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The race is on

Contenders have until March 9 to throw their hats into mayoral ring

Mayor Vera Katz threw the 2004 mayor's race wide open this week with her decision not to run for a fourth term, but her announcement hasn't started a stampede of candidates.

The lure of an open seat has done nothing to change the political landscape. Not yet, anyway.

City Commissioner Jim Francesconi is running. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., will decide sometime after Labor Day. And city Commissioner Erik Sten is thinking about it.

And that's it. Of course, more candidates are likely to enter the race. Katz, remember, had 16 opponents in the May 2000 election.

But despite the open mayor's seat and Francesconi's open council seat, so far no one has stepped up to represent groups that have long criticized City Hall for leaving them out of the political process.

The Portland business community, for one, often feels unwelcome at City Hall and once again is looking for its own candidate. And Portland minorities, inflamed by the May 5 police shooting of Kendra James, haven't found a way to harness that political energy into a candidate of their own.

This is the same problem faced by outer Southeast Portland neighborhoods, areas annexed to the city over the last two decades. They felt unloved at City Hall because they didn't have a neighbor on the City Council until Randy Leonard's election last November.

By many measures, the new mayor 18 months from now will still be seeking new jobs and trying to shed the perception fair or not that Portland is hostile to business. The city's economic health will be tied to the national economy and the fiscal health of the state, which now has the nation's highest unemployment rate.

Business blues

The mayoral election next year will be the first for the Portland Business Alliance, the politically active successor to the more neutral Alliance for Portland Progress and Portland Chamber of Commerce.

The alliance has talked in the past about finding its own mayoral candidate and said this week that whoever runs must make finding new jobs a priority, said Kevin Montgomery-Smith, spokesman for the group

'Any potential candidate for mayor must have a clear economic strategy that will attract and retain businesses as well as address our regional and international competitiveness,' he said. 'We are a national leader in livability. However, livability starts with a job.'

Ron Saxton, the Portland attorney and 2002 GOP candidate for governor, still gets calls asking him to run for mayor, even though he decided not to last spring.

'When you have one mayor for 12 years, you have lots of underrepresented voices,' he said. 'The business community is not really represented at City Hall and is a little intimidated by the overwhelming Democratic leanings of the city. But we have to have someone focused on what it takes to attract businesses to Portland as opposed to watching them leave.'

Former city Commissioner Mike Lindberg said the blessing of the business community can be a double-edged sword.

'If someone comes out as a business candidate,' he said, 'you'll get a lot of people who won't like it.'

A candidate for Kendra?

Katz and the police underwent virulent criticism after the James shooting, but the political outcry hasn't translated into political power. No candidate has seized the momentum of the movement and turned it toward a race for either mayor or Francesconi's open council seat.

'The field is pretty narrow,' said Roy Jay, the Portland businessman who helped minority chambers of commerce win the contract to operate the city's Smart Park garages. 'I'm sure there will be some other folks. We haven't gotten to the point where we're going to do any endorsements yet.'

Jay himself has been mentioned as a candidate for the council seat, although he's made no decisions on a race. One former state representative who'd like to see him run, though, is Jo Ann Bowman, now the vice chairwoman of the African American Chamber of Commerce and a prominent critic of the James shooting.

'It would be nice to have some totally new blood,' she said, 'because there's not much to get excited about right now.'

Neither Jay nor Bowman are sure why the political energy generated in the protest of the James shooting hasn't produced a candidate for the council.

'There are so many people in so many different communities who want positive action to come out of the Kendra James killing,' Bowman said. 'But no one seems to be bringing those factions together. The question is, who's going to lead that effort? So far, no one has done that.'

Blumenauer, who has more than $383,000 in his campaign coffers, has been engaged in a series of community meetings this summer to discuss Portland issues with Portlanders. The meetings will help him decide whether to give up his safe congressional seat and run for mayor next year.

On Wednesday, he praised Katz for her tenure as mayor. He said his neighborhood meetings will help him sharpen his focus if he runs for mayor or at least make him a better congressman if he seeks re-election.

'I've been trying my best not to get caught up in politics and potential campaigns,' he said, 'because we need to have this broader conversation. It's a little hard to keep focused on what Portland needs other than the political piece. There's been a significant amount of encouragement.'

Despite Katz's decision, a group of political opponents will continue to gather signatures for a petition placing a recall of Katz on the ballot this fall, said John Belgarde, a spokesman for the group.

'The idea,' he said, 'is to get her out of office.' The group needs 29,877 signatures of registered Portland voters by Sept. 4.

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