Runoff marks 'firsts' in Year of Woman
Whoever wins this fall's city council runoff between Jo Ann Hardesty and Loretta Smith will make history twice.
She'll become the first-ever African-American woman on the Portland City Council and she'll give women their first-ever council majority in what's shaping up to be the Year of the Woman in U.S. politics.
Both women have built extensive community connections over decades of work in politics and work with activist groups. Both tend to march to a different drummer in politics and have been known to step on a few toes along the way.
As Hardesty told her campaign supporters on election night, she's not known for being "Portland polite." The same could be said of Smith.
Hardesty, by outperforming Smith in the primary, starts the runoff as the favorite.
And in a political era when outsider candidates are drilling so-called establishment candidates, Hardesty may have the edge.
She figures to attract more progressive voters and may have an advantage of being on the ballot the same time as the Portland Clean Energy Fund initiative. If it makes the ballot, the initiative will ask Portland voters to tax large corporations to fund green energy projects to benefit people of color and low-income residents. Hardesty is closely associated with the green, black and brown coalition behind that measure.
In contrast, business, especially the Portland Business Alliance, is expected to lead the charge against that measure, and the influential group endorsed Smith in the primary.
But being viewed as the candidate preferred by the PBA isn't usually a blessing in Portland City Council races.
Hardesty has devoted considerable energy in recent years to criticizing the Portland police — and mayors who oversee them — for brutality against African-Americans and mentally ill people. If she wins, she'll have to make the adjustment from being an outsider to an insider.
"You know that I'm not a quiet woman," Hardesty said in her election-night victory speech at Solae's Lounge on Northeast Alberta Street. "People say that I'm energetic. People say that I have a little fire."
'We know what we have to do'
Smith, an eight-year Multnomah County Commissioner who spent many years doing constituent service as a staffer for U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, knows she faces an uphill fight against Hardesty, a civil rights activist and former state lawmaker.
After the first results showed her trailing Hardesty by 16 points, Smith talked about the challenge when she thanked supporters gathered at the downtown Porter Portland Hotel on Tuesday evening. Playing up the best news, she talked enthusiastically about being able to continue the race — as opposed to the four other candidates who were eliminated.
"We've got a lot of work to do, but we know what we have to do," said Smith, promising to run on a platform that all Portlanders should benefit from the city's economic recovery, including minority communities that have been left behind.
By Wednesday, the challenge seemed even steeper. Although Smith had been considered the front runner, Hardesty increased her lead to 21 points when most of the rest of the votes were counted. And even a quick glance at the precinct-by-precinct results showed Hardesty's dominance. She won every precinct in North, Northeast, Southeast and Southwest Portland. Smith only won in far East Portland. She even lost the precincts in the district she represents on the Multnomah County Commission to Hardesty.
But second-place candidates have won local runoff races before.
Smith did it herself in 2010, when she overcame an 18-point deficit in the primary election to defeat Karol Collymore for her county commission seat by a 2-to-1 margin. Before that, former Mayor Sam Adams came from behind to win his first seat on the council by defeating atorney Nick Fish in the 2004 general election. And more recently, City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly came from behind to defeat incumbent Steve Novick in November 2016.
One factor in all three cases was the large increase in voting during general elections. Only around 30 percent of Multnomah County voters returned their ballots in last Tuesday's election. Many more people can be expected to vote in the general election, which is expected to see a highly contested race between Democratic Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and her Republican challenger, state Rep. Knute Buehler of Bend.
The general election also will give voters a much better chance to focus on the differences between Smith and Hardesty. Three of the other candidates in the primary ran well-funded races, including architect Stuart Emmons, mayoral policy assistant Andrea Valderrama and bio-tech company manager and Northwest Portland neighborhood activist Felicia Williams.
During the next six months, Smith and Hardesty both have the opportunity to offer new policy initiatives for the city and say why they are most qualified to serve in Portland's unique form of government, where each council member must also manage a number of bureaus.
Hardesty's campaign logo showed a bridge over the river to denote unity among Portlanders.
Both candidates may need to convince voters they're the best one to do that.