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This screenshot shows the start of the City of Portland Council session held on March 4, 2020.
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 23 April 2020

Eighteen people are running to serve the remainder of late Commissioner Nick Fish’s term, which expires in 2022.

The Skanner interviewed seven leading candidates for Position #2 on City Council in the lead-up to the special election, which coincides with the May 19 primary. Their answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Loretta Smith

Loretta Smith served as a Multnomah County Commission for eight years before being termed out in 2018. She had previously worked for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) for 21 years, and currently runs her own political consulting firm.

Smith ran for City Council in 2018, but lost to Jo Ann Hardesty.

Smith has qualified for the city’s Open and Accountable Elections program, which gives candidates $6 of taxpayer funding for every $1 of campaign funds raised. Eligible candidates agree not to accept large contributions, and must demonstrate “broad community support.”


loretta smith medLoretta SmithWhy did you feel called to run?

No one is really speaking up for poor people, I don't care what color you are. A lot of folks are talking about housing, but poverty covers a multitude of things-- you’re unemployed, underemployed, you’re rent-burdened, your kids don’t go to the best schools, you have lack of access to healthcare. And now, post-COVID, from an African American standpoint, we have gotten exposed to the degree that now the world really knows how many disparities we have. COVID has been able to attack our community because of poor access to health care.

I felt like when Nick Fish left, there was a leadership void. I thought, who’s going to speak up for those folks who are rent-burdened? Who’s going to speak up for those folks who are not only rent burdened but also want to buy a house? It struck me that the city that I know and love and that I grew up in is quickly disappearing. 


What is unique about your background and lived experience that you can bring to the council? 

As a single mother who raised a kid who went to public school in this community, I have a different voice. I have a voice that will speak up for children, a voice that is very conscious about how our Black boys and men are treated in this community. I understand that we should make sure police accountability is a priority, and that we should also embrace our public safety officers by saying we need more public safety officers that look like us, and more public safety officers that live in the city.  

What makes me different is that I worked on the federal level for 20 years. I’m very much aware of where the dollars are to be resourceful. Right now, we’re going to lose some say about $100 million in resources. I know the questions to ask and where to ask to find the money. We’re going to have to leverage resources from the state and federal and private resources to make sure we are made whole in this time of crisis. 


What would you do to increase racial and socioeconomic equity in Portland? 

First of all, we need to have housing at every income level. When you see me trying to expand bike lanes in this city, you’re going to hear me say in the same breath that we need to put sidewalks out there in east county where they don’t have them. That’s where a number of our low-income and communities of color have moved to. You’re going to see me fighting to expand sidewalks and transportation opportunities. It’s not either/or, it’s in addition to and concurrently. 

When you talk about gentrification, what gentrification says to me is we just need to make sure that these folks that are in communities of color, nine times out of 10 they’re going to be the least of us in terms of having access to good jobs. We need to figure out how we can create more jobs at an income level that will allow folks to purchase homes anywhere.


Margot Black

Margot Black is a tenants’ rights activist and co-founder of Portland Tenants United. She has qualified for the city’s Open and Accountable Elections program. 


margot black medMargot BlackWhy did you feel called to run?

So much of what the coronavirus is highlighting about our fractured social safety net, and gross inequality, and profound vulnerability, existed before January or February of this year--it’s just kind of on steroids now. I was running because the rent was too high already, and our basic human needs were already too vulnerable to the whims of the market.

I was the architect of the renters’ relocation assistance ordinance...My last five years of experience activisting and advocating has given me a pretty strong inside/outside game as an organizer, as co-chair of (Portland Tenants United), and I’ve seen how many tools are on the table that we just completely refuse to acknowledge or use, because of “Portland polite.” You can’t even have certain conversations. To even suggest that this beloved community partner isn’t serving everybody, or that we would need to see accountability because that might presume they are corrupt -- the conversation gets shut down, and then I get discredited among this nonprofit milieu of gatekeepers.


What is unique about your background and lived experience that you can bring to the council?

I have not been groomed for public office. I was born into the foster care system, I have visited my mother in prison and jail and mental institutions, I was raised by my grandmother and she died when I was 19, six weeks after my daughter was born. And then I got my first no-cause eviction five months after that, and I had no social safety net. 

I’ve never had institutional power. I’ve overseen institutional change, I taught for 15 years as a math teacher and I was also director of the director of the Symbolic and Quantitative Resource Center at Lewis & Clark and I oversaw curriculum change. 

I have a proven track record of getting stuff done without institutional power, and at the objection of institutional power. I feel like I’m one of the few people in Portland politics who’s willing to stand my ground.  


What would you do to increase racial and socioeconomic equity in Portland? 

Racial and socioeconomic inequity exists in everything we do; they’re baked into our systems. And so I favor an expanded public sector, and a lot more regulation. 

The transformative power of stable housing is it gives you economic opportunity, it gives you better health outcomes, it gives your kids better educational outcomes. There isn’t just one thing that’s going to create that, it’s going to be a lot of different tools and regulations and overhauls, but I think coronavirus opens up the possibility, since we’re just printing money and trying to keep Capitalism on life support, that we can create a housing voucher system that is entitlement-based. Where no one pays more than 30% of their income in rent, period. Then hopefully the government starts to say we’re not going to subsidize these egregious profits and speculative real estate market on the taxpayer’s dime. 


Julia DeGraw 

Julia DeGraw is an environmental advocate and current director of progressive lobbying nonprofit PDX Forward.  

DeGraw ran for the same seat in 2018, but lost to Fish with 33% of the vote. She has qualified for the city’s Open and Accountable Elections program. 


julia de z graw medJulia DeGrawWhy did you feel called to run?

I felt called to run two years ago, and this is an extension of that initial calling. I’d been at Food and Water Watch for about a decade, and I was about to finally win the fight to keep Nestle out of the Gorge. I realized I’d spent my entire career fighting from the outside, trying to get elected officials to do the right thing.

Trump became president, and I thought, now is the time. We need elected leaders at the local level where they can actually accomplish something quickly, because we’re not going to get anything from the federal level anytime soon. I thought, climate change demands it. The housing crisis demands it.

I decided to run in 2018 on a system change platform. It was really about the fact that at-large elections are innately inequitable, have led to the majority of people being elected from the west side of town, and have led to an almost entirely White City Council up until this point. That’s unacceptable. We need a system that better represents and works for the people of this city, and we’re heading into a charter review year in 2021, so it’s a really good time.  


What is unique about your background and lived experience that you can bring to the council?

I look at these problems from a systemic perspective, I look at the solutions from a systemic perspective, and I see we have to work very collaboratively, not just across bureaus but across jurisdictions, with the county and Metro, to solve these big problems. I’m really committed to going into City Council and operating in a collaborative way that has not been seen before. 

Commissioner (Jo Ann) Hardesty has done this on police, and I think we need to do it on housing and all of our major issues.

When I campaigned two years ago, I took no corporate cash. After I ran for office, I worked on the Honest Elections ballot measure to make sure it passed. I’ve been real about getting money out of politics before it was politically expedient. I hamstrung my campaign for the sake of staying true to that value. 


What would you do to increase racial and socioeconomic equity in Portland? 

I’m really serious about massively increasing community engagement in the decision-making process. We need to have people on the Charter Review Commission who are going to be facilitators of a deep community engagement, which means making sure that Black, Indigenous and other communities of color are heavily engaged, centered, and frankly, leading that process.

We innately will increase the decision-making power of underserved communities by electing people by geographic districts throughout the entire city. My goal would be to make sure there’s a majority representation from the east side, because that’s where the largest population is, and it’s also the most diverse. You’re going to have far more equity, you’re going to have more people in office with the lived experience that is going to lead to better decision-making. 


Cynthia Castro

Cynthia Castro currently serves as senior policy advisor in Commissioner Amanda Fritz’s office. She previously worked for Portland Parks & Recreation, serving as director of the Charles Jordan Community Center. 

Castro has qualified for the city’s Open and Accountable Elections program. 


cynthia castro medCynthia CastroWhy did you feel called to run?

I’ve been a city of Portland employee for the last six years. I’ve always been drawn to leadership goals, but 2016 was the year I really felt like a fire was lit under me -- like many other people of color -- to want to seek political office.

I’m very involved with a lot of our racial equity work within the institution. I know how much having representation matters. We have established racial equity goals, but are we actually holding ourselves accountable? As a commissioner, achieving those racial equity goals is just as important for me as knowing how to budget.

At the very minimum, I’m showing other people, I’m showing my kids, that we can do this and that we belong in City Hall. 


What is unique about your background and lived experience that you can bring to the council?

I saw how important a sense of belonging was to my mom, who’s a Korean immigrant. I saw how language was a barrier to be able to get a job or interact with other people or get access to information. I’m currently working on a policy that’s going to help us improve recruitment and retention of our multilingual workforce, so we can improve our service to limited English proficiency community members. That work is a reflection of my own personal experience.

I’ve been immersed in the community, doing work in the front line, in partnership with community organizations and community members. I worked for our teen services program to increase prosocial activities for teens, especially teens of color throughout Portland, doing so with POIC and SEI, NAYA, Latino Network, Rosewood Initiative. I worked for Portland Parks and Recreation for five years, and was recruited to be a senior policy advisor for Fritz. For me, I feel that is unique within City Hall, to have somebody who has been in the community doing the work, who has also worked within a bureau, because we have unique systems and structures, bureaucracies to navigate. I come in already being familiar with them, and I know where we can improve.  


What would you do to increase racial and socioeconomic equity in Portland?

(Ethnic Studies Professor) John A. Powell talks about inclusion versus belonging. He said inclusion means that you are invited to the party, but you still have to follow the rules and you’re a guest. But he said belonging is co-creation, it is being able to be your authentic self, and we all belong here. For me, I’m striving for belonging. Because the people make the place. We need people within the institution who are embedded within our diverse communities, to be able to look at the systems and structures that have existed, and where they continue to perpetuate inequity.

I’m really interested in root cause. Why is it we have overrepresentation of Black and Native populations in our houseless population, our renter population, in our low-income population? Why are they being disproportionately disciplined within the city, within our school system? For me it’s really getting at the root causes and looking at those investments of strategy to really be able to make change.  


Dan Ryan

Dan Ryan has served on the Portland Public Schools Board and serves as executive director of All Hands Raised, an educational nonprofit. He has qualified for the city’s Open and Accountable Elections program. 


dan ryan medDan RyanWhy did you feel called to run? 

I have a 35-year history of getting results in the nonprofit community, from education to the arts to public health. After a career of bringing people together to tackle complex challenges, I had so many former constituents and board members and staff members reach out to me after Commissioner Fish passed away, and they said I had just the right skill set that’s needed in city hall at this time. So I listened. I got to a yes because I'll be 58 when I start serving, and I feel as though all of my life experience is really well suited to be a pure public servant, free from any political baggage to really be voter-, resident-, client-, patient-, student-centered. And I think that’s exactly what our nonpartisan elected officials always need to be when we’re providing services to our residents.


What is unique about your background and lived experience that you can bring to the council? 

I’ve actually “rebirthed,” if you will, a nonprofit. We rebranded and repurposed Portland School Foundation to be All Hands Raised, to be equity-facing, and to be there for all of the children of Portland, not just PPS, but also the districts that have much more poverty, and larger proportions of students of color and larger populations of refugees and new arrivals--districts like Reynolds, David Douglass, Parkrose, Centennial.

I’ve had to manage and bring together so many different stakeholders to build that movement and to get actual results, and you can see the results in how many more kids are graduating from high school, how many more students have been leveraging financial aid. I think someone who knows how to bridge together public and private partnership is really needed at this point in time. 

Also, when you’ve been involved with public health challenges yourself, and you’ve been involved in a pandemic that obviously had a lot of stigma tied to it, you’ve been tested on how to survive and also how to learn from these crises. I think what I’ll never forget about my experience as a leader in the queer community advocating (during the HIV crisis), was how disrespectful the big money in government was to some of the grassroots innovation happening on the ground. So if you look at my career, I’ve always been an advocate for teacher voice, for counselor voice, for social worker voice. I believe that you have to get to the experts, to the wisdom on the ground, to test practices. That’s where you see the best government.  


What would you do to increase racial and socioeconomic equity in Portland? 

I don’t believe you do racial equity work unless you’re doing data analysis. So if you're not measuring the impact of your decision, and you're not tracking that (segmented by) race, then you’re not doing equity work. You’re making proclamations without any streamlined evidence. 

To me, equity is a verb. I find many in government don’t connect the dots between the proclamation and the actual evidence and actions taking place on the ground. We’re good at stating the problem, but we have to have more integrity and persistence on seeing it through in terms of implementation.


Tera Hurst

Tera Hurst is executive director of environmental advocacy group Renew Oregon. She has qualified for the city’s Open and Accountable Elections program. 


tera hurst medTera HurstWhy did you feel called to run?

This is a job I’ve seen done and I’ve been involved with, since I worked in Mayor Hales office for two and a half years as his deputy and his chief of staff. I’d say it’s one of the best jobs in the city, because you can have an impact on the community and on families' lives quickly. You can be innovative and creative and try things. I spent my last three-and-a-half years in the state, and  it’s very slow and clunky. Innovation is not coming out of state government necessarily; that’s the city’s job.  


What is unique about your background and lived experience that you can bring to the council?

Having been in the city and going as an advocate to the state, I’ve played all the different roles except elected official. I know how to build a coalition that can be really effective in pushing from the outside, but also that smaller coalition that can be really effective and impactful on the inside.

Another thing that called to me is that I am a person in recovery. I've been clean and sober for 23 years. I know that Oregon’s access to treatment is 47th in the country, and a lot of people just don’t know unless you’ve had to access these systems. This is a barrier to so many people’s survival and thriving. I’ve been on it now on both sides, the recipient of the services and the one trying to navigate for someone I love.  And I need to be at that table, making funding decisions, because we aren’t doing everything we can. 


What would you do to increase racial and socioeconomic equity in Portland?

One thing we could do is change our form of government. We’re not holding our elected leaders accountable, because it’s too hard when they’re at-large. I would like to see districts. And we have equity people sprinkled in bureaus, but they’re usually just one person, and one person is not going to be a consultant the way they should be and help push change the way we need them to do if they’re not supported. If we could centralize our leadership and government, we should ultimately have a true equity plan for the city, that is then implemented through the central leadership executive office, and is a mandate from the executive office to its bureaus. Because otherwise you have one commissioner that may really understand the intricacies of what it means to center equity in all of our work, and you may have another that recognizes we need to say it, but hasn’t lived it and been able to incorporate it. That’s just not something that’s happening right now because we are so disparate.


Sam Chase

Sam Chase served as chief of staff for Commissioner Fish until his election to the Metro Council in 2013.  

Chase has qualified for the city’s Open and Accountable Elections program. 


sam chase medSam ChaseWhy did you feel called to run?

I’ve always followed my heart to where I can have the greatest impact, and I’ve spent my career in the nonprofit and public service sector focusing on environmental justice and poverty through affordable housing, healthcare and other avenues.

I followed my heart to where I could have the greatest impact, and that was as Nick Fish’s chief of staff, to help him build a housing and homelessness strategy; and that was going to Metro, where I identified that Metro really needed to take on affordable housing and homelessness as part of its growth strategy, as well as equity and diversity. 

And now I see the need at the city being only greater than it’s ever been, in terms of really addressing our housing crisis and really making it more cost-effective to build housing 

And now, it’s critical to provide economic stimulus to get our economy going back as quickly as we can.  


What is unique about your background and lived experience that you can bring to the council?

One of the things that’s really affected me deeply is losing my father to mental illness and drug addiction when I was a teenager. I’ve seen what happens when a family doesn’t have the support they need to be successful in overcoming those barriers.

One of my experiences was being executive director for the Coalition of Community Health Clinics for many years. I understand a lot around the role between housing and support services. It requires housing, case managers that can help people access those health services, or are helping folks stay on their meds, or getting those other basic needs met so they can access health institutions. 

The housing is not enough on its own. Giving somebody keys is not enough on its own. There has to be that case management component to really have people succeed in staying and being stable in that housing.

We’re not investing at the level of the crisis that we have in front of us. We’re not treating it as a crisis around chronic homelessness. That’s really what we’re asking people with (the regional measure for housing services), is to step up and fund what we know works. I want to apply accountability, transparency, efficiency, cost-effective housing strategies. 


What would you do to increase racial and socioeconomic equity in Portland? 

It’s really about empowering culturally specific communities in the decision-making process, and putting them truly in positions of power in a structural way where we’re investing in those organizations and giving them capacity to participate in the process, at the highest decision-making levels. And then also investing in culturally responsive organizations that are culturally specific and being led by those communities. They know best how to serve the communities that will need support.


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