Portland mayoral candidates square off at labor council meeting

Mayoral Debate
Portland mayoral candidates Ted Wheeler (left) and Jules Bailey shake hands following a 90-minute debate Jan. 25 hosted by the Northwest Oregon Labor Council. The debate was moderated by retired labor mediator Paul Stuckenschneider, left.

Portland mayoral candidate Jules Bailey questioned whether his opponent, State Treasurer Ted Wheeler, is committed to staying in office for more than one term if he is elected in November. Bailey made the remark at a debate Jan. 25 held by the Northwest Oregon Labor Council prior to its monthly delegates’ meeting. More than 100 people were in attendance.

Responding to a question about the combative relationship between workers and management at the city, both candidates agreed that labor relations are broken, and that the next mayor needs to be more actively engaged in a leadership role to fix it.

“We currently have a culture at City Hall that is standing in the way of progress,” Bailey said. “(Portland) needs a mayor who is going to be there, not just for four years, but for eight years. We’ve had too many one-term mayors, and we need somebody for whom being mayor is their first choice — and is really going to make it a priority to have a mayor who is really going to change the culture.”

Wheeler fired back in his rebuttal. “I think that was a jab at me, but I’m not sure. So let’s review the videotape. Jules, in the last three 30 months, according to the newspapers, you have looked at running for Multnomah County chair, Metro president, county commissioner, which you did, and a year and three months into your first term as a district county commissioner you are now running for mayor. So, I don’t think you’re in a position to talk to me about my commitment to a political job.”

We’ve had too many one-term mayors, and we need somebody for whom being mayor is their first choice — and is really going to make it a priority … to change the culture.” — Mayoral candidate Jules Bailey

Wheeler, 53, served for 3-1/2 years as Multnomah County chair before being appointed treasurer. [Gov. Ted Kulongoski appointed him to the post following the death of Ben Westlund.] He was re-elected in 2012, but is term-limited from running again. It is no secret that he has aspirations to someday run for governor.

Bailey, 36, is a former state legislator serving in his first term as a Multnomah County commissioner.

Right now, both men want to succeed Mayor Charlie Hales, who is not seeking re-election after one term.

Both candidates are Democrats and are well-respected in the labor community. Both say they are committed to helping working families, and both point to their political track records for proof.

They are in broad agreement on most labor issues. They oppose right-to-work laws; they believe workers who don’t want to belong to a union should at least have to pay “fair share” fees; they don’t support contracting out unless it is a unique situation that can’t be done in-house, and then done responsibly; they support project labor agreements, community policing, and a variety of other issues. Both candidates also have made housing affordability and income inequality key features of their campaign. (See Who should working people choose for Portland mayor? for an analysis of their stances and records.)

Since they can’t draw much distinction between their public policies, the candidates touted their leadership skills, experience, and ability to collaborate. Both gave shining examples of their work at Multnomah County.

“Labor relations reported to me as chair of Multnomah County,” Wheeler said. “When I got there, we had a dysfunctional board, a lack of communication, silo leadership, labor practices that were concerning to people, lots of grievances, unfair labor practices, and bargaining that, at best, was sticky. By the time I left, three-and-a-half-years later, we had signed long-term contracts, every labor leader met with me on a monthly basis, I had an open-door policy, every labor leader had my personal cell phone so we could address problems for issues before they bubbled up into something significant.”

Wheeler said the City of Portland has a similar situation. “I will do what I did at Multnomah County and rebuild that operation, improve communications and performance. You won’t have to wonder if I’ll do it, because it’s something I’ve already done.”

Bailey said as commissioner he was the first to propose paid family leave at the county, at a time when no other public jurisdiction had it.

“The word I got back from management was, ‘that’s something we’re going to have to bargain over.’ I said absolutely not. There will be plenty of things to bargain over. This is just the right thing to do. Let’s work with our labor partners and let’s get it done. We did it. We got it done. The city followed suit. That’s the kind of thing that can happen when labor and management work together.”

 The biggest threat to you is dark money coming in through independent expenditure accounts, where you don’t know who the source of it is. That’s why I signed Elizabeth Warren’s ‘People Pledge.’ I’m not taking any dark money … I asked my opponent to sign that pledge with me, he declined.” — Mayoral candidate Ted Wheeler

The two candidates also sparred over campaign contributions.

Bailey said he was limiting contributions to $250 per person. Wheeler said he is not limiting campaign contributions, but will publicly disclose all contributions — and will not take any third party money.

“The biggest threat to you is dark money coming in through independent expenditure accounts, where you don’t know who the source of it is,” Wheeler said. “That’s why I signed Elizabeth Warren’s ‘People’s Pledge.’ I am not taking any third party money; I’m not taking ‘dark money.’ I asked my opponent to sign that pledge with me, he declined.”

Bailey pushed back. “I think we can recognize a campaign stunt when we see it,” he said. “The reality is that Oregon election laws are the most transparent in our country. I think its really important that we have candidates who are going to live by their values. My values say that I’m not getting bought by large, huge contributions of ten thousand dollars or more from big developers and big corporations.”

Asked what they see as the major cultural difference between state, county and city governments, Bailey said some of the city’s most successful mayors have had a legislative background, such as his.

“I think the biggest thing to understand, is being mayor of Portland isn’t about being an executive. It’s about being a leader. And someone who is a collaborator who can work with City Council to get things done … it’s about coalition building,” he said.

Wheeler said Portland has a unique form of government. “On one hand, it requires you to be a legislator, on the other hand it also requires you to be a manager or a leader. Day one when you’re elected … you’re put in charge of a bureau or bureaus that may have hundreds of employees, and budgets of one hundred-million-dollar-plus magnitude— in some cases approaching a billion dollars. And you may or may not have managed anything larger than a three-person shop. And, so from my perspective, it’s the marriage of the legislative issue with the leadership and the management issue. And there’s a lot of questions when someone is elected mayor. We’ve had successful mayors; we’ve had unsuccessful mayors. I think you already know how I am going to perform (referencing his time as county chair and as treasurer).”

In rebuttal, Bailey said he appreciated that Wheeler has been an executive, “including an executive at Bank of America. I’m not positive that’s the exact kind of executive experience that we need.”

“I was not an executive at the Bank of America,” Wheeler retorted. “I was 20 years old and I was the research assistant and the guy who knew how to make Lotus 1-2-3 work.”

At the conclusion of the hour-long debate the candidates shook hands, said they respected each other, and that they considered themselves friends.

“Although we’ve taken some jabs at each other tonight, I hope, mostly good-naturedly,” Bailey said, “I think the House of Labor should feel good about the fact that you have two candidates who I think are both committed to working families.”

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