Rene Gonzalez, one of two prominent challengers to Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty in the May 17 primary race for Position 3, knows the progressive talking points Portland voters have come to expect from their politicians.
He will not be delivering those.
Instead, at a campaign event in late April, Gonzalez, 48, caters his message to an electorate he believes is shifting further to the right, propelled by red-hot indignation over the city’s handling of homelessness and crime. He is direct about what he views as the solution: a crackdown on outdoor camping, a beefed up police force, and a council-wide shift toward the political center.
“The center has got to hold the line,” he tells his audience. “That’s the bottom line.”
There is a palpable sense in the room that this Portland City Council has gone too far. Tom Cody, a real estate developer, leaves the meet-and-greet undecided on the race. He’s not sure about Gonzalez, an attorney and owner of a small tech business, and doesn’t know much about administrative law judge Vadim Mozyrsky, another leading centrist challenger. But he’s pretty sure he’s not going with the incumbent, despite supporting her for years.
“She was the voice of the people and the people were speaking, and so she spoke, and I think that democracy worked in that moment. But I think now we’re all feeling like the response times, the lack of response, most of us have now been affected by some form of petty crime or theft or vandalism,” said Cody, who has lived in Portland for two decades. “We’re all exhausted by it, and I think ready to fix it.”
In many ways, Hardesty did what she set out to do in her first term. The first Black woman elected to the Portland City Council, Hardesty promised to be a champion for those historically underserved by City Hall — East Portlanders, renters, people of color — and to usher in initiatives to ensure Portland lived up to its aspirations as a progressive haven: fewer sweeps of homeless camps, more oversight of police officers and better infrastructure east of 82nd Avenue. She spent her first term crafting policies aimed at many of these societal ills she lamented on the campaign trail.
But while Hardesty’s goals may not have changed much during her four years in office, the city has. Visible homelessness worsened. Gun violence spiked. And with frustration at the state of the city now surging to new highs, polls suggest a frustrated electorate may have shifted away from her progressive brand of politics, increasingly willing to crack down on outdoor homeless camps and support a larger police force.
Her opponents are banking that the city’s grumpy electorate is now ready to swing hard to the center.
Of the 11 candidates who filed to run against Hardesty for the May primary, Gonzalez and Mozyrsky are, by far, the most prominent.
Mozyrsky, 49, was already a well-known face within City Hall. The federal administrative judge moved to Portland in 2014 and proved well-suited for a city with a sprawling web of citizen advisory groups. Soon after arriving, he said, he knocked on the door of the city’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement, now known as the Office of Community & Civic Life, in search of volunteer work and was directed towards the city’s now defunct disability commission. He later joined two groups that oversee the police bureau, one that oversees the police budget, and one to make changes to the Portland City Charter.
He has earned a reputation as a cerebral, restrained participant, whose preferences tend to skew to Portland’s political center. He has occasionally drawn the ire of his colleagues, such as recently when a Black member of one of the police oversight groups accused him of using a “tone of anti-Blackness” in emails to the head of the group, as reported by Willamette Week. Mozyrsky dismissed the backlash to the emails, which did not reference race, as a smear campaign.
A self described-pragmatist, Mozyrsky said his politics were molded by his experience as an immigrant who methodically climbed his way up to the upper echelons of the federal government.
In 1979, his family left Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, due to antisemitism. They moved through Cleveland, Ohio, and Erie, Pennsylvania, before settling in Houston. Mozyrsky spent the last decade and a half working for the federal government, first as a senior policy advisor in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services then as an administrative law judge hearing appeals from people denied Social Security benefits. He transferred to Portland after a short vacation in the city; he said he was enchanted by a whimsical marching band in Pioneer Square. He now lives in Goose Hollow.
Eight years after the move, Mozyrsky, a registered Democrat, said he’s still uncertain where he fits in on Portland’s unusual political spectrum, where the most bitter fights are typically between politicians that all consider themselves progressives.
“When I lived in Texas, I considered myself to be very progressive. When I lived in California, I considered myself to be liberal. When I lived in Portland, I’m not sure where I fit in on that whole metric,” he said. “There’s such a wide range of opinions here.”
His political views, however you want to label them, have proved palatable to a wide range of union and business groups. The Portland Business Alliance, the Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors, the Columbia Pacific Building Trades Council and the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council have all endorsed him.
However, he has lagged behind his opponents in contributions. As of late April, he had collected $86,000. Hardesty had received $97,000 and Gonzalez had received $131,000. (All are taking part in the city’s Open and Accountable Elections program, which aims to reduce the influence of big money in Portland politics by limiting the contributions participating candidates can take. In return, candidates get their small dollar donations matched sixfold by the city.)
But Mozyrsky will likely end up with the best-financed campaign of all. A political action committee called “Portland United” said this month they plan to pour an additional $700,000 into his race as well as the reelection campaign of Commissioner Dan Ryan, who is similarly up against a more progressive challenger. The group, whose top funders are, so far, all real estate interests, have released an ad branding Mozyrsky as the antidote to a grieving city, the candidate prepared to “unite Portland for a fresh start.’
Mozyrsky’s policy wish list, however, is in line with the views of the majority of City Council. He says he wants more police, more shelters and more mental health and drug addiction services. He wants to see less trash, less graffiti, and fewer people camping outside.
So how will he get there? On homelessness, Mozyrsky said he would push for more shelter while the region builds more affordable housing. If elected, he said he would convene a summit of local leaders — including neighborhood associations, nonprofits and elected officials — to hammer out a plan for scaling up the region’s supply of short-term shelters and longer-term facilities that offer services, such as drug addiction treatment and mental health counseling.
“Not everyone is going to wake up on the streets and decide, ‘Today I’m gonna go for drug addiction counseling,’” he said in an interview. “But if you’re at a shelter and that’s being offered to you every day, when you’re ready, it’s there.”
Mozyrsky said he was supportive of the goals of People for Portland’s potential ballot measure to redirect money from the voter-approved 2020 Metro Homeless Services Measure. Under the current proposal, 75 percent of the money meant for services to help people stay in housing would be put toward emergency shelter. Mozyrsky said he wanted more information on where the 75 percent figure came from, but approved of prioritizing shelter.
On policing, Mozyrsky said he views himself as similar to Commissioner Mingus Mapps, who has consistently voiced support for the police bureau while on council. He wants to increase the number of public safety support specialists, unarmed police that respond to low-level calls. He’d like to see the city focus more on community policing, a form of police work where officers focus on developing relationships with the residents in the area they serve.
He says he was vehemently opposed to Hardesty’s push to disband the gun violence reduction team, which he believes has fueled the spike in gun violence. (Hardesty made the push to get rid of the local police unit tasked with investigating gun violence during the racial justice protests, citing an audit that found the team disproportionately stopped Black Portlanders.) Some public safety experts have rebuked that argument, noting there was not enough data to draw conclusions about the team’s role in reducing gun violence and gun violence had been rising nationally. The mayor has since created a similar police team focused on gun violence under a new name.
Mozyrsky said he did agree with Hardesty on one policing issue: He was supportive of her push to create a new body for police oversight to replace the city’s independent police review, which has been widely criticized as ineffective to hold police accountable. But he dinged her on the drawn out process to get the new board off the ground. Hardesty had initially said it would take 18 months to create, though that timeline has been pushed back.
“To the extent that that’s necessary, I agree with her,” he said. “I very much object to the process of how this committee is being stood up.”
In interviews, Hardesty’s two main opponents present strikingly similar political views.
Both define themselves as political pragmatists in contrast to Hardesty, who they describe as ideologically driven. Both say they want more police officers paired with more muscular oversight of those officers. Both point to Bybee Lakes Hope Center, a contentious shelter in the former Wapato Jail, as an example of shelter services done right (the founder endorsed Mozyrsky).
At the end of the day, the main political difference between the two seems to be not so much what they’re saying as how they say it. Mozyrsky treads cautiously when answering the thorniest questions of the day. Asked what he would do to reduce the number of people living outside, he said he’d convene stakeholders “to provide a clear plan for short- and mid-term shelter spaces,” which he framed as the moral thing to prevent people suffering on the streets. Asked if he’d support requiring people living outside to use shelters as the mayor’s staff has suggested, he says he’d support “incentivizing people ... as a means to receiving needed services.”
Gonzalez is blunter. Asked what he would do to reduce the number of homeless people living on the street, he said he’d crack down on the illegally parked RVs, which he accuses Hardesty of ignoring in her role as transportation commissioner. Asked if he’d support requiring homeless people to move into shelters if enough were built, he says yes.
“I just think we’re at a point where we need to speak clearly on those issues,” he said at his April campaign event, when asked by a voter how he compares to Mozyrsky. “And, at times, it feels like the two alternatives are unwilling to speak as clearly on those topics.”
Gonzalez has also referred to his Oregonian heritage and family ties to the city in an attempt to differentiate himself from Mozyrsky, a Ukrainian refugee. Gonzalez notes on his website he is the great-grandson of a well-known Portland architect, his mother has “deep Oregon roots going back to the 1800s,” and his father was a migrant worker who became a trial judge. Gonzalez, who describes himself as half-Latino, grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, and has lived in Southeast Portland for 20 years.
For most of that time, Gonzalez worked primarily in the private sector. He began his career as an attorney for downtown law firm Stoel Rives and then in-house counsel for KinderCare, a private day care provider. For a decade, he’s owned a small consulting and tech business called Artifex Partners, which creates software for businesses to manage their day-to-day activities.
He says his foray into local politics began in the fall of 2020, a half year or so into the pandemic. A father of three, he co-founded a group of what he estimates were roughly 40,000 parents statewide to lobby Gov. Kate Brown to reopen schools. The experience, he said, taught him how to make a bipartisan push to tackle a narrowly defined problem. Some of the parents from the group approached him, he said, and asked him to consider a run for city council.
Like Mozyrsky, Gonzalez’s candidacy has proven appealing to many of the city’s business interests. The endorsements listed on his campaign website include Multifamily NW, President of the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce Gale Castillo, and Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association President David Tunley. The Portland Police Association, the union representing rank-and-file police officers, also endorsed him as did the Oregonian/Oregonlive’s editorial board, who praised him as the candidate with the “proven ability to corral public sentiment into productive action.”
Gonzalez’s candidacy has focused on policing and homelessness. He describes his position toward the city’s homeless population as one of “tough love.” He says he wants to build more shelters that offer addiction and mental health services as well as a center where people can detox.
If people refuse to go to these facilities, he said, they should “face the criminal justice system.” He said that could mean jail time or a citation.
“None of us have the right to unilaterally adopt a piece of sidewalk as our own real estate,” he said in an interview with OPB.
That includes people who are experiencing addiction or extreme mental health issues. While he says his first choice for this population is to receive services at a shelter, he has said he is supportive of sending them to jail if they commit low-level offenses, such as selling drugs in public or defecating in public. He said he believes the criminal justice system could serve as a last resort to get people the services they need and “compel treatment.”
“If you want social services in the city of Portland, you live by a social contract, and we will offer you a place to sleep. If you choose not to take that place to sleep and live by the rules with that place to sleep, then you’re facing the judicial system,” Gonzalez said. “I think that’s the only way to restore trust in this city that we’re all living by the same social contract.”
Gonzalez is equally direct when it comes to his views on policing. He said he wants to end the “defund the police culture” and “demonization” of the police that he believes has made hiring quality officers needlessly difficult. He says he embraces strong police oversight, but thinks there should be a pause on new policies while legislators see how the police accountability bills recently passed in Salem pan out. And he believes city leaders need to be more vocally supportive of police.
“We need a police department cheerleader,” he said on local podcast Rhythm Nation in December. “We need to glorify the good behaviors as much as we condemn the bad behaviors, and that is out of whack in the city of Portland right now.”
Jo Ann Hardesty
One more attribute the two challengers share?
Both draw a straight line between Hardesty’s policies and the city’s dysfunction.
In her first term in office, Hardesty has made an obvious mark on the city she helps govern. She championed the Portland Street Response, pushing it from a fledgling idea to the city’s most promising police alternative. The unarmed emergency response program now responds citywide, dispatching a team of health workers and a paramedic to calls for people in a mental health crisis. She led the charge to disband the gun violence reduction team and cut $15 million from the police bureau budget in 2020 amid the nationwide uprising against police brutality and for racial justice. She followed that with a ballot measure to create a new police oversight board with the power to discipline and fire officers. Voters passed it handily. She championed the ballot measure for the Portland Clean Energy Fund, a tax-funded program that doles out grants to fight climate change and social inequality. She convinced her colleagues to pass a ban on facial recognition and another one on fireworks.
The question for voters is whether the mark she’s left on the city, while undeniable, is a net negative or positive.
Hardesty can count over a dozen union and left-leaning advocacy groups in the net-positive camp. SEIU Local 49, SEIU Local 503, and Pro-Choice Oregon have all endorsed her. So has U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt, and Metro President Lynn Peterson, among a long list of fellow elected officials.
“There’s a culture of Portland nice and sometimes people aren’t used to hearing somebody who will be very blunt about what they think,” said State Rep. Khanh Pham, who represents East Portland and worked closely with Hardesty on a plan to transfer control of 82nd Avenue from the state to the city after multiple pedestrian deaths. “But what I appreciate about her is that you know where she stands and she’ll tell you exactly what she thinks.”
But Hardesty’s opponents contend her policies and leadership are partly to blame for the state of the city. They contend she struggles to make the policies she champions a reality, pointing to the slow start up of the police oversight board and the recent blunders out of the Portland Clean Energy Fund, including a highly-critical audit and the revocation of a $12 million grant after The Oregonian reported the grantee had a fraud conviction. And they say her opposition to sweeping camps has allowed outdoor tent cities to proliferate across the city.
Hardesty says her opponents are blaming her for problems that go well beyond her control. As one of five city commissioners, Hardesty has control over a fraction of the city’s portfolios — most recently, she’s run the civic life, transportation and fire departments. She notes that Portland has been beset by an unprecedented string of crises during her four years in office, including a pandemic and the nation’s racial justice reckoning. The solutions she offers, she says, are intended to make Portland fundamentally more equitable — unlike her critics who she says are more intent on “disappear[ing] poor people” than solving the inequities at the root of the problem.
“My opponents are well-meaning men who think they have a solution to the problems on the street,” she said. “And what I can tell them both after being here for a little over three years, is that what we think the problems are and the solutions are radically different once you get inside City Hall.”
Hardesty concedes she’s had her blunders, but says the missteps are far outnumbered by the consequential policies she brought to the dias — policies like the Portland Street Response and the police oversight board that she says she needs one more term to see through.
“If I would look at the totality of my three years and three months here, I am extremely proud of both the work that I and my team have done. We’ve done some revolutionary things in just a short period of time,” she said. “I have so much more to be proud of than to be disappointed in.”
Ballots in the May 17 primary hit the mail this week. To win outright, a candidate must receive more than 50% of the vote. Otherwise, the top two primary finishers will meet in the November general election.