Questions for Portland City Council Candidate Julia DeGraw

Julia DeGraw took part in an April 10 union solidarity rally for Portland Public School bus drivers.
Julia DeGraw is a longtime organizer — with the group Food and Water Watch — against Nestlé and the NAFTA-modeled Trans-Pacific Partnership. Now, a center-piece of her campaign for office is a proposal to replace Portland’s city-wide elections for City Council with district-based elections. She’s endorsed by Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers and by a pair of unions at Portland Community College, PCCFFAP and PCCFCE. Labor Press reporter Don McIntosh spoke with her by phone about her union ties and her ideas for City Council.

I’d like to ask you about Project Labor Agreements and Community Benefits Agreements. The city, as a large scale purchaser of construction services — building public works — has an influence in the job market, and it has wanted to use that influence to accomplish certain things. I’d like to know what you think about PLAs [Project Labor Agreements] and Community Benefits Agreements.

I’m extremely in favor of strong and enforceable community benefits agreements and PLAs. And also prevailing wage standards. We really need to raise the bar for workers in the city. We have a massive affordability issue. The housing crisis isn’t just that housing prices and rents are skyrocketing; it’s also that wages are stagnating. So I think there’s a combination solution here in which we need to raise wages in the city and have a higher standard for our workers as well as get rent control. In terms of community benefits agreements, there is definitely a contrast there between me and Nick [Fish] in how the most recent negotiations went with the city’s community benefits agreements: They limited it to projects that are $25 million or higher, which I think is kind of silly. I don’t understand why we shouldn’t apply community benefits agreements to smaller projects. And I also took issue with the fact that Nick Fish strongly supported removing the apprenticeship program [requirement] for contracts that are $200,000 or lower. I think any we should encourage apprenticeship programs at every level possible. So I think the negotiated CBA ended up being extremely weakened from its original, and that doesn’t make sense to me because if you look at the pilot projects of that community benefits agreement, the two projects that they did they came in under budget and on time, and exceeded their goals for hiring women and minorities. It’s just kind of mind-boggling to me how it went so sideways at the city level.

You actually testified on that issue, am I right?

Yes, I testified on this issue and I spoke strongly about this in my union interviews and speeches to the Carpenters [union].

Do you have any proposals to deal with with theft in general or wage theft on public construction projects?

The meetings that I’ve had with folks who have a lot of information about wage theft: It sounds like it’s pretty ubiquitous, especially in construction. And it’s because you have these contractors who are the only point of contact to the city reporting the wages. And they just flatly lie about the hours worked in order to pay people about half of what they’re owed generally, is about how it goes. So it’s pretty well documented. The problem is the process is so arduous and people generally don’t know their rights are being violated either and by the time it’s been quote-unquote proven that wage that has occurred the statute limitations, the time has passed. There’s a lack of enforcement. There’s also this attitude from the city that they don’t have resources to do enforcement. And I just don’t even understand that because there are volunteers that are at the ready who are public employees or who work at the local unions who are certified to go on site to document these infractions. And they’re willing to do it for free, to go out to these sites and document these infractions and report them back to the city. And that’s the hardest part of enforcement — going out and finding these things are happening — so there’s interest and availability of people to actually fill that enforcement gap. And so far the city has failed to move on it, and frankly I haven’t heard — I’ve been in touch with folks who are working on this really closely with the Cty and I wouldn’t want to jump the gun here — but what I would say is there’s absolutely no point of having prevailing wage standards if you’re not going to enforce them. If you’re going to create a prevailing wage standard, you’d better darn well make sure that your meeting that prevailing wage standard. And if you have folks who are at the ready who are willing to go out there to verify the wage theft that is indeed happening so that you can then follow through with enforcement, you should be using all those resources at your fingertips. And anything short of finding a way to do enforcement, in my mind, is just unacceptable. If the city creates rules, it should be able to enforce them.

A few years ago Portland city Council passed an ordinance that made it legal for Uber and other ridesharing companies to come in to what was previously a regulated and tightly capped market in the taxi industry, and they did so under terms where the new entrants arguably had fewer requirements in terms of security background checks, insurance and so forth. What would your vote have been?

I definitely had a lot of concerns about that process. I’m not exactly sure what my vote would have been on that, because I don’t think I had access to the level of information they had access to. But I think we were right to have lots of questions and dig in our heels a little bit about that. And we didn’t do enough to protect the existing taxi industry. And wasn’t there a whole debacle with Uber using some illegal method to get out of…? I’m trying to remember. Uber didn’t play by the rules.

They violated the rules and then when the city try to enforce them, they actually had a feature of their program that prevented the city inspectors from getting rides. They would schedule a ride and then be cancelled on. It was an intentional software feature of their app. They figured out who the city folks were who were trying to nab them, and they blocked them from the system. And mind you, this was while they were operating illegally in violation of Portland ordinance.

Here is my take on this, and I don’t think there’s a perfect solution. Uber is a really unethical company from the top down, and Lyft is slightly less bad, but they’re both highly unregulated. What I think the city should be doing, and they should be doing this in concert with the County and Metro and possibly TriMet: I think we should really be creative about being able to see where we’re headed as a city and what the future is for transportation, and I don’t think we’re going to be getting rid of car sharing anytime soon. I think municipalities are uniquely suited to provide this kind of car share through a local fleet as a utility. It would pay for itself. And I think we should be strongly exploring it. And they’ve done this in other cities. This is not something that’s pie in the sky. We could actually do this. And I would like to figure out a way to do this through Metro. I know Metro probably doesn’t want to take anything extra on, but I think Metro could handle this. Getting it off the ground is something we should do in partnership with all the local municipalities and have coordination on it. But I think we need to be realistic about the fact that ride sharing is a thing. And the way it’s currently done is unethical. But we can’t put the genie back in the bottle. How do we want to do this different moving forward? And I think if we had a public option of ride sharing, ultimately once you scale up, it would become the more attractive, more safe, better regulated, higher-quality driver, system. We already have a way at the County or maybe it’s at Metro but there are like people who are designated to drive who are allowed to give civilians rides already, and we would just expand that and have a fleet and it would pay for itself over time as people use it. We need to be creative about figuring out how to do stuff as a utility or public service where the private market is doing it really really poorly. And in which the model would pay for itself.

Well it seems like the private market has done a bang-up job with ride sharing. I can call a service and have somebody pick me up in less than five minutes anywhere in the city and take me wherever I want, so I don’t know where the market failure is there.

I think the issue is more about the people – it would be a better job, actually paid fairly, if it was done through the public sector, and you’d have drivers that are safer and certified. The concerns are about the fact that they’re not a responsible employer. We use it because it’s cheaper, and it’s cheaper because they’re crappy employers.

Let’s talk about housing. There’s a housing affordability crisis in Portland right now. It’s becoming much much less affordable for working people to live in Portland. What do you think the city Council should be doing to deal with that?

I think relying on developers to build the amount of affordable housing that we in this city need is obviously a model that has not worked, and it’s not going to. We’re never going to get to the scale that we need by relying on the developers in the private market to get us there. That said, I’m very interested in exploring the Land Trust model of housing. Burlington, Vermont did this first and most effectively, when Bernie Sanders started out as mayor there. And there’s a lot of really good models out there. This is frankly a political will issue, but if we want to get affordable housing done privately, this Community Land Trust model is very much worth looking into.

Can you explain how that works?

Yeah so if you put land into a land trust, you’re removing the property value from that space, from that house, whether it’s condos or whatever you’re building on that land trust, and that makes it permanently affordable. Primarily it’s land value that causes this massive increase in value in housing.

I’m not sure what that means. How do you put land in a land trust? Are you seizing it by eminent domain? Who owns it if it is in a land trust?

So the City could do it on existing properties to do pilot projects. They have properties that they could put into hundred-year-at-a-time land trusts. Proud Ground does a land trust from housing already in the city.

Who?

Proud Ground. And they cobble together money from multiple different sources to purchase like a dozen houses a year and put them into a land trust so that they are permanently affordable.

So a land trust means it’s owned by a like a nonprofit entity or something?

Yeah, exactly.

So the house could be sold on the market by somebody, but the land they don’t own?

Exactly. And it really does make it permanently affordable in perpetuity. It does mean that the purchaser of the home is kind of letting go of potential future profits, but it stabilizes housing for those individuals. It also makes homeownership possible for a lot of folks who never thought it would be. Because your mortgage is so much more affordable, it would be less than what your rent is. And we could do it to scale. Proud Ground only does houses, from what I can gather, but we could, with larger properties, get private bond money to build like a large condominium complex where the first floor would be local businesses — where you prioritize renting space to local businesses — and everything above that would be permanently affordable housing that people could purchase. And when they purchase it, that goes back to pay off the bond. That’s one of the models that we’re exploring. The Community Land Trust model is something that’s scalable. We do have to find the land. It might mean the City purchasing land. But that’s a problem I think we can solve. Figuring out where we want to build these things and putting them into this trust and either going to an existing entity or creating one, a land trust that would like manage it going forward. That’s the general model and we could get it to scale much faster than relying on 10% here and 10% there from developers, and then not enforcing when they don’t meet those standards, like Southwest Waterfront is a prime example of that. So I think we have to think outside of the developer box if we’re going to be serious about creating permanently affordable housing.

And then in terms of renting, we absolutely need to be more serious about going down to Salem to change the laws to get rid of pre-emption so we can actually do some rent stabilization and rent control policies.

So are you thinking that the City wasn’t serious in that?

I think they’re starting to get serious about it. I think that this next time around, especially with Chloe [Eudaly] on Council, the next full session we have, and with Ted [Wheeler] feeling the pressure, they might get more serious than they ever have before about going to Salem and pushing for these things. You know, I’m an organizer. I want to coordinate more closely with the County and all the city commissioners to make sure we’re really doing all we can. If we all went to Salem and pushed hard to get rid of that preemption, I think we’d have different results than we have with the efforts we’re putting into it right now.

You mentioned pre-emption. Are you talking about state pre-emption of local rent control ordinances?

Yeah, rent control but also a few other things. There’s a bunch of preemptions that we have to get rid of at the state in order for municipalities to move forward. Minimum wage is another one. We’re on this very slow timeline for getting to just below $15 an hour by, what is it, 2023? It’s arguable about whether $15 an hour is a living wage right now.

Anything else on housing before we leave that?

I just saw a presentation from the joint office of housing and homelessness on the rent stabilization program where they do give a little bit of rent support and job training to folks; it has been absolutely life altering for the folks who receive that assistance. And I would call that a Band-Aid solution given where we’re at right now and how big the problem is. I don’t think it’s an ultimate solution. We’re letting landlords get away with unfair rents, but it keeps people in their homes and gives them the opportunity to stabilize and get job training. I think we should be in the short term really making sure we’re investing well in the rent assistance program and making sure people know about that so that keeps them from becoming homeless.

So I think it was about a year ago the City passed a couple of ordinances to prevent the construction of new fossil fuel export or storage capacity.

Yes it was a policy saying there would be no new fossil fuel infrastructure.

So what would your position be on that?

I would agree. We need to be transitioning to the new green economy in order to have clean air and water for people and to have a planet that doesn’t go into full climate disruption. We already have climate change happening, but we need to be moving as quickly as we can toward mitigating the damage of climate disruption. And I know that there is this whole “jobs versus the environment” trope that gets repeated over and over again, but the bottom line is the new energy systems that we’re going to need to get online in order to transition to 100 percent renewables is going to create a lot of jobs. We just have to start moving in that direction. So I do agree with the policy simply because doubling down on dirty energy is not going to benefit us ultimately, economically or otherwise.

Have you ever been a union member?

I have never been in a union member. I have always worked in the nonprofit sector at organizations that were either too small or that did not yet form a union. I have worked with unions on a number of campaigns very closely though.

Yes, what are your personal connections if any to unions?

I worked closely with Oregon AFSCME on the campaign to keep Nestle out of the Columbia River Gorge. They were one of our top partners in that effort. Because they view water as a public resource that should not be privatized under any circumstances. They viewed it as a direct threat to public water.

I also worked closely with a whole variety of unions on fighting the Trans-Pacific Partnership and fast track. It’s one of the reasons I got the endorsement of the Pulp and Paper Workers, was because we worked very closely with them on that fight, and they were impressed with my efforts and Food and Water Watch efforts on that.

I worked with Oregon AFSCME and a variety of unions to stop that water board ballot measure from passing, the not-so-secret corporate water grab. So I worked a lot with unions on that.

Are there things we haven’t covered that are part of your campaign that our readers should know about?

There’s a reason why I’m running for office, it’s my lead platform issue is that people in Portland communities lack representation in our city, and don’t have a seat at the table in decision making processes. Right now we have a four person commission system, plus a mayor, representing the city of this size. We have had five people representing the city since our population was 200,000. We’re a lot bigger now, and it’s way more complicated, and we have these five commissioners. All but one lives in Southwest Portland. If I were elected tomorrow, I would be the only commissioner who lives east of Cesar Chavez Boulevard. There’s a severe lack of representation on Council, and I think it shows. The reason working people have gotten such lack of representation and short thrift and not getting policies that are helping to support them in a real way is that they don’t have representation in City Hall. So my lead platform issue is actually system change. We need to have city council districts, voting to elect people from our neighborhoods who will then become representatives and be responsible to constituents, rather than maintaining this commission form of government, which is also incredibly nontransparent and not accountable. So increasing the number of elected representative elected officials by going to a city council district system, so we can have more community-involved decision making is my bread-and-butter issue. I frankly think that if we were going to be able to get the wins that we need for working people in this city, we would have made more headway if the commission system were actually effective. But it’s not. We’re one of two major cities in the entire country that has a commission form of government. The other one is Columbus, Ohio. And it’s not serving either city particularly well because it leads to this siloing of bureaus and they don’t cooperate with each other, and it leads to a misuse of resources. It’s not an effective way to govern a city, especially for our size. That lack of representation shows in the policies and the services that we get as working people.

We have a booming economy. We have developers raking in money hand over fist. And yet the mayor is calling for 5 percent cuts across the board. And it’s a song and dance that we do, where we’re like, “We’re going to close community centers.” And eventually they might decide not to close those centers. Why is it every time there’s a quote-unquote budget shortfall we put these community centers — which provide necessary services to working people — on the chopping block? For some people that’s the only form of preschool or childcare. It’s a place they go for services that they literally won’t be able to afford elsewhere. Why would we put that on the chopping block?

I guess because it’s too scary to raise taxes.

This is one of those situations where I really support some creative ways to generate revenue, whether it’s looking at Seattle’s example of linkage fees or adjusting the business equity tax that Steve Novick passed, making that more progressive and actually charging a higher rate for the largest companies in our region. There’s a lot of ways we could generate revenue. That’s not a super heavy lift. More importantly, we could allocate the money that we have better. That’s a very real thing. Regardless of whether or not we should raise revenue, every time there’s a budget shortfall community centers should not be the first on the chopping block. You’re not prioritizing well if that is how you’re operating. It’s not a good policy. So I’m committed to making sure that every community center says open and that we’re not reducing services to the most underserved communities in the city. That should never be an option when we’re trying to balance budgets.

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