Portland City Council candidates Hardesty, Gonzalez debate crime, homelessness and their vision for downtown

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
Oct. 14, 2022 12:39 a.m.
Rene Gonzalez, left, faces incumbent Jo Ann Hardesty in the Nov. 8 election for Portland City Council Position 3.

Rene Gonzalez, left, faces incumbent Jo Ann Hardesty in the Nov. 8 election for Portland City Council Position 3.

Courtesy of the campaigns

Next month, Portlanders will be casting their ballots to decide who should be one of the city’s next commissioners. Incumbent Jo Ann Hardesty and Rene Gonzalez debated Thursday and made their cases to voters, with Dave Miller moderating a discussion hosted by OPB’s “Think Out Loud.”


Hardesty and Gonzalez were the top two vote-getters in the May primary, but neither got more than 50% of the vote. Gonzalez is a lawyer and technology business owner. During the early days of the pandemic, he co-founded the nonprofit ED 300 and pushed for a return to in-person K-2 instruction in Oregon. Hardesty was elected to the City Council in 2018. She served in the Oregon House of Representatives in the late 1990s and is a former president of the Portland chapter of the NAACP.

Push play to hear the full debate:

Dave Miller: Rene Gonzalez and Jo Ann Hardesty welcome back to “Think Out Loud.

Jo Ann Hardesty: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be back.

Rene Gonzalez: Thanks so much Dave.

Miller: As always in these conversations or these debates, we do not have timers or buzzers, but I’m going to do my best as we go to ensure equal time for both of you. We flipped a coin before the show and Jo Ann Hardesty, you can go first. In these conversations, it’s often really easy to gloss over the fact that a commissioner is limited in their power in Portland, with executive control over some number of bureaus but just one vote among five as a city lawmaker. So where do you see your true levers of power and the limits of your power?

Hardesty: What a great question and thank you so much for that. I see my greatest power as my ability to pass legislation that protects the most vulnerable people in our community. And because I have been a state lawmaker, because of my relationship with our federal delegation and my relationship with Multnomah County, what I know is to get out of where we are today we will need to be very strong partners with our regional, state and federal elected leaders, and we have to work together to solve these really complex problems.

Miller: What are examples you can point to where you have increased your leverage or you’ve actually accomplished your own priorities outside of your bureaus?

Hardesty: Well, a great example of that would be when COVID first hit. I had the relationship with Gov. Kate Brown. I could call Gov. Brown at 8, 9, 10 o’clock at night. I could call Speaker Kotek and work with her to figure out how we were gonna get money into the hands of our most vulnerable people. I did not have to try to figure out who to call, who to work with, who I needed to put pressure on in order to get those resources flowing into the hands of people who were in desperate situations.

[Former Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek is Oregon’s Democratic nominee for governor.]

Miller: Rene Gonzalez, where do you see your true levers of power, if you were to be a member of City Council and the limits of your power?

Gonzalez: Well, under our current form of government, a city commissioner has substantial management responsibility and oversight of bureaus. And I’ve been manager for the last 15 years, in both big companies and small companies, and as a steward in a number of nonprofits. So most fundamentally, the piece you control most directly as a commissioner is your ability to drive bureaus toward shared objectives. That’s where you can connect most directly and be in the trenches every day.

As a city commissioner coming in, if I am to prevail, I think that I’m coming in with a very strong mandate to address homelessness and crime. I think that sends a message very clearly. I haven’t really hidden why I’m running. I think that that really assists in getting to three votes in City Council, when someone prevails with such a clear message.

Certainly, there are limitations. You do have to get to those three votes on, on other pieces that aren’t under your bureaus, that aren’t central to what you ran on. You have to do the good work of finding agreed-upon priorities and focuses and, you know, you have to compromise. I’ve been on a number of nonprofits and board settings where it’s all about finding a majority to agree on something, and I’ve long been building those skills. But, certainly, that’s the constraint. You’ve got to get to three votes.

Last and not least, some of our most vexing problems really do intersect with both the county and state in really fundamental ways. For better or worse, the city gets blamed for some of our biggest challenges that we really do need to continue to work effectively with the county and the state on. So that is a constraint. That’s the limit of city government in some respects. But it’s also an opportunity if you have the skills to work well with others.

Miller: Rene Gonzalez, let me stick with you and zero in on one thing you mentioned, which is crime. Given what you just laid out and the mandate you say you would have if you were elected, what do you think you would do to meaningfully reduce violent crime?

Gonzalez: There’s a budget component, an absolute commitment to growing our police force. We need more police officers on the streets of Portland —

Miller: Let me just make sure I understand what you’re saying because I mean, the police bureau, the chief recently said that this is not a budget issue in terms of the number of officers, it’s a hiring issue. 675 people applied to be police officers last year, 27 were hired. So you’re saying that you also would want to increase the police budget?

Gonzalez: We’ve got multiple years of recruiting that’s going to be necessary to get where we need. One: we’ve got to protect those budgets. Two: One of the really unfortunate decisions we made is we were cutting back on police. We really gutted both the recruiting and background check apparatus for Portland police. That really set us back in our recruiting efforts. I think that has largely been remedied. I think that pipeline is getting better. But that did put us back a bit in terms of getting a number of qualified candidates.

I’d also put out there, there’s evaluation of whether we move the academy or a portion of our pipeline to be trained up here in Portland, as opposed to being dependent on the state. I think those are gonna help us get to an adequate police force.

More broadly on criminal justice and the police, we do have to change the messaging that comes out of City Hall. We need to, when police officers do heroic and good things, we need to celebrate it. We need to refrain from judging too quickly when there’s allegations of misconduct. We need process to play itself through. I think at times, Portland has communicated to the broader community that this is not a good place to be a police officer.

Miller: When you say Portland, do you mean Jo Ann Hardesty?

Gonzalez: She certainly has been a big part of the problem.

Miller: In what way in particular? And obviously Jo Ann, I’ll give you a chance to respond, but I just, I want to try to get as much clarity as possible from both of you. What specifically are you pointing to, Rene Gonzalez?

Gonzalez: Well, she falsely accused police officers of starting fires during the riots. That was a very, very damaging situation and at a really bad time in the city’s history, was deeply, deeply unfortunate. And I think that impacted the city’s ability to recruit and retain, not just public police officers, but fire and some of the other folks that are so dependent on their safety. So those kind of rash, really heated comments don’t do us any good in our ability to retain and attract police officers — to make a very false statement about them.

Miller: Jo Ann Hardesty, let me turn to you because I’ve given Rene Gonzalez a lot of time there.

Hardesty: Yes you have

Miller: But I’m gonna do my best to give you both equal time. But, if you could specifically respond to his critique here, that you’ve created an environment where people don’t want to be police officers in Portland.

Hardesty: Let me say that I have worked with 12 police chiefs and six police commissioners over the last 30 years. I did not just discover the Portland Police Association. You may also remember that I had an obligation to file a lawsuit against the president of the Portland Police Association who set me up for false prosecution. I have been an advocate for constitutional policing my entire adult life, as a kid of the civil rights movement. I’ve worked with good police chiefs and I’ve worked with bad police chiefs. I’ve never walked away from the table.

I do not take the blame for why people do or do not want to be a Portland police officer.

But here’s what the facts are. The facts are, is that the public sector is losing employees and institutional memory at a rapid rate because of retirements. We cannot compete with the private sector as far as salary and benefits and every public sector employer is in desperate need of new employees. What I know is that we have the United States Department of Justice in its 12th year of attempting to hold Portland police accountable for unconstitutional police practices.

But I firmly believe we could have a police force that follows the law, that treats every person in Portland with dignity and respect and actually can still do their job of providing constitutionally protected policing to everyone in the city of Portland who needs it.

Miller: So let me go back to the earlier question that I asked Rene Gonzalez. Jo Ann Hardesty, what would you do to meaningfully reduce violent crime in Portland going forward?

Hardesty: I’ve done two things very specifically in my short time as a city commissioner.

One, I created Portland’s Street Response, a non-armed response to people suffering from a mental health crisis. They have a mental health professional, E.M.T. and a peer supporter that go and meet people where they are to assist them. The 911 system hadn’t changed in 100 years prior to me being on the City Council.

The second thing I did was work directly with community members and our leader neighborhood to successfully reduce gun violence by over 60% by listening to the community about diverting traffic. Using my bureau, the Bureau of Transportation, to divert traffic, create a community meeting space that now is colorful, it is utilized by the community and we did it with the community.

Miller: That’s something that we’ve talked about on the show before. Some of our listeners may remember that conversation. To some extent, that’s really, it’s very specific. It’s about the geography of that particular area around the park and the way the streets were set up. What’s the broader lesson that we can take from that or that you can apply to other places where maybe traffic barrels are not the answer? How could that be a broader idea?

Hardesty: Well, we’re doing it right now. I was able to get my City Council colleagues to unanimously agree to provide an additional $800,000 so that we can work directly with four other communities. We are prioritizing high-crash quarters. We’re prioritizing areas of high levels of gun violence, and we’re working directly with the community. We have not decided on which communities yet, but we are prioritizing those with high rates of gun violence. And so over the next few months we’ll be rolling these programs out in other parts of the city of Portland.

Miller: Just quickly, in 10 seconds. Do you want all the funded but empty positions in the police bureau to be filled?

Hardesty: Yes, absolutely.

Miller: OK. Rene Gonzalez, I want to turn back to you. What do you see as the biggest differences between you and Jo Ann Hardesty with respect to homelessness?

Gonzalez: You know, I think we both share compassion for many of the folks on our streets that are struggling financially and with mental illness and addiction. I think we actually have some parallels there.

However, I’ve come to recognize that there is a component of our unsheltered population that are using our unsanctioned camps as this form of sanctuary for some really bad criminal behavior. That includes being involved in auto thefts, car thefts, bike thefts, much less sex trafficking and drug trafficking. And I take the position that we need to be very direct in criminal justice intervention with those segments.


Additionally, I think Portland’s preexisting reputation as “anything goes” was exacerbated by Measure 110 and we continue to attract an element, not all, but an element in our unsheltered population that comes here to use hard drugs and anything goes in the city of Portland. And with that segment, I think we need to change the reputation of Portland and the reality of Portland. We will take care of those Portlanders who need our help, but we’re not here as a sanctuary for hard drug use and for urban camping. And that’s going to be a little bit more tough love. And maybe sort of the voice of a parent that “Portland’s not the place for that.”

Miller: But when you say the voice of a parent there, do you mean police officers? There are no parents here. There are laws. Right? So, what exactly do you mean? And how do you change a reputation?

Gonzalez: Metaphorically, the voices of parents.

Miller: I understand, but I’m just trying to turn the metaphor into reality.

Gonzalez: So that is the message coming out of City Hall. You know, that’s including City Council. Tom McCall once told the Californians, “Please visit, don’t stay.” And I think as the city of Portland, we need to make the message clearer. This is not a place for urban camping and this is not a place for hard drug use.

And then it includes the police. For those who are engaging in really negative behaviors on the streets of Portland, they need to face our criminal justice system. And if they came here from somewhere else, they need to go home, at a really fundamental level, if they’re engaging in those types of behaviors.

I contrast that with the city’s needs to continue to be incredibly welcoming to immigrants of all cultures that come here to build businesses and build families. We can say both of those things at the same time.

Miller: Jo Ann Hardesty, I want to give you a chance to answer the same question. What do you see as the biggest difference with respect to homelessness between you and Rene Gonzalez?

Hardesty: The biggest difference is, I’m not a millionaire. I’m a renter and I suffer the same anxiety that other renters suffer when they know their rent’s gonna go up by 14%, when we’re telling people we have rent control. I suffer the same anxiety as people who are now facing, in affordable housing units, a 50% rent increase. I face the same anxiety as people who ride public transit because they have to, not because they want to, when they see people suffering from mental health issues that we have nowhere to send them.

And so the biggest difference between my opponent and I, is I am living the experience that he is being philosophical about. And what I know is his approach will cause more harm and will exacerbate the harm that folks are experiencing. It will exacerbate people’s food insecurity, their housing insecurity, their medicine insecurity.

A much more proactive approach is to work with our legislators to make sure they’re not sending billions of dollars back with kicker dollars, and instead investing it in housing people can afford to live in and in mental health treatment. Even if the police arrest somebody in severe mental health distress, they have nowhere to take them and they’re back on the street in two hours.

My opponent has taken a line out of the Republican playbook. We just will lock people up, and then the world will be a pretty place.

Miller: Well, what he was saying is that if people are committing serious crimes, then we should have the police go after them.

Hardesty: They should be arrested and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law if they’re committing crime.

Miller: Well then, if you agree with that then, I’m trying to figure out what the actual policy difference is, as opposed to a kind of a difference in emphasis or a difference in what you’re choosing to really focus on.

Hardesty: I don’t know that my opponent has ever submitted a policy recommendation. I will tell you that for me, the issue is we have to move people off the street into safe, warm places, and we have to do it with a sense of urgency. And I don’t think jail cells should actually replace beds. What I know is, if we had a sense of urgency around getting houseless people into safe shelter, then the criminals would be exposed and they would not be able to hide among our most vulnerable community members. And those people should be prosecuted. Open drug dealing, the police should show up, they should arrest open drug dealers and they should be prosecuted.

Miller: The pandemic has greatly disrupted basically every aspect of our lives. But downtown as an area has been more impacted than most areas in the city, including with the fact that many more people are working from home and all kinds of effects have come from that. Jo Ann Hardesty, first, sticking with you briefly, what’s your vision for what downtown could look like in, say,10 years, and what role should the city take in making that happen?

Hardesty: I love this question, because I am all about hope for the future. What the city should be doing right now is land banking all the vacant land — purchasing and land banking — that exist downtown. There are lots of big, beautiful buildings that the people who live here today cannot afford to rent or lease.

When I moved here, people of all income levels — artists, creative types — could live downtown and thrive. I want to return downtown to why people wanted to move to Portland in the first place. And what we should do is have housing and commercial space at 60% of the area median income. Because we’re not just pricing workers out of the city of Portland, we’re also pricing small entrepreneurs out. Downtown could be thriving, if we change what we expected from downtown. We’ll never go back to fully Class A office space and big beautiful 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 square feet. So we have to think differently about how we use the space that we own downtown.

Miller: And just briefly, how much money would you allocate to buy land or property downtown?

Hardesty: I would be taking as much federal dollars as we could get, as much of the returning tax incremental finance dollars that are coming back to the general fund. And that would be a number one priority. Because rents are not going down anytime soon. And if the city doesn’t land bank and restrict development — and that’s why the developers are supporting my opponent, because I want to restrict development on land that we control to 60% so that all of us thrive, not just the millionaires.

Miller: OK. Rene Gonzalez, your turn. What’s your vision for what downtown Portland could look like in 10 years, and what role should the city government play in making that happen?

Gonzalez: Well, some new and some old, starting with the old. You know, our downtown has been a source of tremendous civic pride for, really, a generation plus. It’s been centered on the arts, the music and sports, drawing people down there, a phenomenal restaurant scene. And I think that’s gonna be a big part of the future as well. We need to protect those institutions that open up the city to the beauties of music, to the beauties of art, and make sure they’re really thriving. And some of them are struggling right now with the same issues of crime and homelessness that other parts of the city are. And we really just need to protect them.

Secondly, I do think that we will see permanent shifts in the relative mix of those who work from home and in the office, and that will necessitate rethinking the optimal mix of residential uses downtown and office space. There are many cities in the country confronting the challenges of how you convert office space to residential. It’s not cheap. It’s challenging. We’re going to have to look at a combination of tax incentives and what other development pieces we can do to incentivize that conversion because the price tag is huge.

And just to be crystal clear, in a place like Portland, Oregon, seismic upgrades alone are substantial, when you’re talking about converting from office to residential. These are gigantic numbers. But I think we can look at some incentives to sort of make that more possible, that make it easier to pencil.

I’d say, last but not least, we have, for a good part of our history until recently, been one of the safest cities in the country. Downtown thrived as a result of that. It was welcoming. It was relatively clean. And that has to be part of the future. I mean that it’s a safe place to get to, it’s a clean place to get to, whether you’re taking the Max, riding a bus or riding the train, and you feel safe and welcomed there. And right now, despite being better than it was a year ago, in terms of no longer feeling like “Mad Max,” it doesn’t feel safe to a lot of visitors. So I think that has to be a component to attract and retain people there.

Miller: I want to turn to the form of Portland’s government and questions about charter reform. Jo Ann Hardesty, you’ve said in the past that while you have made up your mind on the charter reform measure in front of Portland voters, you don’t think it’s appropriate to tell voters about it because it would unfairly influence this volunteer-driven effort. First, just briefly, do you still stand by that?

Hardesty: You know, I think last week or the week before, I just finally told people that I would be a “yes” vote on charter change.

Miller: I missed that. Why is that? Why are you voting “yes” on charter change?

Hardesty: Well, because first I wanted to give the charter commissioners an opportunity to make their case to the tens of thousands of voters that they’ve spoken to in the past. I support charter change because, in my three years and nine months on council, I know that our government is dysfunctional and how it operates. Which is why I was not stuck working just in the bureaus that I was assigned in, because I went where my constituents needed me to go.

I will say, because I believe voters will pass this change, now is not the time to have somebody doing on-the-job training in this position. I am now the senior member of council with the exception of the mayor. And if we’re going to massively change our form of government, we cannot have an amateur that’s looking out for rich developers taking my seat on the council.

Miller: I want to stick with questions about the former government right now. Rene Gonzalez, you’ve said in the past that you were leaning against the charter review commissions measure, but were waiting to see Commissioner [Mingus] Mapps’ alternative that is now out. I can’t summarize all of it. But the basics are that it would have seven single-seat districts, a city administrator and a stronger mayor than either the current version or the charter review commission’s proposal. What do you think of Commissioner Mapps’ idea?

Gonzalez: That’s my preferred choice at this point.

Miller: Why?

Gonzalez: It has some of the same strengths that what is proposed in November. The move to professional management. The move to geographical representation for city council members. I think those are positives in each scenario, but it’s less experimental.

The combination of ranked-choice voting with multi-member, is excessively rare, globally, used almost nowhere in the United States — a couple of small exceptions. But it’s just too experimental in my opinion. I think that’s something we may revisit in short order if Portlanders continue to be really interested in it. But the mere complexity of implementation, I would prefer a more humble shift in city government while fully recognizing we need it. Portlanders are clamoring for charter reform and whether we’re talking November or Mapps’ proposal, one or the other should be adopted. I just find Mapps’ to be a little bit less experimental and a little bit more humble.

Miller: Let’s move on because we’re almost out of time. But I want to give each of you a chance to ask a question. An actual formed question briefly to the other one. Rene Gonzalez, you can go first.

Gonzalez: Commissioner Hardesty, have crime and homelessness gotten better in Portland since you were elected to City Council, or have they gotten worse?

Hardesty: The factors that contributed to houselessness and violence were not directly related to my role on Portland’s City Council. As you well know, we’ve had a pandemic. We had a worldwide racial justice movement. We had wildfires and no one on City Council worked harder for the most vulnerable people that we have in the city of Portland. I’ve been a champion for 30 years and I will continue to be a champion for folks who have never had a voice at City Hall.

Miller: Jo Ann Hardesty, your turn to ask Rene Gonzalez a question.

Hardesty: Mr. Gonzalez, The more I learned about ED 300, the more terrified I become. It appears that you support very extreme school board members who are anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-real education. Can you explain how you could actually start an organization that would champion such right-wing extremes for our school boards, when you say you care so much about kids? This will harm them.

Gonzalez: So, the extended closures of schools and blue cities and blue states have been described as one of the greatest public health failures of our lifetimes. And to address that real crisis, I worked with Democrats, Republicans and independents across the state — rural, urban, suburban — and focused on the things that we had commonality on. And that was the absolute necessity to reestablish children’s access to school, to sports and to the arts. So, I walked across the aisle. I worked with the folks that shared that vision and commitment and we stayed entirely focused on what we agreed upon and not upon what we disagreed on. And so that was the necessity of the moment. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

And I will promise Portlanders this: I am pro-choice. I support gay marriage. I support families of all lifestyles. I will, without question, work in a bipartisan way to support our city when our city needs help from others.

Miller: Rene Gonzalez and Jo Ann Hardesty. Thanks very much for joining us today. I appreciate both of your times.

Hardesty: Thank you. My pleasure. Have a great day.

Gonzalez: Thank you all.

Miller: Rene Gonzalez is a lawyer and a technology business owner. Jo Ann Hardesty is a Portland city commissioner.

This debate transcript has been edited for clarity.