Portland’s fire union is endorsing their boss’ opponent in the November city council election.
Isaac McLennan, the president of the Portland Fire Fighters’ Association, said the union’s 14-person executive board voted Monday to endorse challenger Rene Gonzalez over Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees the fire bureau.
It’s a slight to Hardesty, who often speaks proudly of the bureau and what she has accomplished there in her first term. Since taking over the bureau in 2019, she has appointed the city’s first Black fire chief, banned fireworks due to rising fire risk, and started a new first-responder program called Portland Street Response. The unarmed emergency response program is designed to take pressure off the Portland police department and improve outcomes in 911 calls involving people experiencing mental illness or homelessness.
Despite those achievements, the union representing over 700 firefighters and EMTs had abstained from endorsements in the May primary — a notable snub by a department that has routinely been shown to be extremely popular amongst Portlanders. At the time, union leaders had cited Hardesty’s heavy criticism of the city’s police bureau as a turn off.
McLennan said Monday that staffing shortages were now the issue forefront in union members’ minds. He said his members felt the city needed to hire 30 more people immediately, an ask that he felt had not been received with enough urgency by the commissioner. With new hires, he said, his members were working an unsustainable amount of mandatory overtime trying to keep the bureau functioning.
“We’re dealing with a significant staffing crisis,” he said. “And we need a commissioner who is going to ensure that … public safety in this city is not jeopardized.”
McLennan had said in May that the fire union couldn’t decide between the three major candidates running for the council seat. After primary voters winnowed the field down to Gonzalez and Hardesty, he said the union tried to schedule interviews with both candidates, but only ended up interviewing Gonzalez. He said Hardesty’s team was not able to find a date that worked.
Hardesty said in a statement she had been considering doubling firefighter pay when overtime was required, but agreed along with Fire Chief Sara Boone that it would be a too big a hit to the bureau’s bottom line.
“We are following recommendations made during a recent work session to address the staffing shortage through aggressive recruitment and budget adjustments in the regular budget process,” she said.
Hardesty campaign manager Joseph Santos-Lyons said the commissioner felt it would be inappropriate to meet while city council members were working to resolve the staffing shortage, but that she was willing to do an interview once the issue was solved.
“It’s disappointing to see labor organizations endorse a candidate who has publicly disparaged unions,” Santos-Lyons said. “We are proud of Commissioner Hardesty’s track record of championing workers’ rights.”
Hardesty has earned endorsements from many of the city’s big labor and progressive groups, including SEIU Local 49, Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, and the Portland Association of Teachers. Gonzalez’s endorsements include the Portland Police Association, which represents the city’s rank and file officers, and Multifamily NW, which advocates for landlords and property managers.