Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty and her opponent, businessman Rene Gonzalez, agreed on one point at their Friday debate: the city is not in a good place.
The two city council candidates on the November ballot pointed to a proliferation of homeless camps and a rise in gun violence and drug dealing as symptoms of a community in trouble. But the similarities ended there.
This November, Portland voters will decide between two candidates with dramatically different visions of how to tackle the city’s most pressing issues of homelessness and crime. Gonzalez, a centrist attorney, has espoused a “tough love” approach to the city’s problems, calling for more police and prosecution of low-level crimes. Hardesty, the first Black woman elected to Portland’s city council, has earned a reputation as one of the region’s most politically progressive elected officials and most vocal police critics.
At a debate hosted by the Portland City Club, their competing visions took center stage.
Gonzalez called for more police, larger shelters, and more muscular prosecution of low-level crimes such as catalytic converter and car thefts. Hardesty said she wanted to continue the progress she made during her first term and allot more funding for homeless camps self-managed by homeless people and public safety programs that don’t involve the police.
Read more about the candidates’ competing platforms below:
Both candidates said they wanted to see more funding for shelters.
But they varied on the types of shelter they wanted to see. Hardesty called for a “radically different” approach to spending with more effort to create camps like Right 2 Dream Too, a self-managed camp in Portland. Gonzalez called for creating varied shelter types, including high-barrier shelters and large shelters potentially using land owned by Metro or the city.
The idea of large shelters has cropped up repeatedly in the last year and proven controversial among homeless advocates who warn they will be difficult to manage humanely.
Equally controversial within Portland is the question of how to respond to people who decline the offer of shelter. Gonzalez said Friday that people who decline shelter should face “criminal justice if they don’t move.” He expressed frustration over perceived lenience by the city to address camps that have multiplied on sidewalks in the last few years.
“We have ceded the commons to a small segment of the population,” he said. “You have a right to be outraged about that. You have a right to demand from the city that those be cleaned up.”
Asked how she would deal with people who decline shelter, Hardesty said she would tackle the reason they’re declining, such as not wanting to leave their belongings or pets.
“What is the barrier that we can help them do away with?” she said.
When it comes to improving public safety, Gonzalez detailed a simple bucket list: more support for police and more officers.
“At a high level, we need a greater police force in the city of Portland — one that is accountable, but that is effectively resourced,” said Gonzalez, who was endorsed by the city’s police union. Hardesty is suing the union after members of the police bureau and union leaked information that falsely implicated her in a hit-and-run.
Gonzalez also called for the establishment of a municipal court that would address some of the low-level crimes rampant in Portland, such as thefts of catalytic converters and cars. He bashed Hardesty for pushing $15 million in cuts to the police bureau’s budget during the 2020 protests, which he called a “historically bad decision.”
Hardesty retorted that no police officers lost their jobs due to the cuts and there are currently 100 vacancies the police bureau has not filled. She also pointed out she was a yes-vote on the most recent city budget, which she said gave the police bureaus its most funding yet.
“I just want to dispel the myth that one police officer lost their job during my time at the city council,” she said.
Instead, Hardesty said, she has pushed to lessen the workload of police officers by creating the Portland Street Response, a non-police response for people in crisis. The program dispatches unarmed first responders to 911 calls related to people experiencing homelessness or in a mental health crisis.
“We keep funding the police,” she said. “We need more than just police.”
Gonzalez said he was supportive of the Portland Street Response, but undecided if it should be further expanded. He also called out Hardesty for moving slowly to implement the police oversight board she championed, which voters approved through a ballot measure in 2020.
Both fielded questions Friday about their financial missteps.
Earlier this month, Gonzalez was fined $77,000 dollars from the city for accepting a discounted rate on rent from a property management company owned by a campaign supporter. He appealed the ruling earlier this week but was overruled by the program director.
Gonazales said Friday the fine was a result of a “disagreement in interpreting the regs,” but that the campaign would pay if they lost their appeal.
Hardesty took a question about her credit card debt, which she has called “a personal failing.” She said the debt was a result of financing her initial council campaign on her credit card and she was slowly paying it off.
The two candidates were also asked directly about their position on the charter reform ballot measure, a sweeping measure aimed at fundamentally reshaping the city’s government and voting structure. So far, the two candidates have mostly stayed out of the fray.
Asked directly for their position, Gonzalez said he would likely vote no on the measure, though wanted to see what ideas Commissioner Mingus Mapps, a vocal opponent of the proposal, put on the table in the next few weeks.
Hardesty declined to say her position, saying she wanted to let voters make up their own minds.