have the possibility of leveraging the federal dollars to get it done.” Brady, who calls herself a booster of the project, says that though the project may get “skinnied down,” the dollars are there at the federal government, and so is the commitment by Oregon’s and Washington’s congressional delegation.

Brady’s support for CRC was a big part of why she got Operating Engineers Local 701’s endorsement, said Local 701 political coordinator Cherry Harris. [Harris also credited Brady’s willingness to learn about unions, and her support for enforcing apprenticeship utilization requirements on public-private projects.]

Hales, meanwhile, says the existing proposal can’t be built because of recent objections by the U.S. Coast Guard.

“What’s really needed is not somebody who’s a cheerleader for this project, but somebody capable of negotiating success,” Hales said. “We have to come up with a version of the project that is buildable and that we can afford and that we can start on soon.” Hales said he would favor a simplified main span and light rail, but not a Hayden Island interchange.

Smith is the most critical of the CRC, saying it can’t be built because it’s too expensive — that funding is uncertain in Congress, that Oregon and Washington are unlikely to come up with the required hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions, and Clark County residents may not support tolling that would be needed to pay for the bridge. Instead, Smith says he would push for neighborhood-scale public works projects, that will spend public money on construction workers, not just engineers and consultants.

 

Campaign Finance

Smith said he worked hard to defend Portland’s Voter-Owned Elections system of public campaign finance, and still feels bad about its defeat at the polls in 2010, by less than 700 votes. Smith thinks some modified version of the proposal should go before voters again.

Hales disagreed. “It was a noble idea that voters have now turned down,” Hales said. “I certainly prefer to be in an environment where money wasn’t such a big factor in elections, but how we get to that utopia with the voters having turned it down, I’m not sure.”

 

Banking

Hales is pushing a plan called Community Credit Portland, which he says is modeled on the Bank of North Dakota. The idea is to deposit the City’s bank balances in local banks and credit unions, and use it to make loan guarantees to local businesses.

Brady’s not so sure. “I think the success of that particular model has been oversold,” Brady told the Labor Press. Unemployment is low in North Dakota because of the natural gas boom, Brady said, not because of community lending.

3 Comments on A union guide to the Portland mayor’s race

  1. Jefferson Smith was ahead of Charlie on this one. In 2010 he helped pass, in the Oregon Legislature, a bill allowing creation of a Credit Union Depository Pool that local governments can take part in, and has an active plank in his platform about Portland kickstarting this thing.

  2. I’m a Jefferson Smith supporter and I really like his proposal to move city deposits from national banks to local community banks and credit unions. We need to put our money to work in the Portland area, making jobs, building houses, helping businesses expand and hire more workers.

    I am also proud of his continuing support of voter owned elections. The fact that the voters turned it down once doesn’t make it a bad idea — just an idea ahead of its time. If we could get the big money out of politics in Portland that would be a great thing.

  3. On banking, I think Smith was actually the first to propose a focus on local banking in Portland, having worked in the Leg to make that legally possible (I believe deposit insurance limits and other limits on credit unions were prior barriers). Mayor Adams took him up on the suggestion last fall, and Council is currently advancing on the plan devised at the state level, as I understand it.

    As you can probably tell I’m no financial genius, but wouldn’t using City funds to guarantee loans expose those funds to default losses? And doesn’t that endanger the city’s credit rating? I think the city’s considerable financial heft can surely be more localized and taken away from the corrupted big 5 national banks, and put to better lending use by community banks and credit unions in town–but let’s let the banks do the lending, taking the risk, seeing the profits and managing the losses. That’s what they’re there for.

    Thanks for the opportunity! I am a Smith supporter, and like that he is usually on the same page as my union brothers and sisters–but isn’t afraid to express an honest disagreement, as on CRC.

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