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All in a days work

A new Portland commissioner learns to ride the City Hall roller coaster

Randy Leonard looks a little shell-shocked.

The Portland city commissioner's workday, which started 14 hours earlier, has just come to a loud and rancorous end shortly before 9 p.m. at the Kennedy School in Northeast Portland, not far from where he grew up. His half-hour on the Concordia Neighborhood Association agenda turned into an arduous 90-minute debate over land use, city services and Iraq.

They let him have it. Especially on Iraq. Especially for his vote against the Portland City Council's recent resolution against a pre-emptive U.S. strike. And when he's done, three people follow him into the hall and challenge him anew.

'Do you know what the Israeli bulldozers are doing to the Palestinians?' a man asks.

'Who started it is less important to me than the need for it to stop,' Leonard says.

'If you didn't support that resolution, what kind of a resolution would you support?' a woman says, her voice rising.

The firefighter-turned-politician glares briefly but remains calm.

'We're not getting anywhere with this discussion,' he says levelly.

'Killing people in Iraq is not the answer,' she shoots back. 'Saddam's not listening to you or me. George Bush might be.'

Leonard finally breaks free, and most of the group wanders back to the meeting. It's almost 9 p.m., and Portland's newest city commissioner steps outside into a gray, gloomy, wet night. It's time to go home.

'OK,' he says, taking a deep breath. 'That was a long day.'

Long shifts are nothing new to Leonard, who spent 25 years with the Portland Fire Bureau. But since joining the Portland City Council in November, Leonard, 50, has been on a public policy thrill ride. City Hall lately is smack in the middle of a bunch of big issues, including taxes, schools, casinos, ballparks, business incentives and the purchase of power companies.

In November, Leonard became the first commissioner elected from east of 82nd Avenue, a development cheered by east-side residents who felt underrepresented on the City Council.

Lights burn late at City Hall these days, and Tuesday, March 4, offers a good look at a typical day in the life of a Portland city commissioner.

For Leonard, it meant a 14-hour talkathon on the inevitable issues such as taxes and schools Ñ as well as a few not-so-common topics, such as U.S. Middle East policy, the Falun Gong spiritual practice and federal farm subsidies.

'I like that,' he says. 'It makes this job fun, even when they're things the council isn't directly involved in. We're here to be the first level of elected officials that people go to to get issues resolved, no matter what it is.'

Early to rise

Leonard's day starts at 5:20 a.m. He sits down in one of two big leather chairs in the family room of his outer Southeast Portland home. He drinks coffee, reads the newspapers scattered over an ottoman and watches MSNBC's 'Imus in the Morning' show, taped while he slept.

Rosey, a half-boxer, half-German shepherd, scrambles around, and Leonard's wife, Julie, gets ready for work at her job as an assistant administrator for the Portland Fire and Police Disability and Retirement Fund.

At 6:45 a.m., Leonard steps out into the steely gray drizzle and gets into his red Mazda truck. He fumbles with the radio dial until settling on KINK, which, fittingly, is playing 'The Long Run' by the Eagles.

After a stop at the Bureau of Emergency Communications center on Southeast Powell Boulevard Ñ the former firefighter likes to find out what happened overnight Ñ he pulls into the drive-through window at McDonald's for a No. 3 breakfast with orange juice. He starts in on the hash browns and sausage and egg McMuffin as he pulls onto Interstate 205 for the drive downtown.

The workday begins

Traffic is heavy, and he's running late. Shortly after 8 a.m., Leonard parks in the space he rents under the PacWest building, walks out the Southwest Fifth Avenue doors and spots Mayor Vera Katz's car in front of City Hall. Katz hates seeing city employees Ñ or anyone, for that matter Ñ jaywalk. So Leonard heads to the corner and crosses at the light.

Five local practitioners of Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, wait for him in his conference room. Falun Gong is a popular form of exercise and a spiritual movement, banned by China in 1999.

The five local adherents tell Leonard that the practice can lower blood pressure, reduce disease and ease depression. But they're mostly here to alert him to the case of Charles Li, an American Falun Gong practitioner under arrest in China. They hope he'll send a letter to the Chinese ambassador protesting treatment of Li. His letter will go out two days later.

At 8:34 a.m., Leonard finally reaches his office but as he walks through the door, Ty Kovatch, his chief of staff, says the mayor wants to see him. He turns and heads upstairs to Katz's third-floor office.

The debate about a temporary school tax has consumed City Hall and Multnomah County for weeks. Leonard has been pushing to make sure all the city's school districts Ñ not just Portland Public Schools Ñ would benefit.

Katz and two aides are waiting for Leonard when he arrives in the mayor's conference room at 8:36 a.m. They hand him a sheaf of papers with new revenue estimates. Before the day is out, Katz will have briefed all the commissioners. She has to see them one by one. That's because more than two council members in a room together constitutes a quorum and requires advance notice under open meetings laws.

They're almost there, Katz says, to making sure all the other school districts would get money from the new tax. Leonard slides his feet out of his loafers and taps his glasses on the table in thought.

Twelve minutes later he returns to the second floor and sits down at his desk for the first time of the day. He begins a legislative update from the Bureau of Emergency Services, but at 9:06 a.m., an aide comes in to say Commissioner Erik Sten wants a word with him.

Sten, waiting in Leonard's conference room, says he's just finished his own meeting with Katz and has an idea. One school district, Sten says, would be OK with deferring its revenue from the tax for the first year. Leonard is thrilled.

'You see,' he says, pointing to Sten. 'He's the brains behind this outfit.' Four minutes later, Leonard's back in his office and the legislative briefing resumes.

He talks at the small round table in his private office, surrounded by the accouterments of his public life: a fire ax, a fire helmet, certificates of election, newspaper articles, plaques of appreciation. There's a letter of thanks from Mark Hatfield. Leonard introduced the now-retired Republican senator at a campaign fund-raiser in 1990.

At 10:56 a.m., a reporter from The Oregonian stops by with a question about the proposed business tax, and soon after Leonard goes into a meeting with labor leaders about the city's prevailing wage rules.

Lunch break

Leonard leaves the wage-rule meeting at 12:20 p.m., late for a noon lunch appointment with Roy Jay, president of the African-American Chamber of Commerce, who's waiting in his office. Joined by Kovatch, they head across the street to Madison's on Fifth, in the PacWest Building. The mayor's car is gone, so the group crosses in the middle of the block.

Jay hopes to bid on the city contract to operate the city-owned Star Park garages now operated by the Portland Business Alliance. But he can't get expenditure records from the business group Ñ records, he tells Leonard, that should be open to the public.

'You folks have no idea who's getting paid,' he scolds. 'In 20 years there's never been a financial audit.'

At 1:27 p.m., Leonard leaves the restaurant. The mayor's car is again parked out front, so Leonard is careful not to jaywalk.

Through the afternoon, he meets with representatives of the new Small Business Advisory Council and Portland's Bureau of General Services and hears an appeal of a personnel matter. By 5:26 p.m., he's on the phone with his wife.

The rain pounds hard on the asphalt roof outside his window. He leans back in his chair, plops his feet up on the desk and picks cashews out of a can. It looks like he'll get a break before his7 p.m. meeting with the Concordia Neighborhood Association.

No such luck. At 5:31 p.m., Stacy Chamberlain, a policy adviser, tells Leonard that Sam Adams, the mayor's chief of staff, has convened a meeting to talk about school taxes. They will get their first look at poll results testing public support for the various tax options.

By 6:30 p.m., while most of his six-person staff has started drifting home, an order of Subway sandwiches arrives. Then Leonard and one of his policy advisers, Brent Canode, head out for the Kennedy School in Leonard's red truck.

Driving north on Northeast 33rd Avenue, the commissioner salutes quickly in the direction of Grant High School. He was a member of the class of 1970.

A contentious ending

At 7:19 p.m. he arrives at the Community Room at the Kennedy School, four minutes late for his scheduled appearance. The crowd of about 40, dressed casually for the evening meeting, in parkas, jeans and sneakers, has a lot on their minds.

Housing inspections. Liquor sale hours. Abandoned cars. Loud bars. Trash in alleys. Splitting 5,000-square-foot home lots in half.

Leonard says increasing housing density will help maintain the urban growth boundary.

'Look,' he says, crossing his arms. 'I know you're going to oppose this. But I'd be a hypocrite if I stood here and said I'm going to approve something I fought in the Legislature for 10 years.'

There's a gasp.

'Why can't we stop it here until it happens other places?' someone asks.

'They're monsters,' says someone else.

At 8:08 p.m., he takes his jacket off. At 8:14 p.m. someone brings him a glass of water.

After more than an hour, they finally turn to Iraq. He knew this was coming.

On Jan. 22, Leonard voted against a Portland City Council resolution that opposed a pre-emptive unilateral military attack on Iraq. It failed on a 2-2 vote.

This is an emotional issue for some of the audience members. How can he justify attacking another country without provocation?

Leonard, who holds a history degree from Portland State University, says his perspective changed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

'I took the issue seriously,' he says. 'I wasn't going to play around.'

Finally the talk dies down; commissioner and constituents alike seem to have exhausted the issue. He steps out the door. That's when three people confront him in the hall.

When he's done, Leonard looks like he's had enough for one day. He starts outside into the wet night for his drive back to Southeast Portland. But a protester stays behind for one more parting shot.

'Don't forget,' the protester shouts into the night, 'in some places in this country, they pay people not to grow crops!'

Leonard shrugs, laughs to himself and climbs into his truck.

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