Clackamas County voters could shift the political ideology of county government, come November 6th.
County voters have already bucked the current commission by approving three ballot measures related to county spending.
Now, two commission challengers hope to leverage those initiative decisions into a change in leadership.
Rob Manning reports on the rough-and-tumble campaign in Clackamas County.
You don’t have to drive very far into Clackamas County before the signs appear in black-and-white: “John Ludlow is a Bully.” A local activist put them up all over the county.
John Ludlow is running for county chair against incumbent Charlotte Lehan.
“Let me tell you what this bully sounds like,” Ludlow began. He spent half his time defending himself against the bully signs.
“I have been a volunteer at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility. Two out of the ten years of their existence, I’ve been their volunteer of the year - that’s an all-women’s prison. That’s what a bully sounds like, huh?”
Ludlow called on his opponent, Charlotte Lehan, to get the signs taken down. But Lehan she says she can’t force the activist responsible, Dave Adams, to do anything.
Adams, for his part, in an email message said that the signs have nothing to do with Lehan. He calls it “my independent campaign” to get voters to check Ludlow’s record.
Lehan says the outside influences cut both ways.
“Have you seen the ‘wanted’ poster that we’re on?” Lehan asks.
She’s talking about a mailer featuring her and commissioner Jamie Damon. Lehan says both the sign and the mailer came from non-candidates.
“It’s a low blow kind of thing. So Oregon Transformation PAC is not their campaign, but it’s working on behalf of their campaign. I don’t know if they control what Oregon Transformation PAC does any more than I control what Dave Adams does.”
Ludlow versus Lehan is one of two high-stakes races that could tip the balance of power on the Clackamas County board.
The commission is technically “non-partisan,” but four of its five current members are Democrats. But if Ludlow – and former representative Tootie Smith -- win seats on the commission in two weeks, it would shift that majority.
The conservatives, Ludlow and Smith, hope to gather momentum from three initiatives they supported, that challenged actions by the sitting members of the commission.
Voters approved the measures over the last year and a half: they rejected a vehicle fee to fund the Sellwood Bridge in Portland; they forced countywide votes to use urban renewal; and most recently, they required the county to seek voter approval for future light rail projects.
Tootie Smith positions herself as the kind of fiscal conservative that initiative supporters want in office.
“Voters see this is as a nationwide epidemic of the federal government borrowing money they don’t have, and the state, and now especially our county, and they’re just fed up,” Smith says.
Smith is running against Jamie Damon who argues voters were asking for the right to vote on certain issues, and weren’t making policy statements. Damon says she’s a moderate interested in working with other government officials on rural issues – like timber management.
“We all know that these are very challenging and sensitive conversations. But there are jobs in the forest – for public safety, for restoration, for recreation, and for harvest. And that’s a conversation that will really help Clackamas County’s bottom line.”
Damon says Smith and Ludlow may be making too much of the initiatives voters approved. She says they relate to a small slice of what the county does.
“We have a lot of work to do on the rest of the 95-percent-plus of our budget. So I would hope that regardless of who gets in there, people are focusing on more than just the one-percent of the work that we do.”
Both Ludlow and Smith say county spending is a big concern.
But the broader issue for both of them is the bond between county government and its citizens. Ludlow says the initiative votes on urban renewal, light rail, and the Sellwood Bridge show a disconnect.
“What we need is a dialogue with the same people who got involved in these three elections and the voters themselves. What you constantly hear out of my opponent is ‘partnerships’ – regional or otherwise. What I think is missing is the partnership with the voters – that’s so fundamental.”
Ludlow’s ally, Tootie Smith, says voters want the county to take a tougher stand with neighboring governments.
“I think they’re looking for some real leadership, to say ‘no’ to some of these far-fetched ideas, that come our way via Metro and Tri-Met. If Metro had their way, they would completely take over Clackamas County.”
Rhetoric like that toward Metro, Tri-Met and others puts commission chair, Charlotte Lehan, on edge. She argues those relationships are vital to funding county priorities.
“Whether it’s light rail or highway projects, like the Sunrise, or building projects like the Carver Bridge - we can’t do that on our own. That takes state and federal money, and getting state and federal money means you need to have support of your regional partners.”
“Bully” isn’t the only word that candidates take exception to. Lehan objects to the phrase “Portland creep” - shorthand for the unwelcome influence of Oregon’s largest city. That phrase appeared on billboards funded by a political action committee supporting Ludlow and Smith.
“I can’t see that it’s a good idea to call your neighbors and business partners ‘creeps’ - with the whole ‘stop Portland creep’ campaign. That doesn’t seem neighborly, and I know it’s not well-received in the region,” Lehan contends.
John Ludlow and Tootie Smith say they wouldn’t attempt to withdraw Clackamas County from Metro – or “not right now,” in Ludlow’s words.
The two Republicans disagree on some points: Smith would refer Milwaukie light rail spending to the ballot. Ludlow suspects it’s not possible, legally, since the county already paid TriMet the $19 million.