Election night delivered a Portland City Council that will be more diverse — and more moderate

By Rebecca Ellis (OPB)
Nov. 5, 2020 8:28 p.m.

Write-in ballots and special interest money shaped the city’s mayoral race.

While election night left voters with little clarity on the presidential election, the dust quickly settled on Portland’s local races.

Sarah Iannarone, a community activist and political newcomer, lost a tight race against Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who voters reelected for another four years. They did not do the same for Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who was swept out of City Hall after just one term. Mingus Mapps, a political science professor and former city employee, will step into her seat in January.


These races were notable for reasons beyond who got to claim victory at the end. Here are three takeaways from Tuesday night’s local races:

A large swath of voters wrote in a candidate, likely costing Iannarone needed votes

A whopping 46,000 voters chose to write in a candidate on their ballot in the mayoral race. That’s more than twice as many votes as the margin separating Wheeler and Iannarone.

Final results show Wheeler winning the race by 5.4 percentage points. The mayor received 46.2% of the vote. Iannarone captured 40.8%. Thirteen percent wrote someone else in.

Portland won’t find out what names voters scrawled on these ballots, since the Multnomah County Elections Division only tallies the breakdown of write-ins if it would change who won the election.

But it’s likely many of these votes went to longtime activist Teressa Raiford.

Raiford, head of nonprofit Don’t Shoot Portland, came in a distant third during the May primary after capturing just over 8% of the vote. But as racial justice protests erupted in the city this year, Raiford saw a new wave of supporters coalesce behind her. While she didn’t actively campaign or participate in mayoral debates, a group of supporters launched a write-in campaign plastering posters with her face across Portland. Just last week, the Washington Post ran a profile on Raiford with a headline pegged to her run for mayor.

On Tuesday evening, as it became apparent Wheeler would secure another term, some of the mayor’s critics took to social media blaming Raiford’s write-in campaign for siphoning off votes that may have gone to Iannarone.

Much of that anger was directed at the quasi-candidate herself.

“When I went to sleep last night and woke up, I saw the vitriol, the anger, the violence, the blatant racism,” Raiford said Wednesday. “And I know the majority of people that did the write-in campaign are people of color and the fact that so many people are dragging me and them when we’re already outnumbered speaks to the violence of white America.”

Raiford said a lot of people who showed up to support her this summer said they’d voted for Iannarone during the primary. Both have been longtime critics of Wheeler and count police reform as a signature issue.

But Raiford contends it’s also true that a lot of her support came from people who, without the push for a write in campaign, would have skipped voting in the race altogether. And she said those blaming her for Wheeler’s mayoral victory are misdirecting their ire.

“People that voted for Ted Wheeler are the reason Mayor Ted Wheeler will be mayor for another term,” she said.

Tuesday night’s final tally for a third party candidate is unprecedented for the city — at least in this century. According to records kept by the city auditor’s office, the only contested race in the last two decades that’s seen anywhere close to that many voters choosing to write in a third candidate was the last mayoral runoff in 2012. Rather than vote for Charlie Hales, who won the race, or then-state Rep. Jefferson Smith, just under 20,000 voters wrote in a third candidate — equaling 7.5% of the vote.

An election worker sorts mail-in ballots at the Multnomah County Duniway-Lovejoy Elections Building Monday, Nov. 2, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

An election worker sorts mail-in ballots at the Multnomah County Duniway-Lovejoy Elections Building Monday, Nov. 2, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP


In Portland’s first election cycle with strict campaign finance limits, special interest money still played a role

Two council races were Portland’s first election under the stringent campaign finance limits voters approved in 2018. The limits, which the city began enforcing this spring, capped the donations candidates could take at $500, with the intention of limiting the role special interest money plays in politics.

This made the council races something of a test case on how the limits would work in practice. That test case showed, despite the new rules, there are still ways a candidate can benefit from large checks.

Although voters approved a $5,000 cap on how much candidates can fund themselves, the city decided not to enforce that limit, contending it was unconstitutional. That enabled Wheeler to loan his campaign $150,000. One month ago, an independent expenditure committee, formed under the name United For Portland, also began pouring money into the race on Wheeler’s behalf. The group ultimately raised nearly $500,000, much of it through big checks written by business and real estate developers. They poured money into negative ads attacking Iannarone, scrutinizing her penchant for tweeting and drawing attention to her statements that she was an “everyday antifascist.”

Jason Kafoury, an attorney who helped craft Portland’s campaign finance limits, said he believes that outside spending altered the course of the race.

“I think they had a huge influence. The mayor was out of money and pretty much was unable to raise money, and that’s why he had to loan money to his campaign,” Kafoury said. “I think without United For Portland, I think Sarah wins the race — I really do. He was broke and he couldn’t take anything over $500.”

Kafoury said there are some tweaks he’d like to see made to the local campaign finance rules to make these committees more transparent. But without changing Supreme Court precedent, he said, there are no changes that can be made to prevent well-financed expenditure committees from influencing a race.

United for Portland released a statement Wednesday, saying it was ready to work with its preferred candidate for his second term.

The council that will be impaneled in January will be more politically moderate and the most racially diverse

After months of limbo, Portlanders finally have a roster for the city council of 2021: Wheeler, Mapps, Carmen Rubio and commissioners Dan Ryan and Jo Ann Hardesty.

It’s a more moderate council than the 2020 version — and certainly moderate compared with what the city would have seen had Iannarone and Eudaly won.

In concession remarks Tuesday evening, Eudaly noted the change. She said she believed, without her on the council, Portland was about to chart a new direction — not one she is fond of.

“We were poised to have one of the most progressive city councils that Portland has ever had, and with the reelection of Mayor Wheeler and the election of Mingus Mapps, it’s a step backwards for progress,” Eudaly said. " I really don’t think it reflects Portland’s progressive spirit."

Hardesty, one of the most progressive members of the council, congratulated the winners Wednesday, though added that she believes her job on council just got much harder.

Wheeler struck a more enthusiastic tone about the commissioners-elect with whom he is about to share City Hall. Noting his working relationships with Ryan and Rubio and calling Mapps “obviously a quick study,” Wheeler said he believed the city was about to see “one of the strongest city councils ... that has ever been impaneled in the city of Portland.”

It will also be the most racially diverse council in Portland’s history.

Mapps will be the fourth Black member to serve on the council. Rubio will be the first Latina member. And Portland will, for the first time, have a city council that is majority commissioners of color — a massive milestone for one of the whitest major cities in America.

This historic lack of racial diversity on council is often cited by advocates of changing the city’s commission form of government. They argue moving away from elections for citywide offices would allow for a council that is more representative of the city’s makeup.

Mark Stephan, who chaired a research committee for the City Club of Portland’s recent report on changing the city’s form of government, said that he believes the new council could take a bit of air out of the argument — but that these problems with representation persist beyond one election.

“The problem is, if you look at the history of the commissioner form of government, it’s one that leans heavily towards being less representative in terms of demographics.”


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