Voters in Oregon’s most populous county will select a new leader for the first time in eight years when they mark their ballots for the May 17 primary.
The race to replace outgoing Chair Deborah Kafoury, who is term limited from running again.
Kafoury’s successor will take over at a time when Multnomah County faces emergencies on several fronts including navigating an exit from the lingering pandemic, bolstering a struggling local economy, addressing mounting concern over homelessness and sanitation, as well as providing support to those reeling from a widespread mental health and substance abuse crisis.
Three of the four candidates – Sharon Meieran, Lori Stegmann and Jessica Vega Pederson – are currently county commissioners. Each will continue to serve in their position for at least two years if voters do not select them for the top job, meaning they’ll need to sell themselves as the strongest leader without damaging relationships to the point of losing their colleagues’ votes and becoming ineffective.
The other prominent candidate, Gresham resident and Portland lawyer Sharia Mayfield, is the outsider. Mayfield said she’s running to represent county residents who are fed up with a lack of visible progress in cleaning up streets and treating the wave of mental health and addiction problems the county is experiencing.
Although the race for county chair rarely draws as much attention as, say, races for Portland mayor, the three current commissioners may have to contend with a frustrated electorate. Polling conducted earlier this year on behalf of OPB suggests a majority of likely voters — as much as 75% in the Portland-metro area — believe Oregon is on the wrong track. They also consistently rank homelessness as the biggest issue facing the state.
Multnomah County’s system of government has a clear structure when it comes to accountability: The chair of the board of county commissioners acts as chief executive, overseeing nearly 6,000 employees across seven departments and over 37 distinct offices dealing with transportation, land use, public health, food assistance, veterans services, Pre-K education, local elections and more. The county has a $2.8 billion budget with discretionary funding of more than $500 million.
In the four weeks remaining until the election, each candidate will need to convince voters that their leadership style and approach to solving the emergencies facing the state’s largest county represent the best path forward. Here’s a look at their candidacies.
Stegmann has represented east Multnomah County, from 148th Avenue to the Hood River County line, for six years. Before that she served as a Gresham City Councilor.
Stegmann is pitching a business-forward approach to provide “wins” for residents who the county has historically left behind. That includes low income families, immigrants, communities of color, and most people who live beyond 82nd Avenue.
Stegmann came to the United States as a child from Korea in the early 1960s as part of a movement started by Harry and Bertha Holt, two Oregonians who pioneered international adoption and led the charge in adopting more than 3,000 Korean children in America.
She said her background has cemented her appreciation of the opportunities her adoption provided as she recently watched scenes of war, turmoil and displacement in Ukraine.
“It has really hit home for me how important it is to have the privilege of being saved, and then taking that privilege and paying it forward,” Stegmann said.
Stegmann said representing east county — including communities like Rockwood, Gresham and Troutdale — provides an opportunity to advocate on behalf of residents who see a stark contrast in the services and investments other areas of the county get.
In recent years, Stegmann has brought dollars to her district in the form of redevelopment projects. She advocated for the Vance Property Vision, a plan to repurpose 90 acres at a former quarry in Gresham for county and community use.
She is the longtime owner-operator of a Farmers Insurance branch in Rockwood and a former member of Gresham’s redevelopment commission. The connections and experience she’s gained in those roles make her confident she can bring together interests of the business community and local government.
“I can take my experience and expertise to scale, which means not only can I do these great things in the district that I live in and love, but I can do these kinds of things countywide,” she said.
Stegmann also recently led the charge to transfer four acres of county property in Troutdale to Home Forward, an affordable housing developer that plans to build 100 apartments there.
She also wants to upscale a program called the Forensic Assertive Community Treatment team, a service the county contracts from mental health provider Cascadia Behavioral Health which responds to acute, chronic emergencies playing out on the streets of communities across the county. Teams consist of psychiatrists, medical personnel, a criminal justice advocate and peer support.
Stegmann’s idea to bolster the program would see 24/7 staffing to help people in crises avoid potentially fatal interactions with law enforcement, much in the same way of what Portland Street Response is doing, but for the entire county.
She said she’s working with TriMet and the county sheriff’s office to implement new de-escalation training for situations involving public transit and hopes to build up that work more aggressively as chair.
“We have to quit turning away from one another, and turn toward each other,” she said. “There’s many ways we can do that, behavioral health is one.”
When asked why voters should give her a promotion, Stegmann said she thinks the county’s done some great work since she was elected. She points to a record of “elevating marginalized voices” as the reason voters should choose her..
“The best thing a leader can do is listen,” she said. “This is about collective and distributive power.”
Meieran is an emergency physician at Kaiser Permanente. She represents all of Multnomah County west of the Willamette River, as well as Portland’s inner southeast side.
She won her seat on the county board in 2016, and was reelected in 2020.
Meieran said she will prioritize pandemic recovery and tackling public health crises such as mental health and addiction.
“You don’t have to look very far to see that we’re failing, and that people are living on the street in horrific conditions,” Meieran said. “We’re the local mental health authority. It’s our role and responsibility to coordinate and oversee that we have functional systems.”
She said her volunteer work with Portland Street Medicine — a nonprofit that delivers medical care directly to homeless individuals — gives her a front seat to witness the ramifications extreme poverty, substance abuse and co-occurring mental health diseases are having on the county.
Meieran has two immediate goals to immediately address homeless and mental health should she become county chair. The first is to create “hamlets” — or small villages — in each of Portland’s approximately 100 neighborhoods that include up to 10 individual shelter structures, such as tiny homes or sleeping pods. There would also be congregate bathrooms, showers, hand wash stations, garbage and laundry services.
The second is safe parking sites for people to sleep inside their vehicles placed strategically throughout the county.
“I meet with and hear from people regularly who are living outside. This is what they say that they would want,” she said. “A lot of people for valid reasons don’t want to go into sort of your big, typical homeless structure.”
Meieran said her experiences in the ER and ability to triage the county’s priorities puts her at an advantage when it comes to responding to these emergencies quickly.
Meieran said she’s the only one currently on the board who has “consistently spoken out and offered an alternative plan.”
“It’s challenging. It’s a difficult place for me to be,” she said.
In January, Meieran responded to a survey by Willamette Week asking candidates to grade Kafoury’s work on homelessness. She gave her colleague a “D.”
“None of my colleagues actually gave a grade, and sort of gave vague answers. I would point to the fact that the chair is the key role of the county,” Meieran said.
Meieran has been known, on occasion, to disagree with her colleagues on budget and policy decisions. Last year, she offered up a six-month plan that reimagined how the county addresses homelessness.
She was the only vote to approve hers, and voted against the majority plan.
“The chair oversees the department heads and sets the budget. Commissioners come in at the end and we kind of tweak things, but the chair has the power,” she said.
When asked why she should be promoted if she hasn’t been able to effect the change she preaches from her position as commissioner, Meieran said that being the person who criticizes the majority and pushes for change makes it hard to actually get plans passed.
She describes herself as a “disrupter.”
“But I’m also someone who brings people together with differing views,” she said. “I’m actually a bridge builder. I have excellent relationships with Metro, at our Legislature and in our federal delegation.”
She said her plan focuses on a “harm reduction” approach informed by her work on the streets administering medical care to people with lived experience.
“I speak as someone who has actually stood up and said, ‘we need to do things differently,’ and been challenged on that,” she said. “I’d like the opportunity to lead.”
Jessica Vega Pederson
Vega Pederson said she believes her work as a commissioner has already made a big impact on improving the lives of Multnomah County residents. She wants to expand the footprint of her work by leading the whole county.
She represented East Portland in the Oregon House from 2013 to 2015, then won a seat on the county board in 2016. She was reelected to represent a large swath of Southeast and Northeast Portland in 2020.
She said she’s particularly proud of her work helping to create the local ballot measure taxing high earners to establish universal preschool in Multnomah County in 2020. The program just opened applications to 670 children ages 3 and 4 for the upcoming school year.
“I wanted to make sure that we were putting a system in place that served kids well, and that really supports the workers in that industry,” she said. “This is a really critical time at Multnomah County, and we need a chair who has the kind of experience to take on these major challenges.”
One of her biggest worries is about climate change’s impact on low income families and communities of color, such as the effects of wildfire smoke and deadly heat events. She says as chair she’d work to ensure the county meets its goal of shifting the community’s energy needs to renewable sources by 2035, and by 2050 have 100% of the county’s energy portfolio in renewables.
Vega Pederson said she will lead on that issue by continuing to bring together stakeholders from a variety of sectors such as manufacturing, transportation and energy so the county can meet that goal sooner.
She’s also concerned about housing and homelessness. She said she wants to help site new shelters and projects, but also work with local communities to get buy in. Locating new shelters has been a challenge for county leaders; property owners in the Central Eastside recently sued the county over plans for a shelter there.
Her plan is to convene meetings with neighborhood associations, school districts and businesses to let them lead the conversation on how the county can most effectively spend homeless services dollars, as well as boost programs that help families struggling with housing.
Vega Pederson wants voters to understand how much influence the county chair has in social, public safety and justice programs run by Multnomah County. In reality, she said, the chair is CEO.
“That’s why this is such a critical election,” she said. “We need a strong, proven leader who’s able to step into the job of running the third largest government, and, on day one, tackle the work of addressing the complex issues that the county faces.”
Vega Pederson acknowledges the county isn’t where it should be on top issues. She commended the hard work of county employees, especially those in the Joint Office of Homeless Services, but said there’s a lot more work to be done.
“To adequately address the solutions for those things is going to require that strong coordination with the federal government,” she said. “There hasn’t been as good of coordination as there should have been between the city, the county and Metro to really address these issues effectively, and I think that’s why people are feeling frustrated.”
She said her approach to leading the county will focus on increasing collaboration between all levels of government, as well as advocating for more resources and support from state and federal leadership.
“I’m the only candidate in this race with a proven record of achieving impactful policies at both the state and the local levels,” she said. “I collaborate, work diligently, and I get results.”
Mayfield is running as an outsider to county government, and she says she’ll take a hard-nosed approach to issues facing Multnomah County on behalf of frustrated residents who feel like there’s no progress on key issues.
She has some aggressive views on how to better serve people living on the streets, and isn’t afraid of controversial proposals that would see those who won’t accept help pushed to receive it. She’s also gung-ho about improving conditions for residents and businesses overwhelmed by unsanitary and unsafe conditions.
Mayfield is a civil rights and labor attorney with Meyer Stephenson law firm in Portland and teaches privacy law at Willamette University. Her interest in civil rights and public service stems, she said, from her father, Portland lawyer Brandon Mayfield, who was wrongfully detained based on a faulty fingerprint match implicating him in the 2004 Madrid train bombing.
“Our lives were essentially ruined at that time,” she said. “My dad was facing a potential shipment to Guantanamo Bay, torture and a death penalty.”
After law school, Mayfield worked for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden on national security policy. She said her work helped curtail the federal government’s surveillance powers within the Patriot Act.
Mayfield said she wants to be county chair because she feels the county isn’t doing enough about the “visible livability crisis.” She also believes the current “housing first” policies embraced by local leaders aren’t working. Her message is similar to the stances taken recently by the group People for Portland.
“‘Housing first’ may seem like an OK idea in theory, but in reality the amount of cost that goes into that is completely unfeasible,” she said. “The crisis is an intersection of homelessness, garbage, crime, drug addiction and mental health. And unless we address all of those concurrently, we’re not going to find solutions to these problems.”
She plans to work with Metro, Portland and neighboring counties to get at the root causes, which she identifies as mental health and addiction.
Mayfield said the county needs to implement mandatory treatment for mental health and addiction. She said that would start with building “dual diagnosis centers” throughout the county and getting people in front of judges to be civilly committed into new “free, easy and accessible” programs.
She also wants to enforce camping bans with the intent of improving livability through sanitation efforts and increased public safety patrolling.
Mayfield describes her work in the areas of civil commitment and criminal law as the expertise that is missing in county government right now.
“When there’s only one voice dominating the conversation, we’re not going to find solutions,” she said. “I don’t feel like everyone’s being listened to.”
One of her first actions, she said, would be to identify sanctioned areas for camping. She said she’s already found at least 60 sites that could potentially be used for camps and services.
She acknowledges her stance draws the ire of certain homeless advocates and groups opposed to camp sweeps, but that has not deterred her. She said she believes the county also needs better data on the number of people experiencing homelessness, that there’s likely upwards of 20,000 people living on the county’s streets. The county’s most recent count took place at the beginning of 2019, finding there were just over 4,000 people experiencing some level of homelessness.
Mayfield pledges to update point in time counts by issuing them on a more regular basis to get a better handle on the need for dollars and services.
“I am unequivocally committed to ending illegal street camping in tandem with humane, compassionate alternatives,” she said. “These people need laundry services, they need toilets, they need showers, they need basic ability to get clean.”
She said that she’ll take ideas from places like Lane County and Salem, where safe sleep sites have been built that offer the type of services she’s pitching and pair amenities with outreach and bolstered case work.
“There’s not going to be a perfect solution,” she said. “We need to start damage control. That is what I’m trying to push for immediately. We just have to start controlling the problem.”
Two other candidates are on the ballot for Multnomah County chair: Bruce Broussard, a frequent candidate for local offices; and former Gresham school board candidate Joe Demers. Broussard has $140 cash on hand according to data filed with the Oregon Secretary of State’s office, while Demers has yet to file any campaign finance reports.