By DON McINTOSH
Jo Ann Hardesty had the endorsement of 10 unions—including three City employee unions—when she outpolled Loretta Smith in the November 2018 runoff for Portland City Council. Nearly four years later, just half as many unions—and no unions of City employees—are backing Hardesty. In fact, two trade union councils and five local unions are hoping to elect challenger Vadim Mozyrsky in the May 2022 primary.
Unions don’t usually back a primary challenger when an incumbent is appealing for labor’s support. But leaders of unions backing Mozyrsky are drawn to his background of union involvement and his agenda for the city. They’re also rendering a verdict on Hardesty’s first term.
Hardesty didn’t hold her fire when asked about the competition in an April 6 interview with the Labor Press: “A vote for anyone other than me would be a vote for status quo—rich people making decisions by city council so that the status quo can prevail.”
In his own Labor Press interview the following week, Mozyrsky said Portlanders are tired of the divisiveness.
“From the incumbent I hear a lot of pitting East Portland versus West Portland, businesses versus labor, just slicing and dicing our communities.”
Mozyrsky [Pronounced muh-ZUR-ski] is a first-time candidate, but after moving to Portland in 2014 he spent years learning about City government as a volunteer member of the Portland Commission on Disability, two police advisory committees, and the Charter Commission. His takeaway: The city is adrift and dysfunctional.
“Whenever there’s a problem, I’m like, ‘Okay, well, there must be some sort of plan, right?’ And so I go on the web pages, I look it up. I’m a lawyer; that’s what I do. And I can’t find it. I can’t find a plan. I can’t find goals. I can’t find metrics. I don’t know what success looks like. We have a lot of money coming in for homelessness. Is there something out there that says we’ll reduce homelessness by 30% by spending $250 million a year over the next? No, you can’t find it. That’s not a way to run a city.”
Hardesty agrees that the city’s in crisis. Like many Portlanders, she sees the biggest issues as homelessness and housing affordability.
“Portland’s becoming a city that workers can no longer afford to live in,” Hardesty told the Labor Press.
Hardesty says the solution to the shortage of affordable housing is putting city-owned land into a housing trust or “land bank”—and contracting with nonprofit developers to build housing for people with incomes 60% of the median and below.
She didn’t say why she didn’t propose that in her first four years, but said she’s asked the city attorney to investigate what it would take to create a public land trust, and that she’s called on Prosper Portland (the city’s semi-independent development agency) to do a study. She’s also suggested siting homeless villages in City-owned golf courses.
Both Hardesty and Mozyrsky have a record of supporting unions and workers rights.
Hardesty, 64, says she’s been a union supporter since growing up with nine siblings in Baltimore, where her father worked as a union longshore worker.
“We were able to own a home because he was a longshoreman. We were able to live in a middle class neighborhood. In fact, we were the first black family on my block, when I was in eighth grade.”
“My dad did not have a high school diploma,” Hardesty said. “So there was just no way my dad was going to make a living wage anywhere if he didn’t have a good union job. And he was equal to everybody else, as long as he worked hard. My dad worked really hard. And retired after 30 years. He lived a long, healthy life because he had good benefits, good health care.”
In her time on City Council, she’s sometimes aided the cause of labor.
- Day one, she named Karly Edwards as her chief of staff. Edwards has a long labor résumé, having worked for SEIU, UNITE HERE Local 9, Oregon Nurses Association, Portland Jobs With Justice and the Oregon Working Families Party.
- She was also the only commissioner who tried to prevent layoffs and closures in Portland Parks and Recreation programs; she proposed several funding sources to avert the cuts, but was outvoted.
- She’s also credited with helping break an impasse in negotiations over a community benefits agreement with Prosper Portland in the Broadway Corridor redevelopment project. The eventual agreement mandated high labor standards for building and operating new construction in the area around the vacated downtown post office, but the deal has been in limbo since Denver-based Continuum Partners withdrew as lead developer.
- She’s shown up at union picket lines to show support for workers, including striking workers at Nabisco and Fred Meyer.
“You’re not going to find a bigger champion for labor than me,” Hardesty said.
Labor support peels away
But a number of local union officers didn’t see it that way.
When Hardesty joined a Zoom meeting of the Northwest Oregon Labor Council executive board Feb. 28, the mood was tense. Labor Council officers asked why they hadn’t heard from her the last four years.
“I’ve been a little busy,” Hardesty replied—what with the pandemic and wildfires. That explanation didn’t seem to win over doubters. Hardesty expressed a willingness to meet with unions, but it felt like too little, too late to some union leaders. On March 28, the Labor Council delegates voted to endorse Mozyrsky.
City unions, meanwhile, are staying neutral, or backing one of Hardesty’s challengers.
Hardesty came to office as a longstanding critic of police, so unsurprisingly she tangled with the police union. In March 2021, Portland Police Association (PPA) president Brian Hunzeker resigned, and was fired from the Police Bureau a year later by the mayor, for releasing what turned out to be an erroneous police report accusing Hardesty of a vehicle hit-and-run. On April 25, PPA became the sole union to back Hardesty’s other active challenger, Rene Gonzalez. Gonzalez, a business lawyer and software company owner, wants more police and is calling for the prompt removal of unsanctioned camps from all parks, sidewalks, and streets.
Fire Fighters Local 43, on the other hand, is making no endorsement in the race—even though Hardesty is the commissioner in charge of their employer, the Portland Fire Bureau. Hardesty says she visited as many fire stations as she could, and values the work fire fighters do. But rank and file fire fighters often work with police, and many of them were offended when Hardesty suggested in a July 2020 interview in the national magazine Marie Claire that Portland police officers were starting fires themselves “so that they have justification for attacking community members.” She later apologized for those remarks, but the sting persisted. Hardesty also did nothing when Portland fire chief Sarah Boone told fire fighters they could no longer wash their cars while waiting for calls, after a citizen complaint that led to an official audit. Hardesty says she has no problem with firefighters washing their vehicles while on duty. She says she told the chief that. But she didn’t override the chief’s directive.
Three other City unions endorsed Hardesty four years ago, but not today: Laborers Local 483, Protec17, and AFSCME Local 189.
- Laborers Local 483, which represents city parks and road maintenance employees, made no political endorsements this year and instead deferred to the Oregon & Southern Idaho District Council of Laborers, which endorsed Mozyrsky.
- Protec17, which represents about 870 city planners and engineers, is also staying out, but its neutral stance is mainly a matter of timing: They’re in the thick of negotiating bureau budgets and a contract, and union officers didn’t feel it was proper to endorse at such a time.
- The biggest union of City employees is AFSCME Local 189, with about 900 members. When Local 189 members met April 11 to consider an endorsement, there was vigorous debate. Some who worked in her bureaus were happy with Hardesty. But the prevailing feeling was that Hardesty hadn’t shown up as an ally during the long and difficult season of contract negotiations. They voted by a more than two-thirds margin to back Mozyrsky.
Mozyrky’s union record
In Mozyrsky, 49, labor organizations see a straight-arrow candidate with his own union background who wants the City to refocus on its core responsibilities, including safe streets, better 911 response times, more and better police, traffic and graffiti.
Born in Ukraine, Mozyrsky emigrated to the United States in 1979 at age seven. After graduating with a bachelor’s and a law degree from the University of Texas, he clerked for state and federal judges, practiced corporate litigation, and eventually settled into disability law. He’s spent much of his professional career as a federal administrative law judge adjudicating appeals of disability claims denials. And that path he included several stints as a volunteer union represenative.
Working for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Irvine, California, he invited National Treasury Employees Union in to help unionize his unit, and became a union steward after he and his coworkers won union representation.
Later, as an administrative law judge, he got active in the Association of Administration Law Judges—Judicial Council 1 of International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE). As a union steward, he filed grievances and sat in on disciplinary meetings. Later he was designated as a national union representative and participated in arbitrations. Today, he’s national union vice president, in charge of 10 Western states.
“What I’m hearing from the unions all over the city is that when they need to reach out to an elected official, a lot of times they don’t get a response,” Mozyrsky said. “And I think that’s a sad state of affairs in the city as progressive as Portland.”