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Election should be fought on high ground

Good news: The upcoming battle for a seat on Portland's City Council may be fought without gender and racial bullets. With the exit of county Commissioner Maria Rojo de Steffey from the race, voters have been spared a potentially divisive campaign. Odds are that it would have been a contentious race simply because her most prominent opponent Ñ Nick Fish Ñ is a white male.

Some minority groups were already quietly fuming that with the pending retirement of Mayor Vera Katz, there would not be a woman on a council dominated by white men. Rojo de Steffey, the thinking went, was the best candidate to represent women and minorities. The surreptitious slogan was, 'We don't need another white guy on the City Council.'

I don't have a problem with anyone voicing that opinion. But the plan to inject racial and gender issues into the race at such an early stage was troubling and obviously would have misfired. Last time I checked, white guys still represent the highest number of registered voters.

Moreover, tossing around racial sentiments in this day and age for cheap political gains is sleazy and downright distasteful. It does not matter how noble the cause. Effective minority representation at City Hall will not come about if people of color abandon issues of qualification and appeal merely on the basis of being a minority.

To be fair, during the brief duration of her campaign, Rojo de Steffey showed poise and political maturity in most of her pronouncements. I doubt she would have stooped to the level of some of her supporters.

Still, the candidacy of Sam Adams, an openly gay man who also is seeking a spot on the council, could mean that issues of sexual orientation displace lively debate about Portland's future. What matters most is determining who has the best leadership skills, or the best plan to create jobs.

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On another note, the mayor's race is garnering some early buzz. If money and the ability to spin out economic theory were the sole barometers used in measuring the winner, city Commissioner Jim Francesconi would have already moved into the mayor's office. He has raised more money than the rest of the candidates combined.

In a joint appearance before the Commercial Association of Realtors early last month with his principal opponent, former Police Chief Tom Potter, Francesconi demonstrated clearly that he has the intellectual capacity and the political experience to assess the crises we face in the city. However, while his pragmatism, political wiles and occasional emotional outbursts have endeared him to some, others are not so impressed.

Long before discussions about 'creating a business-friendly city' became so commonplace that even talk radio embraced the idea, Francesconi took on the mantle of small-business advocate. He has sponsored many projects and scored big for the 'little business' guys. For instance, Francesconi gave small-business owners a voice on regulatory matters through the Small Business Council he helped develop. It is a remarkable shift for a politician who advanced to City Hall under the cloak of activism and has since been one of the best friends of big and small business.

This city is blessed with a robust array of people with smart ideas. But transforming those ideas into public dividends requires a leader with guts and commitment.