A spring primary with no contest in either party’s nomination for president, no governor’s race or high profile legislature race, wasn’t expected to yield many surprises. However, Tuesday, May 15 saw unexpected results in the Portland mayoral race, and a neck-and-neck run off for the last contested seat on the city council, both of which yielded considerable surprises in the usual business of Portland politics.
The surprise success of last week’s mayoral race was Senator Jefferson Smith taking a strong second place to former city council member Charlie Hales, beating out former frontrunner and New Seasons co-founder Eileen Brady. Hales and Smith will move into summer campaigning for a run-off in November. Smith took 33 percent of the vote while Hales managed to keep ahead, ending the night with 37 percent of the vote.
Though there were more than 20 candidates in the mayoral race, Brady, Hales and Smith were the only three considered to be serious contenders. Smith entered the race later than his two opponents, trying to organize a campaign without fundraising due to a rule prohibiting it while Oregon Congress was in session. After trailing Hales and Brady for months at a distant third, Smith surged forward in the two weeks before the primary.
“We haven’t raised the most money, but we’ve raised it from the most sources,” Smith said regarding his campaign gains. “The big push now is to activate a lot of the folks who want a real choice in the general election.”
Hales started his campaign before either opponent held a strong lead, most likely thanks to an extensive ground team and Hales’ familiarity with campaigning in Portland from his years on the city council.
“We’ve knocked on 20,000 doors, which is more than the other camps have done. I think that will help get us to success next week, but it is also the best way to camp for office,” Hales said a week prior to the election.
In another surprising development, Hales fired six of his seven campaign staffers shortly after concluding the primary leg of the mayoral race. The Hales campaign has yet to offer an explanation as to why they were dismissed.
Hales managed to weather a long stretch of being second to Brady, who raised more campaign money than both Smith and Hales combined. Brady had begun to slip in the polls around the time of Smith’s surge. After running an extensive advertising campaign, focusing nearly her entire campaign on the need for job creation and improving Portland public schools, Brady only garnered 22 percent of the vote.
What has been a relatively quiet and cordial mayoral race will perhaps now become more heated as Hale and Smith square off in the general election. The two candidates share views on many positions, differentiated largely by style and background.
Portland State political science Professor Christopher Shortell commented on the tone of the race. “There isn’t a tremendous amount of difference between them on high-profile policies…In regard to what they agree on, it seems to be all very general and maybe overly optimistic statements. For example, they all talk about expanding transportation extensively in order to vitalize Portland communities east of 82nd, but with TriMet cutting service and jacking up prices this feels like a hollow promise,” Shortell said.
“It is quite common for political candidates at all levels to make optimistic statements about what they will be able to achieve while in office. For example, many mayoral candidates talk about education even though they don’t have any oversight over school districts,” Shortell said. “For this particular race, it is also a function of it being early. The candidates are still shoring up support through smaller gatherings that don’t get press attention. It won’t be until closer to election day that the candidates really start differentiating themselves more clearly,” he added.
The closest contest in a generally quiet primary was the race for Portland City Council between incumbent Amanda Fritz and challenger Oregon Representative Mary Nolan. Neither candidate achieved the necessary 50 percent to claim victory. Fritz is the first incumbent in recent Portland political history to be at risk of losing her seat. The final count put Nolan a mere few 100 votes ahead of Fritz, making this the closest race of the night by far.
Fritz, who famously refuses campaign contributions over $50, accused her opponent of negative ads and taking money from interest groups. Nolan countered that Fritz has made few friends in her time in city council and that was why Fritz may be the first incumbent to lose her seat in more than 20 years.
In any case, the majority of the primary races settled themselves quietly, but the mayoral race and the remaining race for city council show potential to only increase in intensity as it approaches the November election—one that will likely draw more voters due to the presidential election.