After a quiet first few months in office, Portland’s newest city commissioner, Dan Ryan, has started to make headlines.
It’s not for the reasons he might have hoped. Singling Ryan out as a likely swing vote on a proposed 8% cut to the police bureau’s budget, protesters marched to his home Oct. 27 to urge him to vote yes. Ryan talked to them for nearly an hour but ultimately decided to cast a critical no vote for the cuts. Protesters returned the night after that vote, chucking eggs at his house, shattering a window, and breaking two terracotta planters. The vandalism drew condemnation from county and city officials. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who had proposed the cuts, said protesters had crossed a clear line.
Ryan was elected to the council this summer to replace late Commissioner Nick Fish, who died in January. He has taken his first steps into public life in front of a somewhat distracted public. He won the seat in early August at the height of racial justice protests in the city. He stepped into office in September, the same day Mayor Ted Wheeler made national headlines with his ban on CS gas.
Now, as protesters have taken to his front lawn, Ryan has found himself in the spotlight. Over the weekend, Ryan spoke with OPB about why he voted no on Hardesty’s cuts, how this squares with his campaign promises, and what’s been happening outside his home.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
OPB: I have an understanding of what happened with protesters last Thursday. But I was wondering if you could walk me through what happened that night, from your perspective?
Ryan: What happened on Thursday night was about 60 people, as you heard, came by. I was advised, probably for my safety, to not be home, which was good because when people throw rocks at your windows, that’s not safe. I heard about the destruction while it was happening. My neighbors were really mobilized and were giving me information. Sadly, they had enough time to do some damage.
OPB: What damage was done?
Ryan: There were several things. I had these two really special flower pots that I got from a nursery that were from somewhere wonderful like Italy. And those were demolished. They crushed them on the sidewalk. And then they broke one of my main windows in the front. They threw rocks in the house and then there’s a lot of white paint all over my house that came from the balloons that are filled with paint. So there’s a lot of cleanup to do.
And then earlier in the week there was some graffiti on my garage and graffiti on the sidewalk another night.
OPB: You were not the only one to vote against the cuts to the police budget. We learned Commissioner Amanda Fritz and Mayor Wheeler also rejected them. Why do you think you were singled out as the commissioner to protest?
Ryan: I think it’s the nuance of how we talk about police reform — the language of defunding and then there’s the language of reforming and then there’s the language of divesting. I’ve always made it clear that we’re on a path to repurpose and redirect. I always see the public safety system — the community safety system — as having three primary first responders. Two of them already exist and are pretty traditional: police and fire. They respond and then they have places to take somebody if, in fact, they’re causing violent harm.
And then there’s the one that we have to build. We’re ranked anywhere between 45th to 50th in terms of mental health systems. So we’re building that. We need the Portland Street Response to be equipped to respond to mental health episodes and de-escalate that. But where do we take them? That’s going to include dialogue with the county, dialogue with the state, so that we can actually start to take this seriously and build a better system. Once we have that three-prong approach, especially that last one, then you can start to really see how you can repurpose dollars and do cuts that I would like to say are redirection of services for the people that live in Portland.
OPB: So — in terms of why people picked your house to protest — you think it was that there’s a certain nuance to the reason you were rejecting these cuts that people weren’t fully taking in?
Ryan: When I was campaigning ... there was a really clear plan to build the Portland Street Response program.
And when I got in, by digging in and looking at the actual program, it’s really clear that it’s not going to be up and running in the next two to three years across the city — and it’s desperately needed. And so, we have to really try to build that. Then as that gets built, we can look at shifting resources from say, the police, to that system that we’re building with the county.
OPB: After the vote, I saw some of your supporters, people who voted for you during the special election, say they felt misled about your views on further cutting funding for the police. I’ve seen some people point to a part of your campaign website where you said you wanted to find ways to “follow up on the $15 million cuts to the Portland police budget with even more substantial cuts.” What would you say to those people who feel you took one stance during the campaign and a different one in office with that vote?
Ryan: I would say that there is an “and” to that sentence: and build a mental health response system. It’s important to have that built before we cut at a time of unprecedented needs.
(Editor’s Note: Ryan’s page devoted to police reform on his campaign website does not directly mention a mental health response system or the Portland Street Response program, but stressed the need for city leaders to put forward a plan on how to divest from the police bureau’s budget and “use those funds to reimagine the concept of community safety.”)
OPB: One more question on that. I noticed that that campaign page had been taken down between the vote and Friday. I’m curious why that decision was made?
Ryan: Yeah, we received advice from the legal office, so we’re supposed to take it down just as we started serving. As somebody that’s being onboarded during COVID, after a special election, we’re just doing our best to build our team and be responsive to the advice that we received.
OPB: So it didn’t have anything to do with the vote?
Ryan: It’s just, no, um, we just did it. We were supposed to do it. We were advised to do it.
OPB: I wanted to talk about the first night protesters came to your home. It seemed like protesters that time appreciated how you handled them and came out to talk with them for an hour. But you also took some criticism for the handling of the press who were covering the event that night, with your fiance telling protesters to “check the press” while you were there. I wanted to know if you stand by the statement that you didn’t know the press were there. And, if you had known reporters were in that crowd, would you have handled that situation any differently?
Ryan: Yeah, let me just remind you. Like it’s 11:15, I was more asleep than awake and then we made a really quick decision to go outside after the doorbell just kept ringing. Once we went out, I forgot my mask, which was really weird, because I’m extremely COVID compliant — but I was still half asleep and in shock probably.
My point is my fiance — my fierce loving fiance — wanted to ensure that we could actually have dialogue, and just asked that we could turn off all the cameras. I learned something. I had no idea that there was official press at that time. I was so focused on one conversation at a time that I was zoning out, I didn’t really pay attention to anything going on around me. I was just enjoying that I was actually able to hear each person that was speaking and actually had some good dialogue with a few. Then we exchanged numbers and our office is in touch with them.
OPB: If you had known press were there, do you think it would have been handled differently?
Ryan: I learned a lesson. Well, two things happened. One is: First Amendment was alive and well. This was all recorded, all documented. There was not one part of the story that wasn’t released. And so the First Amendment happened that night at my house. And b) now I know that if you are in a situation where there are protesters, there’s most likely going to be some press embedded with them. And I’ve been around the protesters this summer, more than five times. And there’s also a lot of people that seem like they’re press or they’re doing Facebook or, I can’t tell very well.
OPB: I know all the bureaus are going to get switched up in January, and you may have a totally new stack in your portfolio, but with the bureaus you have right now in the coming months, is there anything we should be expecting to be coming from your office?
Ryan: I think it’s really most important that I stay very focused on the Joint Office of Homeless Services. It’s an emergency situation at the moment. We really have to compassionately focus on this. I think it’s an extreme public health crisis. It’s hard to see what’s happening on our streets. We have to figure out how to have safer campsites that are regulated, that have services. And we also have to open up our public sidewalks, so small businesses can open and our parks and our bikeways can be accessible to all Portlanders.
It’s really important that we focus on this emergency. And I know COVID has added so much drain because you need more space for humane shelters because of the distancing that’s necessary. I think that’s going to be where I’ll be focusing most of my time.
OPB: Now that the budget cuts that started these protests [outside your home] are done, do you think demonstrations will end outside your house?
Ryan: In mass, Portlanders are not doing this. It’s a small group of people, and with the election finally being called in the way that I think most Portlanders would agree with, all of us trying to figure out how we’re going to survive and build forward through COVID and the economic devastation that so many people are feeling. We just have so many things that we have to focus on as a community. And so, I do hope that we can move forward together and know that it’s OK to agree to disagree. Portland’s a special place and we need to give some joy back in the city.