Portland voters have chosen their elected officials through nonpartisan elections since 1913. During that time, the city has risen from an undistinguished regional center to an internationally recognized example of effective governance and urban livability. Credit for that progress is due in part to the nonpartisan manner in which city government is conducted.
Starting in the mid-1800s, Portland's charter was controlled by the state Legislature. All city elections were partisan. The bitterest rivalries occurred within the Republican Party, between the Henry Corbett-Joe Simon faction and the John Mitchell faction. Both groups vied for control of the state party, using Portland as a major battlefield. This was around the turn of the century, and corrupt city elections became the norm. After state voters resoundingly adopted a measure that gave cities the right to change their charters, Portland citizens in 1913 opted for nonpartisan elections.
According to the Multnomah County Elections Division, Portland currently has 291,248 registered voters. Of those, 147,904 are Democrats, 61,045 are Republicans, and 66,250 have not affiliated themselves with any political party. If a candidate wins more than 50 percent of the primary vote, his or her name appears alone on the general election ballot; otherwise the top two vote-getters move into a November runoff. Party affiliation is not an issue in city elections.
What this means is that in a nonpartisan race, the two strongest candidates are the ones most likely to reach the fall ballot. In partisan elections, it is not the two candidates who win the most votes who face off in November but the top vote-getter from each major party. Thus, a candidate can easily advance to the general election despite receiving fewer votes than the second-place vote-getter of the opposing party.
In addition, independents can be disenfranchised in partisan primaries. Currently, all registered voters are encouraged to cast votes in all city elections, while under a partisan setup, primary ballots are restricted to members of the two major political parties. With city registration at 51 percent Democrat, 21 percent Republican, 5 percent other political parties and 23 percent unaffiliated, partisan primaries would leave 28 percent of the voters no voice in choosing which candidates end up on the general election ballot.
Nonpartisan elections also ensure that the debate at election time is about city needs, not party needs. City concerns such as police, fire, water and sewers are not partisan issues. National and state party platforms have little to offer in the daily grind of municipal decision making.
To argue that the city is under one-party rule is to overlook the victory of Republican Charlie Hales, who unseated incumbent Dick Bogle, a Democrat, in 1992. It ignores the fact that one of the city's all-time most popular City Council members, Mildred Schwab, was a Republican. So was former mayor Connie McCready. (Both women, it should be noted, gained their initial entry onto the council by appointment, rather than election.)
The Portland city charter prohibits city-elected officials from playing an inside role in any political party. The oath required of every council member before assuming office declares that he or she is not 'a member of any committee of any political party.' That nonpartisan provision serves the city well.
In a time of far too much partisan acrimony and mean-spiritedness, Portland's nonpartisanship is a welcome isle in a sea of political polemics. Adopting party labels would detract from city issues to the detriment of the citizenry.
Jewel Lansing is the author of 'Portland: People, Politics, and Power Ñ 1851-2001,' to be published in September by the Oregon State University Press. She served as Multnomah County auditor from 1975 to 1982 and as city of Portland auditor from 1983 to 1986.