Think Out Loud

Loretta Smith, Dan Ryan vie for Portland City Council seat left vacant by Nick Fish’s death

By Julie Sabatier (OPB) and Rebecca Ellis (OPB)
Aug. 3, 2020 4:09 p.m. Updated: Aug. 4, 2020 6:32 p.m.

The two candidates spoke on OPB’s “Think Out Loud” where they discussed police reform, COVID-19 response and more.

Portland City Council candidates Dan Ryan and Loretta Smith

Portland City Council candidates Dan Ryan and Loretta Smith

Photos supplied by Loretta Smith and Dan Ryan, illustration by Courtney Sherwood/OPB

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Portlanders have one more week to decide who they want to fill the City Council seat previously held by former Commissioner Nick Fish, who died in January.

Voters will see two names on their ballot for the Aug. 11 special election: Loretta Smith, a two-term Multnomah County Commissioner, and Dan Ryan, the former head of the education nonprofit All Hands Raised.

During the May primary, Ryan and Smith beat out 16 other candidates who flooded the race to fill Fish’s shoes. Smith was the top vote-getter, leading with 18.8% of the vote. Ryan captured 16.6%.

Since then, the two have been locked in a runoff to fill the remainder of Fish’s term, which runs through the end of 2022.

The candidates are vying to be on the Council at an unprecedented time. The local economy has been devastated by a pandemic. The city’s racial justice protests, sparked by the death of George Floyd, are some of the longest-lasting in the country. And the Council, who lost its primary consensus-builder with Fish’s death, has felt increasingly fractured in recent months.

Related: Follow OPB's coverage of the protests in Portland

The two longtime leaders come to the race with resumes they say prove they have the experience to successfully govern a city in tumult.

Smith worked under Oregon Democratic U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden for more than two decades, moving from a position as a receptionist up to a spot as one of his aides. She went on to serve on the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, winning a seat representing North and Northeast Portland in 2011. Over her eight years on the board, Smith earned a reputation as a vocal advocate for communities of color, seniors and low-income Portlanders living in her district. She secured money for SummerWorks, a program that provides summer jobs for disadvantaged youth, and pushed for the local Promise Neighborhoods initiative, which offers programs for underprivileged kids and their families.

Ryan spent 11 years as head of All Hands Raised. He took the helm when it was still called the Portland Schools Foundation and oversaw its expansion into a nonprofit with a broader mandate of improving inequities in schools across Multnomah County. He’s credited with widening the reach to support underserved school districts and providing more resources to students of color. Before that, he worked in development at Oregon Ballet Theater and at Portland State University and served on the Portland Public School Board.

Both candidates have picked up significant endorsements in the last few months. Smith is supported by Wyden, Oregon Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle, the Portland Business Alliance, several organized labor groups and prominent Black leaders, including Kali Ladd, Ron Herndon and Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Ryan’s notable supporters include Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek, former Govs. Barbara Roberts and Ted Kulongoski, and Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who defeated Smith in her 2018 bid to be on the City Council.

If elected, Ryan would be the second openly LGBTQ+ person to win a seat on the Council. Smith would be the second-ever Black woman elected to the Council, following Hardesty’s 2018 election.

Neither candidate would arrive at the position with a spotless track record. Former staffers have accused Smith of misusing county money and possessing an abrasive leadership style that crossed over into bullying. A county investigation found she had likely bullied her staff and had used public money for personal expenses. Ryan, was sued for discrimination and breach of contract in 2013 after firing a Black employee who had been on the job less than two weeks. The case appears to have been settled out of court.

Both candidates spoke on OPB’s “Think Out Loud” where they discussed these allegations, police reform, COVID-19 response, and more.

You can find the transcript of the conversation below. It’s been edited for clarity.

Dave Miller: “Let’s start with policing and protesting. You have both talked about the importance of dialogue right now.

“Dan Ryan, you’ve described a peace summit that you would like to convene. Loretta Smith, you’ve talked about having a one-on-one conversation between yourself and a protester. And the gist that I’ve gotten from both of you, in previous candidate appearances, is that you think you need to hear the demands of protesters.

“But, from my perspective, we’ve been hearing specific demands for months now. Basically, everyone wants to see a less militarized police force, without the use of tear gas and other indiscriminate crowd control devices. There are broad calls for big cuts to the police budget. Many people are talking about further cuts, about the abolition of the police force.

“In other words, there are clear demands. So I want to hear from both of you. But Loretta Smith, first, what more do you need to hear?”

Loretta Smith: “Well, here’s the issue — as a Black woman who raised a Black son in the city, I’m going to be forever haunted by the sound of George Floyd crying out for his mother. And I think that the work ahead of us will be a little bit uncomfortable, and it will be hard.

“Even though you believe that you’ve heard what the demands are, the protesters don’t think that City Hall is listening. I don’t think anything has changed. They’ve asked for a $50 million cut [to police] and the City Council, they weren’t as aggressive as they could have been. And I’m sure that together we can figure out how to do this because protesters and community members, they all have needs. And the reason why they’re still out there fighting is because they don’t think that City Hall was paying attention.”

Miller: “So I feel like we’re maybe saying the same thing there, though, because what I’ve heard from protesters is not, ‘We want you to listen to us. We want you to have a conversation with us.’ But, instead, it’s, ‘We want you to do these specific things.’

“So I’m wondering how you think sitting down with say one or two protesters would get closer to City Council actually voting on their demands?”

Smith: “No, I think you’re misunderstanding me. I’m not talking about talking to one or two protesters. I stood last weekend on a Sunday for two hours talking to 22 protesters who were African American, who had been out on the front lines, talking about some of the issues in the community that need to be solved from a community and social service standpoint. And I even had to get one of them a meeting with Ted Wheeler.

“So what I’m saying is they’re not saying that their demands are specifically the demands of everyone. They have specific demands that they want for their community that no one is listening to. And no one is addressing how they’re going to take care of those demands.

“It’s one thing to listen to them and to hear it through a newspaper article, but it’s totally different to sit down with a group of protesters at a roundtable and say, ‘Okay, here is where we’re at, this is what we think we can do, and this is where we think there’s a grey area.’ So there is no blueprint. There’s no plan on how to go forward with the demands that they’ve been asking for.

“I’ve had past experience being an elected official, identifying issues and figuring out a way to have those issues solved. Just like when the communities of color came to me and said, ‘Our kids are not graduating from high school at the same rate as the other kids.’ What I did was I sat down with them, I understood what they were talking about, and I put additional resources into programs like Latino Network, NAYA, IRCO, SEI, so that they could expand their reach, to have more kids graduate at a higher rate. So that’s what I’m talking about. I’m talking about really looking a person in the eye, not adding a lot of other community members because they want to be heard solely.”

Miller: “Let me get at Dan Ryan. Dan Ryan, what is your idea for this peace summit?”

Dan Ryan: “Yes. I first want to acknowledge that this last Saturday night was very impactful for me. I joined a good friend, who’s a vet, and I found myself with the Wall of Veterans in the front line on Saturday night. And the reason I bring that up is because it was very compelling to be in a role, to be silent, to listen. And the speeches by predominantly African American youth were very compelling. And I find, as an ally, it’s so important to be in those frontline moments where you’re listening.

“My peace summit idea is that I think that I never give up as an optimist on conflict and negotiation. I just think it’s very important to bring all of those that are affected to the table. And I think that we need to elevate the voices of the protesters so that there are peers at the table with people that they’re usually not peers with. And I know that I have a long history of making sure that people get at the same table, that all have passion, but are on different paths. I usually find that you can find goals in common and then that you can start to synthesize how to move forward.

“But the truth is what everyone has in common is that they love this city, and that’s why there’s a lot of passion right now. And we have to make sure that we lift them all up and have them at the table.

“My record really demonstrates that I have always been focused on racial equity and improvements for populations that have been marginalized.”

Miller: “Let’s zoom forward to today. Not to cut either of you off in terms of your records, but I think listeners really want to know what you’re going to do going forward. So, specifically, after you have these listening sessions or it seems like you had an important time this Saturday hearing people speak, what are you prepared right now to vote for on City Council as one member of a five-person legislature in terms of changes to policing?”

Ryan: “I look forward to being enthusiastic about Commissioner Hardesty — one of my endorsements — to get the ballot measure passed this fall because we really need a clear, transparent community process for police accountability, especially as we head into the PPA contract negotiations. I think that that’s very important.

“We have a lot of momentum right now also with the legislative session that’s going to take place on Aug. 10 to clear the way.

“Because Dave, what we’ve seen a history of is legislation passing, there’s been a reaction in the past, but then we continue to see because of the legalities where police have literally gotten away with murder with big payouts two to three years later.

“So we have to make sure that we pass this legislation. But my life history is that practice eats policy for lunch. And so we have to make sure that going forward, we have the practice on the ground and we include all the stakeholders. And what I liked about Commissioner Hardesty’s $15 million cut is that it was a repurposing of dollars. It was building something, which is harder to do than destroying. It’s building a new community safety system.”

Miller: “Would you not today support the call to add an extra $35 million cut to that, assuming that that money was redistributed to other social service programs?”

Ryan: “Absolutely. I just want to make sure that when I’m elected, there’s a plan on what to do with that $35 million. And so it’s very important to spell out what the plan is and what success looks like. And so of course you include the people in the community that I worked with forever, especially upstream that are part of the prison-to-pipeline work.

“And something I’m very proud of at All Hands Raised was leading dialogue in our high poverty and communities of color middle schools at George, at Centennial, at Reynolds, where we looked at disproportionate discipline. When you do that type of work on the ground, you start to see real change. So we have to make sure that we have a two-tiered approach of policy, but also practice on the ground.”

Miller: “Loretta Smith, when you ran for City Council in 2018, you supported an increase in the number of police officers. That was one of the biggest policy differences between you and now Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty. Now, as you mentioned earlier, you are calling for a big decrease in police funding. You want to see the full $50 million decrease called for by many protesters. Why did you change your mind?”

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Smith: “So what I was doing in 2018 was I was responding to what I was hearing on the ground from people who couldn’t get law enforcement to come and address issues that they would normally address. And [the incidents] would probably be to them a big deal, but what the city thought was petty crime, I was also supporting our first Black chief of police, Danielle Outlaw.”

Miller: “Black female chief of police, right?”

Smith: “Yes. And, as you know, those dollars that were put in the budget last year, they still haven’t been used. So I’m calling for those dollars, the $50 million, to be reallocated to social services and community programs.

“The other thing that I’m calling for in my police reform is to take away qualified immunity. Take the 20%, which is $50 million off of a $250 million budget.

“And I’m also calling for the rubber bullets and for the tear gas and for the tasing and the chokeholds to be taken away. The excessive force that’s allowed in the manuals of the police for the city of Portland is so egregious.

“And the third thing that I’m calling for is an independent review, which I’m so happy that the city of Portland, they took on my idea. And now they’re going to put that on the November ballot.”

Miller: “Back to just this basic question about police funding and the size of the police force. You’re saying in 2018, when you supported more police officers, the idea then was you were hearing from Portlanders that they wanted more police? I mean, at that time, there were also obviously people saying that they wanted a smaller police footprint. Were you hearing those voices?”

Smith: “I was hearing from older folks who were afraid that people were breaking into their homes. There was a lot of gun violence on the streets, and as a mother of a Black son that I raised here in this community, I so understand some of the challenges and the successes of what over-policed, over-militarized police can do to a community.

“And I have totally grown and looked at the data and looked to see what was going on here in Portland. And I don’t like it. And I’ve grown into this position. That’s why I’m very clear: day one, I will be working to approve a $50 million reallocation of the police budget. I will be working very diligently to make sure that we take away the qualified immunity. Because if you look at Quanice Hayes, there was no reason in the world for him to be shot. None.

“I spoke up about that as a County Commissioner. I’ve been speaking about this last year. It is cruel and unusual punishment to shoot someone when they clearly have their hands up in the air. And as you know, I took on the city attorney’s office with Sam Adams and with Carmen Rubio, and to use the defense that the reason why he’s dead is because of his mother. No, no, no, no, no, no, that’s not right. The mother did not pull the trigger. It was the police who pulled the trigger. And so, yes, as a Black mother, I take that very personally. And as a commissioner, I will put some of those protest ideas into policy.

“I have a track record, and I have a history of being effective. And if anyone knows any Black or Brown mother, we can’t go to sleep at night knowing that our teenage kids are outside. We don’t know what’s going to happen to them. There are a number of things that happen to Black and Brown kids in this community. I know I couldn’t sleep before my son was actually in for the evening.”

Miller: “Dan Ryan, you have a section on your campaign website about dismantling systemic racism. You write, ‘Perhaps most importantly, we have to learn to amplify Black and Brown voices in our community.’ One significant way to do that, to amplify a Black voice in your community, would be to not run against Loretta Smith in this election. How have you been thinking about that personally?”

Ryan: “First of all, we absolutely need to lift up Black leaders in this moment. And I have been moved by the Black leaders that have been front and center speakers when I’ve attended the protest. I also have a long history of including and amplifying people of color in all work that I’ve done. At All Hands Raised, one thing I was very proud of is that our board quickly shifted to at least 50% of our board members of color. And to really make sure that you measure results for communities that we failed in the past.

“So I’m really pleased with my record on that. I think that what we need to focus on is everyone first of all wants qualified immunity, the elimination of rubber bullets and gas, and I’m grateful that the state legislature is meeting again to handle those. But we have to focus on the new police association contract, and that’s where the work really happens. And we’d been just passing those on over and over again.

“And I’m the one person in this race that has not been endorsed by them recently. I didn’t take $20,000 from the police union just two years ago. And I think it allows me to be an objective change agent that this city needs. I have a proven track record of working with people well. I’m a bridge-builder. At the end of a bunch of 4-3 votes on the Portland Public School Board, at the end of it, I was the one person everyone could agree could be the Chair.

“So I think right now, we need that bridge-builder on the City Council. We need a high functioning team at this time to get through these unprecedented challenges. And let’s remember there are multiple crises going on. Right now, there’s economic indicators that show that this is by far the most dire economic [crises] we’ve had ever.”

Miller: “Let’s turn to that then. Because obviously we could spend the entire time, appropriately so, on police. We could also spend hours on the pandemic. Let’s turn to COVID-19 ...”

Smith: “You didn’t give me a chance to respond to that. My opponent was on the school board, he was elected and he quit. He stopped that job and quit that job before it ended. And so in this very special time, we don’t need a leader who’s going to quit on kids, who’s going to use public dollars to settle a racial discrimination case like he did for a Black woman who had a master’s degree.

“He fired her and terminated her after seven days, saying she didn’t have the skill set to do it. So for me, I have a tough time listening to that. And every time we talk about this, my opponent is talking about negative things. We don’t need any more negativity in our City Council.”

Miller: “I will now give you a chance to respond to those aspects of your record. And then we will move on to the pandemic.”

Ryan: “Yeah, for the record, I was asked by the community to elevate my K-12 leadership. And so I was asked to be the CEO of what was the Portland School’s Foundation that became All Hands Raised. And so I resigned because it would have been a conflict of interest. There was no quitting — it was just going deeper into my passion and into my leadership skills. And I will gladly stack up my staff relations record against my opponent. I’ve successfully hired, trained, supervised, mentored hundreds of staff in my 35-year career. In this incident, our team realized the person was not successful in the position we settled, we’d moved forward. …”

Smith: “Now, I don’t know how you figure out it wasn’t going to work after a week. This lady was a teacher from Vancouver. …”

Miller: “I want to move on to the pandemic cause we have about seven minutes left and there’s a lot more important things to talk about. And the two of you have talked about those issues in other recent debates. And so folks can find those, we can put links to those. So they have been aired and you can see more about them on some TV appearances.

“Loretta Smith, what should the city of Portland be doing right now to support its most vulnerable residents, especially people experiencing homelessness or those at risk of losing their homes either before or now in particular because of COVID-19?”

Smith: “This moratorium on rent is going to be up. And so there are going to be a lot of folks who owe a lot of back rent. And so I think that we need to be working on rent forgiveness for those folks who can’t afford to pay back all those six months of rent. And we also need to work with the mom-and-pop property owners who use those dollars just to live on - that’s how they make it every day.

“I think unless we have a balanced approach to this, we’re not going to be able to help everybody in every zip code. Because for me, I want to make sure that I give voice to those folks who don’t have a voice, who are out here trying to put food on the table every single day and trying to make it.

“Even prior to COVID, Portland has a very, very widespread poverty problem. And that’s why I’m running, so that I can give these folks who are houseless and homeless and rent-burdened, give them a shot in the arm at trying to make it through this COVID crisis. But I do think that healthcare is going to have to be a big, huge issue that we’re going to have to work on with Multnomah County so that we can make sure that our most vulnerable folks in our community who have no healthcare, who have no access for rent assistance, who have no money to eat.

“It is really hard out here for a lot of folks and they’ve lost their jobs. We’ve got 70,000 people a week who are unemployed. So I think we need to pay really close attention. As a small business owner. I understand what it’s like to try and make payroll, what it’s like to chase contracts and pay employer and employee taxes. Those are some of the things that we need to do to make sure that everybody is pretty much made whole.”

Miller: “Dan Ryan, how would your approach to the myriad ways Portlander’s have been affected by COVID-19 differ?”

Ryan: “I’ve had my own personal pandemic living with HIV and coming home to die in 1995. I have a lot of personal history in knowing how to take the complexity of science and digesting that for the general population. And that’s something that’s very important because this is about behavior change.

“And two, I will really make sure that we really take care of one another right now. I think we need to have an emergency session between the city and the county. The city is more reliant on property taxes, which will be a little bit better revenue streams, of course, than the county. We share the most important sector with the county, which is housing and homelessness.

“And that’s the one that’s already in crisis and has been for over a decade. And we have to make sure that we think out of the box and figure out how to be allies and really work together and streamline that process. This is really personal for me on homelessness because my brother Tim passed away six years ago. When we were trying to find services for my brother, Tim, that had wrap-around services for people that had substance abuse and mental health issues — those were hard to find.

“But I’ve also found that we have a system where we take a very complex problem, and we simplify the problem. And it’s time for us to have a 10-year approach that’s very clear about the metrics, and we have to have people at the table that are affected by homelessness, that we don’t talk about enough.

“And I think the essential workers are the ones that need to be lifted up the most right now, because those are people that have been finally getting the due love that they deserve during this pandemic. And they haven’t been able to afford to live in Portland for some time. So we need a long term housing solution.

“Too many of the meetings we have — that my opponent was a part of at the county — have really just had elected officials, their staff, and those receiving the contracts. And we really need to include people to the table that have experienced homelessness and are on the other side. And also those businesses that were affected before this pandemic, where we saw less revenues coming to small businesses downtown because people just didn’t want to be down there any longer, and we need them at the table. And we also need those that live in neighborhoods that are impacted by homelessness a lot because they have a voice as well at this table.

“Portland is tired of being embarrassed over the last decade of not making movement on this. And also I think it’s a perfect time to bring someone in from the independent community sector where there’s a lot more accountability or, quite frankly, no one will fund you. My last job was 91% privately funded, and it’s time for Portland to really have that outsider that has a decade long record of finding innovative solutions for complex problems. The status quo just hasn’t been getting it done. So I think it’s time to give someone a shot that has a track record.”

Smith: “So I believe that I will follow Chair Kafoury’s record on homelessness and bringing folks together before I would even think about some of the things that you’re talking about. But what I do know is that we’ve made leaps and bounds in terms of rent assistance and keeping people from being houseless on our city streets, and the plan that we have now to serve folks to house them first is a big deal.

“And I think the ballot measure that we supported that passed in May, it’s going to give support services because what we do know is that a lot of folks who are unsheltered on our streets, they have issues around drugs and alcohol, and they also need mental health counseling and drug and alcohol counseling. And with those new dollars, you’re going to see a change. You’re going to see folks being able to be housed in a way that they’ve never been housed before.

“And like I said, we’re going to have to address the fact that many of the people who are going to be coming out of this COVID crisis, we’re going to have to address their debt. They’re going to be accruing in rent and mortgages due, and loss of employment. It’s not going to all combine together. We all have to be on the same page and not really be negative every time we talk about issues around homelessness and houselessness. My opponent doesn’t have a background or a track record in it.”

Miller: “We only have a few more minutes left, but since you did bring up the settlement with one of his former employees, I want to ask you about the findings from a County investigator from allegations of misconduct from when you were a County Commissioner. The investigator found that ‘the allegations appear consistent and indicate that Commissioner Smith may have been harsher in her treatment of female staffers using derogatory statements and profanity in these interactions.‘”

Smith: “They said likely, and they couldn’t substantiate any of those.”

Miller: “Let me finish, just in case our listeners haven’t heard this. This is verbatim. He added: ‘It appears that Commissioner Smith created and fostered an environment in which she felt comfortable making demeaning or negative statements to, and, or about female staffers in relation to their person and work. Her conduct violates the county’s requirement that all employees must maintain a professional and respectful environment.‘ The question is: what have you taken from those findings?”

Smith: “I’ve learned a lot from that. And I’ve for sure made some mistakes and some missteps. But I think oftentimes, as I’ve seen here, white men often go for Black women and come for them in a big, big way. I didn’t come for my opponent. He came for me first, and I’ll be the first one to say that I do hold folks accountable. I do have passion. And I think some of my passion has been misunderstood over the years, but there is no problem with me trying to go forward and serve this community. I have served this community for over 30 years. I worked with many of the commissioners that are sitting there, and I’ve passed over a hundred resolutions. A hundred. More than anyone that sat next to me. And if I was that difficult to deal with, how do you speak? I could count to three a hundred times.”

The special election is August 11. Voters have until August 6 to mail their ballots in. Voters can drop off their ballot in a drop site until 8 p.m. on Election Day.

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