Portland fire union declines to endorse bureau’s boss, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty

By Rebecca Ellis (OPB)
May 3, 2022 12 p.m.

The fire union is remaining silent on this year’s most contentious Portland City Council race. They will be not be endorsing the commissioner of the fire bureau, nor any of her opponents.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, one of the city’s most vocal police critics, couldn’t have been surprised when the union representing rank-and-file Portland police officers chose not to endorse her in her bid for re-election. After all, she never asked for their support. Plus, she’s suing them.

But it was likely more of a jolt when the union representing employees of the Portland Fire Bureau, a department Hardesty oversees, made the same decision — in part due to her criticism of the city’s police.


“It’s fair to say that she was not happy,” said Isaac McLennan, the president of the Portland Fire Fighters’ Association, which represents over 700 firefighters and EMTs.

The fire union, also known as IAFF Local 43, has made endorsements in most of the other significant local races on the May 17 ballot. They backed incumbent Dan Ryan for the other Portland City Council seat, Lynn Peterson for Metro president, Jessica Vega Peterson for Multnomah County chair, Christina Stevenson for Oregon labor commissioner, and Nicole Morrissey O’Donnell for Multnomah County sheriff.

McLennan says fire union leadership interviewed Hardesty as well as her more centrist opponents, administrative law judge Vadim Mozyrsky and tech business owner Rene Gonzalez, who the police union ultimately endorsed. (Hardesty’s campaign manager said she was never invited to interview with the Portland Police Association, unlike her two opponents. Union President Aaron Schmautz said he speaks to Hardesty’s office regularly and never got any indication she was interested. They wanted a chance to meet the other two candidates.)

But McLennan said the fire union couldn’t come to a consensus on which candidate to support. A 14-person executive board, elected by union members, quietly made a decision two months ago to stay silent on the race for the May primary.

A Portland Fire & Rescue truck, April 19, 2021.

A Portland Fire & Rescue truck, April 19, 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

It’s a notable snub for Hardesty, who has been in charge of the Portland Fire Bureau since the start of her term and often speaks with palpable pride about the staff under her command, referring to them as “my firefighters.” In her time overseeing the bureau, she has appointed the city’s first Black fire chief, banned fireworks due to increasing fire risk, and created a promising new first responder program called the Portland Street Response. The unarmed emergency response program is designed to take pressure off a police department that has struggled in recent years in incidents involving people in a mental health crises. The new program sends a team of health workers and a paramedic on 911 calls that involve people experiencing mental illness or homelessness.

But it’s her focus on the city’s other major public safety bureau that turned many firefighters off, McLennan said. The union president said a significant portion of his members had concerns about her push to cut funding from the police, her $5 million lawsuit against the police union after the group’s then-president leaked information that falsely implicated her in a hit-and-run, and her now infamous comment to Marie Claire magazine that police, not protesters, were the one starting fires during the racial justice demonstrations in 2020. Hardesty later apologized for the unsubstantiated remark.

“Those are tough ones for her to walk away from,” McLennan said. “Here’s the reality: Firefighters and police officers, we’re very different people in general, but we both have a job to keep the city safe.”

No endorsement, but a donation

Campaign finance reports show that the same month that the union decided not to make an endorsement, McLennan made a $250 contribution to Mozyrsky’s campaign. The union head emphasized it was a personal contribution and had nothing to do with his union affiliation or what he thought was best for his membership.

Jo Ann Hardesty, candidate for Portland City Council, 2022.

Jo Ann Hardesty, candidate for Portland City Council, 2022.

Courtesy of Jo Ann for Portland

He added that his membership also had concerns unrelated to Hardesty’s stance on the police bureau. He said some members felt that the commissioner didn’t show substantial support for firefighters as they were going through an unprecedentedly rocky period with a pandemic, political protests and wildfires. These members, he said, felt her two main opponents expressed more interest “in what we’re doing in the field.”

“We felt like, in large part, we were an afterthought for at least the first two, three years of her time in office, and it wasn’t until she was prepared to run and thinking, ‘I like this governing thing [and] I think I need to start focusing on the fire department,’” he said. “It feels a lot like a campaign move at that point.”

He pointed to the commissioner recently floating the idea of putting a $147 million bond measure on the May ballot to fix two deteriorating fire bureau properties. She shelved the effort after polling showed voters were furious with city leadership and a high chance the measure would fail.

Asked for comment, Hardesty’s campaign manager, the Rev. Joseph Santos-Lyons, sent a statement: “Commissioner Hardesty appreciates the hard work of our firefighters and Chief Boone who always show up and never fail us,” he wrote. “She looks forward to continuing to work with them in her second term.”

Learning to lead

Randy Leonard, a former firefighter and Portland city commissioner, said he was not surprised that the union had declined to endorse a candidate as proudly far left as Hardesty. Leonard, who served as president of the fire union from 1986-1998, said that in his experience, the membership of fire unions across the country tends to lean politically to the right. The Portland Fire Fighters’ Association, he said, was no exception.

“Their job is to be out in the community and helping citizens in the worst circumstances you can think of. So of course they’re going to defer to those they perceive as being the most pro public safety,” he said. “I think that they decided to sit this out and not endorse somebody else I actually think speaks well of Jo Ann.”

Leonard has endorsed Hardesty; he says it’s his first endorsement since leaving Portland City Hall a decade ago. As a commissioner who had a “a number of go-arounds” with the police bureau and occasionally angered their chief, Leonard said he appreciated Hardesty’s relentless pursuit of more thorough oversight of the bureau. He believes she became more tactful in her push over the course of her first term.

“You’ve got to make sure all your T’s are crossed and I’s dotted,” he said. “I think she’s learned that. She’s not an advocate any longer. She’s a member of the council, and she has to be more deliberative when she’s tackling something as tough as the police bureau and trying to bring more accountability.”

The bureau leaders who report to Hardesty have expressed a similar wariness of the commissioner’s off-the-cuff remarks and the way in which they could undermine her goals.

Hardesty told OPB in a recent election interview that she asks the city’s human resources department to conduct interviews each year with her bureau directors so she can gauge how she’s performing. OPB obtained the most recent one, conducted in January 2021, through a public record request. It contains paraphrased and anonymous responses from Fire Chief Sara Boone, Bureau of Emergency Communications Director Bob Cozzie, Chief Administrative Officer Tom Rinehart, the director of the city’s fire and police disability program, Sam Hutchison, former Bureau of Planning and Sustainability Director Andrea Durbin, and former Bureau of Emergency Management Director Mike Myers.

Asked how the commissioner could improve, the bureau directors told city HR staff they had concerns about the way “emotions get the best of her,” her “us versus them mindset with PPB,” and her “tendency to make remarks and quips that may undermine her stature and credibility.”

Asked where Hardesty excelled, the cohort commended her “deep level of integrity,” championing of “causes that she was elected to represent,” and “political savvy and astuteness to situations.”

McLennan said the fire union will consider making an endorsement in the race if there is a runoff between the two top candidates. A runoff takes place if no candidate earns more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary.


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