Two candidates for the Portland City Council spoke with students during a virtual town hall event ahead of the August 11 special election. Their names, Dan Ryan and Loretta Smith, will be the only two names on the ballot.
The Associated Students of Portland State University (ASPSU) arranged the event to give potential city leaders a chance to address the issues most important to PSU students directly. Before the town hall, students had the opportunity to list their most pressing questions and concerns through an online survey, as well as ask questions through the Zoom webinar. The live town hall was streamed through ASPSU’s Facebook page.
City Council and its candidates are running to lead Portland in one of the most turbulent times in the city’s history, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and continued protests for police reform after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The race for commissioner seat two, however, was never going to be completely normal.
The seat was formerly held by commissioner Nick Fish, who passed away in January. The initial race during the May primary saw 18 candidates running for the position. Smith and Ryan were the top two candidates, with 18.8% and 16.6% of the vote, respectively, pushing them into the runoff election on Tuesday. Whoever wins will serve the remaining two years left by Fish, rather than the usual four years for a commissioner.
With the special election, four out of five seats on the city council are up for reelection in 2020, giving voters a chance to almost completely overhaul their local government. Commissioner seat one was decided during the May primary, and was won by Carmen Rubio. Runoff elections for mayor and the fourth commissioner seat will take place in November.
For commissioner seat two, the runoff will be between Smith, a former Multnomah County commissioner, and Ryan, the former head of local nonprofit All Hands Raised. The candidates discussed a variety of topics at the town hall, including campaign financing, police and government reform and sustainability.
The town hall began with Ryan and Smith’s top priorities, two of which they shared: Recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and housing and houselessness in Portland. In addition, Smith cited climate change as her third priority.
“We’re making the biggest financial investments in affordable housing in modern history,” Smith said during her opening statement, “but we’re not ensuring that the housing we’re building is affordable for the most rent burdened and the most in danger of becoming homeless. We’re not accounting for alternative housing methods for people that don’t meet [the] chronically homeless definition, and we’re not paying attention to those people on the streets who do not do well in traditional housing.”
For Ryan, his next priority is police reform.
“Government hasn’t been working locally for some time for many, many residents—it’s what’s good for the bureau, what’s good for the department, as opposed to what’s good for the residents of the city.” Ryan said. “We have to continue to take advantage of this moment.”
Defunding the police was the most-discussed topic at the town hall, and both candidates supported some measure of police defunding.
Smith released a package of police reform to the City Council in June, which would reduce the police budget by $50 million, ban tear gas, rubber bullets and tasering, as well as remove qualified immunity. One part of the package also included plans for a stronger review committee more capable of holding the Portland Police Bureau accountable, which was passed by the current city council, and will go to Portland voters as a ballot measure this November.
“It hasn’t always been a big issue for me, but George Floyd really opened the eyes of a lot of us, to say look, we need to take some of those dollars and put it into communities of color and social services and community development,” Smith said. “So that’s why I want to move those $50 million over to other places.”
Ryan agreed that at least a portion of the police budget would be better spent elsewhere.
“[Defunding the police] is about repurposing money that’s currently all in the police department, like the police force is the only option we have for community safety. That’s not right and never has been,” Ryan said. For him, the money would go towards K-12 education, addiction and recovery services and programs such as the Portland Street Response.
The same year the majority of city council is up for reelection, commissioners will also face a charter review, which will give city council a chance to change Portland’s system of government away from a commissioner system, which both candidates support.
“I’m really thrilled that there’s momentum for the radical change of our charter.” Ryan said, “Throughout my life, I’ve wondered why my hometown has a form of government that no other city in the country has, so we’re trying to catch up with the last century. You can’t run a $5.6 billion organization in the way that we currently run it.”
Voting for the special election will take place on August 11, with results of who wins released later on Tuesday night.