Like politicians running for office across the country, the leading candidates for the top job in Clackamas County agree on one thing: jobs are the issue. And if you’re debating economic growth in big suburban Clackamas County, it means wrestling controversial issues like light rail spending, government debt and the area’s relationship with the Rose City. Rob Manning reports.
The words “Portland Creep” appear on a huge campaign billboard that you’ll pass driving south on I-205 out of Portland. A conservative group paid for the sign. It lists congestion and crime as possible problems. One of the candidates the sign supports is former Wilsonville mayor and county chair candidate John Ludlow.
Ludlow says, “I didn’t pay for that, but in a lot of ways, it is Portland creep. In a lot of ways, Portland has creeped into Clackamas County, philosophically, and realistically.”
Ludlow voted against a vehicle fee to fund a new Sellwood Bridge, and he helped pass limits on urban renewal that both Portland and Clackamas County have relied on.
Ludlow’s opponents don’t go that far, but they say they don’t want the county to become another Portland, either.
Charlotte Lehan explained, “No one would ever say we should model ourselves after the city of Portland, or after any other city.”
Paul Savas said, “There’s a saying I have ‘Let’s keep Clackamas, Clackamas.’”
Savas is a county commissioner and Lehan the incumbent. They’re also running for the county chair seat, along with the former speaker of the Oregon House, Dave Hunt.
One of the central questions in the race is how Clackamas County can add jobs while keeping the area’s unique qualities. Dave Hunt says the answer is to shake up leadership.
Hunt said, “Clackamas County I think has just about boundless potential, but a lot of it is being unrealized because the current leadership of our county commission is just stuck.”
And he says because of that, the economy’s stuck too. All four candidates seem to agree that focusing investment on infrastructure projects is a way to move the county forward.
Lehan is in the position of defending a county commission that’s lost two battles at the ballot box — one over the Sellwood Bridge, the other over urban renewal. There’s another vote coming over the Portland-Milwaukie light rail line. Lehan favors the project.
She says, “It has a lot of job potential. The construction jobs alone are in the neighborhood of 14,000 and the basic industries that do a lot of the work for this, are industries in Clackamas County.”
Lehan’s ideological opposite in the race is John Ludlow. They both served as mayor of Wilsonville in the past. Lehan notes that the city added five thousand jobs under her leadership. Ludlow notes that it added debt when Lehan ran things, too.
Ludlow agrees that transportation spending is key to moving the economy. But he wants to free up money that the Metro regional government has reserved for light rail, and invest it in highways.
Ludlow says, “Our roads are deteriorating. The Clackamas County commission has talked about letting some of those roads going back to gravel. We’re not in the 1800’s folks.”
The other self-identified conservative in the non-partisan race is Savas. He also bristles at the influence of Metro.
Savas says, “In a sense by virtue of land-use policies unbeknownst to most citizens, that are redesigning Clackamas County into more of a high-density, metropolitan-type area.”
At the same time, Savas says those policies are limiting development, even as the population is projected to grow.
He explained, “Our unemployment will rise, because there won’t be the employment, period, to match those numbers. So, we’re in a trap.”
Savas says the county needs a new strategic plan.
But Savas doesn’t go as far as Ludlow, who says there is a “rebellion” going on, and that the county should support legislation to withdraw from Metro, entirely.
Hunt says the problem isn’t with Metro, it’s with how Clackamas County approaches the diversity of opinions inside the county.
Hunt said, “Now when I put together a transportation package at the state level, we had statewide fees but they funded projects strategically placed all over the state, so everyone had skin in the game. I think if our county commission had done that with what became the Sellwood Bridge measure, it would’ve passed.”
Incumbent chair Lehan says the future should focus on more than just economic development. She says businesses care about what the area offers, too.
Lehan said, “They want to locate in a place where it’ll be easy to attrct quality employees. That means there’s good quality of life. There’s always a chance that one of these candidates will garner more 50 percent of the vote to win the seat in May. But all four have won elections before so there’s a good possibility that the top two vote-getters will have a runoff in November.