By The Oregonian Editorial Board
Just six months ago, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler was the picture of effective leadership. Undaunted by the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic, he pressed Gov. Kate Brown to take action to limit the virus’ spread, patched a $75 million hole in the city’s budget and directed federal coronavirus dollars into front-line relief for businesses and families. It was, as we noted in our endorsement for the May primary, Wheeler at his best – pragmatic and decisive in a time of crisis.
That was the Wheeler who nearly won re-election outright, falling just short of the 50%-plus-one threshold needed to avoid a runoff in a field full of contenders.
Since then, however, it’s been a different story. Nightly protests sparked by the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd last May have shown Wheeler at his worst – uncertain and unengaged. Buffeted between Portlanders angry over officers’ treatment of protesters and Portlanders angry over protests that turn destructive, Wheeler never decided who he was trying to please, increasing frustration on all sides. Dissatisfaction appears to extend to police officers as well; shortly after Wheeler announced a ban on officers’ use of tear gas, the police bureau, which reports to him, issued a press release defending the tactic.
That’s the Wheeler who is now at risk of losing the November election to Sarah Iannarone, a progressive community activist and former Portland State University administrator who’s never held elected office. Iannarone, who has called for defunding police by $50 million, is proposing an expansive agenda that aims to move Portland city government sharply to the left. While some proposals dovetail with actions the city has already taken, she also supports more controversial ideas including creating a publicly-owned municipal bank, opening city ballots to residents regardless of citizenship, and one proposal sure to rile many Portland homeowners – removing parking along streets to make way for more trees. And while she promotes her ability to bring Portlanders together, some of her statements and messages on social media are strikingly cutting, vilifying people and organizations in the community with whom she disagrees.
As frustrated as Portlanders may be over Wheeler’s failures, they should resist the impulse to vote him out. Wheeler, 58, is still the more qualified candidate for the job of leading the city through our unprecedented turmoil. His understanding of what businesses need to thrive is critical to helping entrepreneurs and companies – and ultimately Portland – make it through the pandemic. He has proven his ability to develop smart solutions for entrenched problems in state and local government.And while he must initiate community-wide discussions about the future of policing, his desire to make strategic changes rather than haphazardly defunding them matches the priorities of many Portlanders who want both police accountability and reliable public safety.
To be sure, Wheeler had his ups and downs even before 2020. Much like the protests, Wheeler has attracted critics from all sides for a middling homelessness strategy without a clear goal. He’s been hammered both for authorizing sweeps of homeless camps and not doing enough to address homeless camping in neighborhoods.
But Wheeler struck a more decisive tone in an endorsement interview with the editorial board, indicating his dissatisfaction with the Joint Office of Homeless Services – funded with $32.5 million from the city, $32.7 million from the county and $41.9 million from federal coronavirus act funds. He said he’s directed his staff to identify 300 shelter beds and would consider yanking city funding from the joint office if he determines the office isn’t doing enough to prioritize shelter for those living on the streets. He’s right to ask questions about the office’s effectiveness and his statements reflect the analytical instincts that voters expected when electing him mayor in 2016.
Wheeler has delivered in other ways, including overseeing the buildout of affordable housing units with bond dollars authorized by Portlanders in 2016. Despite the pandemic, the city is on track to exceed the 1,300 units it promised. He also won City Council support to use some tax dollars from expiring urban renewal districts to fund bonds for long-neglected infrastructure projects. The council authorized the first set of “Build Portland” projects in 2018, including safety improvements on Southeast Stark; accessible sidewalks; and investments at the Lents Town Center. Not only are these significant wins for people in those neighborhoods, but Wheeler has created a template for future city councils to fund hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure upgrades if they choose.
Certainly, Wheeler has mishandled protest policing, but he has advanced several changes with Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, a longtime police reform advocate. He supported her call to pull funding for three specialty police units that have long been accused of disproportionate policing of Black Portlanders and other people of color. He backs an amendment to create a new independent police oversight board. He is seeking greater investment in community-based programs to address youth violence and urging other changes on state and federal levels.
It’s also to Wheeler’s credit that he is willing to follow Hardesty’s lead, but isn’t handing over the bureau to the commissioner, who has made accusations of police that would undermine her authority from Day One. While Iannarone argues that Hardesty’s expertise and community support for her justify a switch, it’s the wrong move on philosophical grounds as well. Police officers have the government-granted authority to use deadly force. Accountability for overseeing a bureau with such tremendous power should live with the city’s top elected official.
And while Iannarone lays out an optimistic vision for a city that addresses the root causes of housing inequities, crime and other problems, she fails to explain how we get there from the cash-strapped, polarized position where we are now. In her meeting with the editorial board, she frequently focused on what should have been rather than what is. When asked how police officers should stop protesters from setting fires, she repeatedly deflected, saying that such a situation wouldn’t happen if the mayor had been listening to the community. Similarly, her support for stripping $50 million from the police budget glosses over the details of how that loss would impact public safety or where exactly that money would go. Already, a new homeless-response program that was given an extra $5 million from the police budget earlier this year expects to return some of that to the General Fund because the program can’t scale up so quickly, the project manager told OPB’s Think Out Loud.
he signs of voter discontent are clear. Supporters of the primary’s third-place finisher, Teressa Raiford, are urging voters to write in the leader of the anti-police brutality nonprofit Don’t Shoot PDX, although Raiford is not campaigning. But she too lacks the citywide view and proven track record that Wheeler has built over decades.
Whoever is sworn in next January as Portland’s next mayor must be prepared to deal with the reality we live in now. For better or worse – and we’ve seen both – that person is Wheeler.
-The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board