Two members of Portland’s City Council are seeking new four-year terms in the election this month, Commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman. Reporter Amelia Templeton has this look at the candidates who are challenging them and why it is so hard to take on an incumbent.
Let’s start with the two incumbents.
There’s attorney Nick Fish. He’s been on City Council for six years and is known for his work supporting affordable housing.
“I love this city and it’s a huge honor to have this job,” says Fish. “And I’m hoping that on May 20th the voters give me a second term.”
Commissioner Dan Saltzman is also hoping to be reelected. Saltzman helped establish the Portland children’s levy, which raises money for programs like early education and hunger relief. He’s been a city commissioner for 16 years.
“I like to think the reason I’ve been re-elected is, people like the job I’m doing. That I, you know, keep a careful eye on the bottom line, and work relentlessly on issues that I’m passionate about — helping children and families,” Saltzman says.
Saltzman and Fish are going into the primary race with a head start over their challengers. They’re incumbents. And it’s been more than 20 years since a member of Portland’s City Council has lost a bid for re-election.
Political analyst Bill Lunch says there are several reasons incumbents who hold local office are difficult to defeat.
“The factor that’s the most powerful is name recognition,” he says.
Lunch says voters pay the most attention to the highest offices. President. Governor. U.S. Senator. “By the time they get to the city council or the county commission, quite frankly, very large numbers of voters aren’t paying that much attention.”
Those circumstances favor the person with a familiar name. And incumbents enjoy other advantages. They have relationships with interest groups like unions, business associations, and school boards.
And they have the power to help their constituents, as in this story, which Nick Fish tells: “I worked with the Goldberg family to build a playground that was accessible to their child, Harper, who has a disability. And it is now one of our most popular playgrounds and a place for all children to play.”
Lunch says political scientists looked at how this kind of problem solving for constituents affects races for U.S. Congress. “Every time a member of Congress fixes a constituent problem, they get seven votes.”
But there are exceptions to the rule of incumbent advantage. If you’ve lived in Portland for a while, you may remember a tavern owner who would greet people with a loud “whoop, whoop!”
That’s the distinctive call of former Portland mayor Bud Clark. He famously defeated an incumbent in 1984.
And last November, in Seattle, a socialist activist named Kshama Sawant was elected to the City Council. She ran on a platform of raising the minimum wage, and defeated a commissioner who’d been in office for 16 years.
Her success inspired candidate Nicholas Caleb to run against Commissioner Dan Saltzman.
“It’s kind of an urban revolt, I guess is the way I would characterize my campaign,” Caleb says.
Caleb is 30 years old and a professor at Concordia University. His campaign has raised about $5,000.
On a sunny day his supporters gather on the sidewalk outside city hall to spread the word. Caleb wears a bright red shirt with “$15 now” stamped on it. Raising the minimum wage is his central campaign promise.
“There’s no way you can live on $9, $10 in the city any more,” he says. “And two thirds of minimum wage people are women and people of color.”
State law prohibits Portland from raising its minimum wage, but Caleb says he has a work-around. He’d impose a tax on businesses that pay employees less than $15 an hour.
Joe Meyer, a volunteer reporter with KBOO community radio, is also running against Saltzman. Meyer says he made a deliberate decision not to raise any campaign money.
“We all know the problem. Money is the problem in politics,” Meyer says. “And I don’t think it can both be the problem and the solution.”
Leah Dumas is also on the ballot. She hasn’t raised any funds, and did not respond to an interview request.
Commissioner Nick Fish has two challengers. Sharon Maxwell is a general contractor from North Portland.
“I just couldn’t sit back another day, another week, after I’ve seen the destruction of the neighborhood and the community where I’ve lived all of my life,” she says.
Maxwell says if she’s elected, she wants to be an advocate for low income people and people of color. She’s raised about $2,000.
Michael Durrow, a former realtor, is also running.
“What I’m about is about fairness, equity, a government that’s transparent that everybody can access,” he says.
Durrow estimates his chance of beating an incumbent are about 1 in 20, but that doesn’t bother him.
“I think that the way the system is right now allows enough people in that it’s fair.”
Winning public office is hard, he says, and it takes a while for Portland voters — more than 300,000 of them — to get to know you. If he doesn’t win this race, he’ll try again.
Voters will decide on May 20 whether to return city commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman to office, or whether to elect someone new.