Challengers shy away from county races

Incumbents could get a 'bye' in 2012 if no one files by March

Help wanted: Three openings, each paying $90,640; great pension and health benefits.

Job title: Multnomah County commissioner.

You'd think at a time of sky-high unemployment, widespread voter dissatisfaction with government and hundreds of political activists occupying downtown Portland parks, that there'd be more interest in leading Oregon's most populous county.

But six weeks after the traditional start of political campaign season, no opposition has emerged for three sitting Multnomah County commissioners up for re-election next May 15.

As of Tuesday, it appeared Deborah Kafoury, Diane McKeel and Judy Shiprack were all drawing 'byes' in their 2012 re-election contests. McKeel and Shiprack filed to run soon after the filing period opened on Sept. 8. Kafoury hasn't filed yet, but said Tuesday that she plans to run for reelection.

Alissa Keny-Guyer was preparing a campaign to take on Shiprack. But she changed course Sept. 27, after winning an appointment to fill the remaining legislative term of state Rep. Ben Cannon, D-Portland, who resigned to work for Gov. John Kitzhaber.

It's not clear if anyone else will mount a serious challenge to any of the three incumbents.

'It's kind of a shame for the democratic process,' said Rob Milesnick, a lawyer who ran for the District 3 seat won by Shiprack in 2008. Milesnick, who also tried unsuccessfully for the appointment to fill the remainder of Cannon's term, said he hasn't ruled out running for county commissioner again, but isn't inclined to at this time.

'I'm not actively preparing for it, and I don't know who is,' he said.

Mike Delman, who also ran for District 3 in 2008, said he has no plans to run again.

'I think it's unfortunate that we don't have the strongest county commission that we possibly can,' Delman said, declining to elaborate.

But others speculated that voters aren't as worked up about the direction of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners as they were five years ago. That's when a feud between then-Chair Diane Linn and three women commissioners - which some call the 'mean girls' era - detracted from the county's reputation.

Many observers say it's the city of Portland now, not the county, that's saddled with a reputation for being dysfunctional.

'I think people are happy with the county now,' said County Chair Jeff Cogen after Tuesday's commission meeting. 'If not, you'd see a lot of people' running, he said. 'I think all of our three incumbents are looking good.'

Shiprack, who managed to win in a crowded field in 2008, despite adverse publicity about her failure to repay a city development loan, said she still expects some opposition to emerge. 'I would really be surprised if all three of us would get through this without any opposition,' she said.

Indeed, filing deadline isn't until March 6. However, those who have run serious races say it could take $100,000 to $200,000 to mount an effective race, and time to prepare a campaign and raise funds is slipping away.

Power of incumbency

The lack of viable contenders so far is in sharp contrast to packed races for open seats in 2008 for District 3, won by Shiprack, and for District 4 in 2010, won by Loretta Smith. In each of those races, several candidates had impressive credentials, raised serious amounts of money and jousted for key endorsements.

The message? It's awful tough to unseat someone in office, unless they are damaged by scandal or other problems.

'I think the power of incumbency is pretty tremendous,' said Keny-Guyer.

Keny-Guyer is friends with Cogen and Kafoury, and had good prospects to raise funds. Her husband Neal Keny-Guyer is chief executive officer of Mercy Corps, a prominent and fast-growing international development group based in Portland.

Though Alissa Keny-Guyer had been prepared to take on Shiprack, she said she hadn't yet 'pulled the trigger' on her decision to run when the opportunity for the legislative appointment emerged. It would have been a challenging race, she said.

Candidates running for Oregon legislative seats can raise all sorts of money from political action committees from business, labor and other groups with a vested interest in the outcome of legislative bills. Candidates for Portland City Council can raise lots from real estate interests and others with a stake in City Hall decisions.

But there are not so many natural donors for county commission races, Milesnick said. The county also has a lower public profile than the city, so it's harder to build up name recognition.

Milesnick spent 10 months campaigning, six months full-time, and garnered an impressive number of newspaper and interest-group endorsements. Yet his vote total, he said, was barely more than the votes for Ron McCarty, who did little campaigning. But McCarty had served in office before and his name has appeared on the ballot many times.

'Name identification, and the power of incumbency, when people aren't paying attention, is that much more important,' Milesnick said.

Commission openings

It's not too late to enter the races for county commissioner.

Here are the three seats open:

• District 1: Includes Portland's west side, the inner-east side and a sliver of North Portland. Incumbent Deborah Kafoury said she intends to seek re-election.

• District 3: Includes the central east side of Portland, south of the Banfield Freeway. Incumbent Judy Shiprack has filed to run again.

• District 4: Includes the outer-east side of Portland mostly east of 148th Avenue, plus Gresham, Troutdale, Fairview and Wood Village. Incumbent Diane McKeel has filed to run again.