Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith's jump into the race to succeed Dan Saltzman on the Portland City Council came on the same day that news broke of a high-level manager's bombshell letter accusing the county of systemic and institutional racism.
For Smith, the letter from public health director Tricia Tillman provided an opportunity to turn past headlines, as well as friction with Chair Deborah Kafoury, into an asset, and boosted her profile in a race that could see at least three serious candidates step up. But it's sure to mean her final months at the county won't be smooth, either.
Former lawmaker and prominent activist Jo Ann Hardesty has already announced her plans to run to succeed Saltzman, meaning two prominent African-American leaders will go head to head. No woman of color has ever held a seat at Portland City Hall.
Other would-be city commissioners are expected to file in the wake of Saltzman's surprise announcement — including possibly Sam Chase, a white man who currently sits on the council of the Metro regional government. Last week he said he is seriously considering a run.
Saltzman had been racking up endorsements for his expected campaign, only to experience a change of heart following news that fellow city Commissioner Nick Fish is undergoing treatement for cancer, and that former county chair Jeff Cogen had suffered a stroke.
Now those endorsements will be up for grabs, and Smith, Hardesty and perhaps Chase are expected to wage spirited campaigns. While Hardesty, president of the Portland NAACP, is well-known in city political circles and among local civil rights activists, Smith, a former longtime aide to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, has strong ties in the labor movement. Chase's possible campaign, meanwhile, could capitalize on his work history in housing and health care.
Smith, who previously had been dinging Saltzman with comments portraying him as a longtime insider from a privileged background, issued a statement shortly after his surprise decision to leave his seat was announced.
"I want to thank Commissioner Dan Saltzman for his 25 years of dedication to the place we all call home. I wish him well on his new path."
Smith's announcement did not mention Hardesty, instead focusing on her own record, saying that she had through her leadership at the county "created hundreds of jobs for young people, educated seniors about scams and dangers of opioid abuse, and … been a voice for so many Oregonians who have been left behind."
"The opportunity to continue to fight for the most vulnerable on the Portland City Council would be an honor and a privilege," she added. "Our next leaders need to build a shared vision for Portland's future that ensures it remains affordable for working people, stand up for progressive values and provide every community a meaningful voice in City Hall."
But Smith has a history of friction with Kafoury, with the latter launching an investigation earlier this year based on allegations made against Smith by some of her former staffers. In June, the county released the review which, while not conclusive, found a pattern of allegations that she misused county and campaign funds, as well as created an abusive work atmosphere. Smith denied the allegations, calling them racially and politically motivated — a charge echoed by a group of supporters.
Last Thursday, rather than downplay the investigation, Smith appeared to highlight it at a hearing on workforce equity packed with numerous county employees, inluding many employees of color.
Echoing the complaints some employees voiced, including concerns about Tillman's ouster, Smith said the county has a "big problem" with racism, and added that she had experienced much the same treatment.
"I do feel the same way that if I do the wrong thing or if I speak up about something, people who work for me or who sit next to me, they may take offense to that," she said, as she sat next to Kafoury.
Kafoury has launched an investigation of Tillman's treatment as well as a second investigation of county hiring practices. But during the hearing, Smith took the opportunity to jab at her.
"The chair asked me why don't people come and talk to her," Smith told the audience. "I said because there's no trust. and we need to build that trust back. It cannot only just be with me."