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Portland needs true political diversity

TWO VIEWS • Voters have chosen local officials through nonpartisan elections since 1913, but some say the city has fallen under one-party rule

Do we want real debate over the critical issues facing Portland?

Too bad. Portland's nonpartisan election system means there probably won't be any.

The nonpartisan election system masks the fact that Portland is a city under one-party rule. In recent elections all the leading candidates for City Council and the Multnomah County Commission have been Democrats. Elections for these positions now amount to little more than Democratic primaries.

Nonpartisan elections require that candidates run unaffiliated with any political party. Portland and Multnomah County require that their elected officials be elected in a nonpartisan manner. Originally conceived as a scheme to reduce partisan bickering, nonpartisan elections have in practice served to impoverish public policy debate and deprive the city of innovative ideas.

A nonpartisan election system requires that all candidates for a city or county office run on a single ballot in the May primary. If one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the primary vote, the candidate is considered to be elected. Since 1996, 18 of 22 regular City Council and county commission races have been decided in the May primary.

Ironically, it is primary voters Ñ who tend to be the most party oriented Ñ who have decided the outcome of these nonparty races. Many independent voters begin to pay attention to campaigns only as the November general election nears. Yet since 1996 only four regular City Council and county commission races have reached the November election, and even those featured only Democratic candidates.

This state of affairs has reduced local elections to little more than beauty contests, more about candidates' personality and style than substantive policy.

When it comes to issues, there has been hardly a scintilla of difference between most of the recent candidates competing for Portland City Council and Multnomah County Commission seats. This has robbed voters of the opportunity to have viable alternatives presented and debated.

Some will argue that Republicans and the Republican Party are free to participate in Portland's nonpartisan system. The reality is that the nonpartisan system gives no incentive for the minority party to invest time and effort in an uphill battle when it is denied the opportunity to have its candidates and ideas clearly highlighted in a general election.

However, in a partisan system, with candidates running as Democrats and Republicans, even a city with a large Democratic majority can elect a Republican. New York City has a larger majority of Democrat-registered voters than does Portland, yet in its partisan election system, Republican Rudy Giuliani was twice elected mayor, and another Republican, Michael Bloomberg, was elected to succeed him.

However, Portland's nonpartisan system of electing its mayor and council members stifles the sort of lively public debate that led to the election of Giuliani.

Conversely, Portland's elected officials know that any opponent generated by the current Democratic Party-dominated nonpartisan system will undoubtedly support many of their own policies, even if those policies are unpopular with the public. Thus, disgruntled citizens are denied a means of applying real pressure on obstinate elected officials. As a result, the will of the people on issues such as business taxes, storm water fees and light rail has too often been disregarded.

The nonpartisan system of electing our city and county officials has resulted in a one-party hegemony and the impoverishment of political debate. A partisan political system gave New York City Rudy Giuliani. Few things would do more to promote political diversity, re-energize debate and reinvigorate policy in Portland than a little partisan politics.

The two-party system has served our nation well. It is time to bring it to Portland and Multnomah County.

Mike Wiley is a graphic designer and an aspiring novelist. He was vice chairman of the Multnomah County Republican Party and is the former publisher of East County News. He lives in Sandy.