It’s no secret that the organizers behind People for Portland are less than pleased with the performance of the region’s leaders.
Since kicking off this summer, the political advocacy group has urged fed-up Portlanders to channel their myriad frustrations toward the inboxes of city and county electeds. In Facebook posts and TV ads, they have chided Mayor Ted Wheeler for what they term a tepid response to clashing protesters and the city council as a whole for a “maddening” reaction to the homelessness crisis. The group, which does not have to reveal its donors, has spent over half a million dollars pressuring City Hall to make Portland more livable. Public officials, they argue, are failing.
For Commissioner Mingus Mapps, the steady stream of content released by People for Portland borders on free campaign advertising.
He pops up often on People for Portland’s Facebook and Twitter pages. The group regularly posts links related to Mapps, either positive articles about him or quotes from him about the problems facing the city. Facebook users who go to People For Portland’s page are frequently shown Mapps’ old campaign account from the 2020 election as a “related page.”
People for Portland’s ads also blur the lines between the group’s platform and Mapps’ agenda as a city commissioner. A 30-second ad from October devotes nearly 20 seconds to detailing Mapps’ plan for “reforming the police and making our streets safer.” A different ad released last month promises viewers that “Commissioner Mapps has a plan” for public safety and calls on supporters to tell the city council to support the “Mapps plan.”
Political consultants Dan Lavey and Kevin Looper announced the creation of People for Portland in August, saying they wanted to pressure city officials to act with more urgency on the many problems facing Portland, primarily crime, homelessness and trash. The group is structured as a 501(c)(4), and therefore is not required to disclose where its money originates.
The group has been dogged by criticisms and questions about who is pulling the strings and what the campaign is ultimately building toward. Some progressives have framed the group as a thinly-veiled “fear-mongering effort” to push the homeless population out of downtown at the behest of “powerful moneyed interests.” The group has described that characterization as “severely misinformed.”
Within City Hall, one question has swirled particularly ferociously: To what extent is a group bent on pressuring elected officials coordinating with some of them?
“There is no connection between myself and my office and People for Portland. I haven’t spoken to anyone from the organization. I have not even seen a People for Portland ad,” Mapps told OPB this week. “I don’t have a TV.”
A former political science professor, Mapps won his seat in November 2020. In the process, he became the third Black man elected to the City Council. He oversees the city’s utility bureaus as well as the Bureau of Emergency Communications, though he often speaks out publicly on livability issues not directly related to his portfolio, such as crime, gun violence, homelessness and trash.
He said he suspects People for Portland was drawn to him because they’re making the same practical push.
“They seem to be talking about the issues I’m talking about,” he said. “And frankly, it’s not rocket science. If you go out and talk to any random selection of Portlanders, we’re all concerned about the same four sets of issues.”
Looper, a longtime Democratic consultant, said the reason Mapps appears again and again in their advertisements is simple: Campaign organizers are big fans.
“He does have the distinction of being the one person on the City Council that has stepped up in the middle of a crisis with a plan on public safety. He got it done,” Looper said. “And for that he does deserve credit, and we’re happy to give it.”
Mapps’ public safety plan includes adding more police officers, adopting body cameras, and increasing the footprint of the Portland Street Response, a new program that offers a non-police response to some emergency calls. All three policies are on the path to being implemented within the city, though the credit can not be attributed solely to Mapps. The U.S. Department of Justice has long urged the city to use body cameras, and Mayor Wheeler proposed adding more police as part of the fall budget process. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty had been pushing for the expansion of Portland Street Response since this spring. Mapps, along with Wheeler and Commissioner Dan Ryan, had previously voted against giving the program enough funding to expand citywide.
Looper brushed aside rumors that the powerful advocacy group was gearing up to push for Mapps to be the city’s next mayor. The campaign is laser-focused on immediate action, he said, and the next election is a long way off. (The mayor is up for reelection the same year Mapps is scheduled to face the voters again, 2024.)
He said organizers just want to offer credit where they believe it is due.
“If other people are jealous of Mingus Mapps being praised, they should step up as he has,” Looper said. “We would be happy to praise other people that are doing their jobs effectively.”
Looper is not the only prominent Portlander pleased with Mapps’ job performance. Since taking office in January, the commissioner has carved out a niche for himself in City Hall as a political moderate quick to condemn acts of property destructions and supportive of expanding the police bureau. While the approach has turned off many progressive activists, his stock seems to have risen in the eyes of the city’s business interests and old guard power brokers. A recent OPB records request to Mapps’ office turned up two deeply complimentary emails: one from former Democratic state legislator Avel Gordly, the first Black woman elected to the Oregon State Senate, and the second from Greg Goodman, one of the largest property owners in Portland.
“Wanted to thank you for your leadership on City Council. Lots of people are talking about it,” Goodman wrote in a Sept. 29 email. “You are putting yourself out there on important issues during tough times, which is how real leadership is defined.”
Like Goodman, Gordly also thanked Mapps for his “critical leadership role” in a Sept. 9 email and asked him to meet with People for Portland’s Lavey, a longtime Republican political consultant in Oregon.
The meeting never happened. Mapps said he has never been approached by Lavey or Looper, though the group had reached out to his office to ask him to appear in a town hall they hosted in October.
Emails show Mapps’ chief of staff declined the invite, stating the commissioner could not “participate in activities that could be construed or misconstrued as a political activity.” Wheeler appeared at the same event. (According to the city auditor’s office, elected officials are free to attend political events as long as they’re devoting their time to “the interest of the City.”)
While he won’t attend their events, Mapps said he has no plans to ask People for Portland to stop promoting his words and policies.
“I’m OK with it. Listen, I’m a public figure. People talk about me all the time, in all sorts of platforms. This comes with the job,” he said. “It’s fine.”