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Political wolves at the door

• While mayor keeps mum on a fourth term, wannabes start strategizing

The race for mayor of Portland Ñ still 16 months awayÑ has become the hottest political guessing game in town.

Will Mayor Vera Katz run next year for a fourth term? And if not, who will?

So far, five names dominate the buzz about possible replacements for Katz:

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who lost the job to Katz in 1992; Ron Saxton, a Portland attorney who won Multnomah County in the Republican primary for governor last year; Diane Linn, chairwoman of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners; and Jim Francesconi and Erik Sten, both city commissioners.

Francesconi is the only one of the five actively seeking money and support.

'There's a buzz because people are assuming Vera won't run,' said Saxton, who remains undecided but is generally not inclined to run. 'You hear the flurry because Jim's out there running and Earl's talking to a lot of people. But I don't think anybody is a slam-dunk candidate. It's going to be wide open.'

Katz is key

Such a wide-open race most likely would be loud, expensive and high-profile, engulfing many factions in Portland's political spectrum Ñ business, labor and social services Ñ as they vied for the attention of City Hall in an age of declining resources.

The linchpin to what happens, of course, is Katz, who isn't saying whether she will run for a fourth term. She will be 71 when the next term starts in January 2005 and could decide she's had enough.

Katz sighs when the inevitable question comes up. And she hears it often.

'She's busy with the day-to-day operations of the city of Portland and has not made a decision one way or another,' said Sarah Bott, her spokeswoman.

But she hasn't said no and shows no signs of slowing down. At a recent meeting of her anti-gang task force, she amused members with quips as she grilled them with questions about gang problems at an apartment complex and the high schools.

'I meet with her once or twice a week, and she does not behave like a person who's not running,' said newly elected city Commissioner Randy Leonard. 'She's totally engaged and focused and challenging. And I'll tell you something else, she's damned attractive for her age, a flat-out good-looking woman with a lot of energy.'

If Katz runs again, she becomes the favorite and could force other serious candidates out of the race, said Robert Eisinger, professor of political science at Lewis & Clark College.

Then again, maybe not.

'People who think the time is now might decide to stay in a race with her and run on the issue of change,' Eisinger said. 'Take her on and say, 'You've been a formidable mayor and thank you, but it's time for a change.' That type of slogan might resonate. One doesn't need to be unhappy with Mayor Katz to be enamored with a change.'

Keeping quiet about her plans is smart, analysts say, because withdrawing from the 2004 race too soon would reduce her clout for the rest of the term.

'It's not too early'

There are practical reasons why potential candidates already need to begin making their plans to run for an election more than a year away.

'It's not too early,' Eisinger said, 'for them to start going through the motions of meeting with their families, deciding whether to create a committee, looking at whether they can raise the money and assessing their own abilities.'

A contested race for mayor would be expensive, perhaps $500,000 or $750,000, and candidates would hope to get their campaigns cranked up by this fall so they have time to raise money.

Leonard raised more than $500,000 to win an open City Council seat last year, local political analysts say.

'A million bucks. That's what it's going to take,' said Dick Springer, former state Senate president and Linn's former husband. 'And it's going to take a lot of time and work to raise that kind of money. That's nonstop, every day and every night for a year.'

When it comes to money, Blumenauer has a big advantage. His U.S. congressional campaign fund stood at $300,000 in late November, a pot of money that under current campaign spending laws could be used for a mayoral race.

Blumenauer has string of wins

Blumenauer may be the best known of the group. He's been elected to office Ñ including the state House, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, the Portland City Council and Congress Ñ no fewer than 12 times.

Blumenauer has made a mark on Congress with livability issues, including parks, bikes and mass transit. But those issues aren't popular with the Bush administration, and his prospects for major achievements in those areas increase with Democratic control of the House.

And Blumenauer has hints that better opportunities in Congress may lie ahead. He counts Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the new House Democratic leader, among his close friends. She came to Portland last year for a Blumenauer fund-raiser that attracted 600 people. Her ascension bodes well for his future, especially if the Democrats retake the majority and she becomes speaker.

Linn was elected only last year to a four-year term heading the Multnomah County board. The county has been hit particularly hard by budget problems because much of its money for police, health care and jails comes from the state.

Francesconi got his campaign started last summer but first sat down with Katz over dinner to let her know of his plans. He was running in 2004, he told her, no matter what she decided to do. His decision not to wait until she made up her mind took her by surprise, friends said, and the move strained their relationship.

Sten, meanwhile, has immersed himself in the city's plan to take over Portland General Electric and still struggles with the political fallout from the Portland Water Bureau billing debacle.

And Saxton, who brings experience with schools from his tenure on the Portland school board, is, after all, a Republican in a Democratic town, although the mayor's office is nonpartisan.

Business builds an influence

A key player in the 2004 city races will be the Portland Business Alliance, a consortium formed by the merger of the Metropolitan Portland Chamber of Commerce and the Association for Portland Progress. In fact, the mayor's race was a hot topic of discussion earlier this month at the group's retreat on the Oregon Coast.

The group has been involved in several public policy issues since its formation last July and recently signaled its intentions to increase its political role by creating a political action committee.

Judy Peppler, top Oregon executive for Qwest and a member of the alliance's board of directors, said the group will endorse a candidate based on his or her stands on business issues.

'We don't know who all is going to throw their hat in the ring,' Peppler said. 'We won't support a candidate who isn't open to hearing a business perspective on issues for the city. We want somebody who has business on the mind when making decisions for the city.'

Contact Don Hamilton at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .