Lincoln Hall opened its historic doors to the public on Monday evening for the first televised debate of the general mayoral election.
Charlie Hales and Jefferson Smith faced off at Portland State in a fast-paced debate, offering both points of consensus and nuanced differences.
“It’s a really awesome experience to have the candidates on campus,” sophomore Jessa Peary said. The event was broadcast live by KOIN Local 6.
The debate was moderated by station news anchor Jeff Gianola. Panelists included Associated Students of Portland State University President Tiffany Dollar, Portland Tribune reporter Steve Law and retired KOIN news anchor Mike Donahue.
Although the majority of the debate was devoted to issues faced by the city at large, the topic of higher education surfaced from time to time.
Dollar asked the candidates what they would do to increase job opportunities for recent college graduates—thousands of whom are out of work.
“Contrary to the Portlandia caricature, young people don’t come here to retire,” Hales said, explaining that he would work on creating a “climate of opportunity” through increasing access to credit and by building school/business partnerships throughout the region.
“What we’ve got to have is an economic plan that fits this century,” said Smith, who called for investment in schools and better workforce training. Both candidates vowed to focus on growing small business as a part of their strategy for job growth.
Dollar also asked the candidates what they would do to ensure that students in Portland’s public school system are college-ready. Smith advocated for state-wide funding increases and summer gap programs to promote work readiness. Hales declared that legislature has not done enough to address the issue. In addition to adequate funding, he called for middle-college programs that would allow high schoolers to take college courses.
An issue that did not come up during the debate, the Education Urban Renewal Area, is one that directly implicates PSU. The plan, approved by the Portland City Council this May, would funnel increased funding into the area with the goal of improving blighted areas and fostering economic growth.
Although PSU President Wim Wiewel lauded the plan in his opening remarks, neither of the candidates sounded a ringing endorsement of the plan when questioned by the Vanguard after the debate.
“I’m a waffler on the issue,” Smith said. “There are some conditions in there that I support—others, not so much. So I would say I’m kind of in favor.”
Hales expressed similar reservations when asked about the plan.
“I want to ramp down the urban renewal plans across the city. I think that, right now, there are too many,” Hales said. “But they’re certainly planning on doing good things,” he added.
Audience members included Portland residents, PSU students and faculty, and supporters of the candidates. Many in the auditorium had not yet decided who to vote for.
“I’m on the fence, and I’m looking to be swayed,” Portland resident Dana Gantz said.
“I hope to hear something that will differentiate the candidates,” said Casey Campbell, academic advisor for psychology at PSU.
When asked by the panel to outline their differences, the candidates referenced their pasts.
“I understand Portland’s weird form of government,” Hales, a former city commissioner, said, alluding to what he described as his experience in getting things done on a nuts-and-bolts level.
Smith, who would be the first mayor from East Portland if elected, offered what he called a new perspective: “We need someone who sees the whole picture” of Portland, Smith said, vowing to bring often-neglected parts of the city into the fold.
When asked to question his opponent, Hales pressed Smith on the strength of his commitment to gun control, while Smith suggested that Hales had not done enough for parks and streets in areas like East Portland.
Agreement was a common theme at the debate. Both candidates are proponents of fluoridated water, both are strongly opposed to coal trains running through North Portland, and both support a tax that would fund the arts in public schools, though Smith called for a progressive—rather than fixed—tax on the measure.
From homelessness to transportation priorities to police reform, the candidates swept through a vast range of issues, offering a variety of ideas and solutions that, at times, were more complementary than oppositional.
Still, some found the debate to be decisive, finding that the elusive difference came down to the candidates’ demeanor.
“Smith was warmer, and there was less beating around the bush from him,” said Jacob McIntyre, a Mount Hood Community College student.
Peary agreed: “They were diametrically opposed—literally, in their seating positions,” she said. “Hales was very poised; very proper politician. Smith was less politic,” she added.
Others remained undecided.
“After the debate, I’m still on the fence,” Gantz said, laughing. “But I feel more informed about their positions.”
A video of the debate is available online at koinlocal6.com.