In a council race was dominated by concerns over homelessness and crime, two issues that polls show were top of mind for Portlanders, voters decided not to reelect Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, instead choosing Rene Gonzalez. Hardesty joined OPB’s “Think Out Loud” on Friday to share her take on the election — and the direction she thinks the city is headed.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. We start today with Jo Ann Hardesty. The former state lawmaker was elected to the Portland City Council four years ago as an outspoken champion of police oversight and other progressive causes. But she lost her reelection bid last week to political newcomer Rene Gonzalez. She joins us now to talk about what happened and what comes next for her and for the city of Portland. Jo Ann Hardesty, welcome back.
Jo Ann Hardesty: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be back. Dave.
Miller: How are you doing right now?
Hardesty: Well, you know, I’m going through all the stages of grief. But also what I know is that Portland is a resilient city and it will continue to make progress in some ways, with the help of the community of course.
Miller: What are you most proud of from your time on the council?
Hardesty: You know, I’m proud that I came to city hall and I did exactly what I promised voters I would do. I campaigned on creating a new non-police first responder for people on our streets suffering from mental and behavioral health issues. I’m proud that Portland Street Response is now available to Portlanders citywide. I’m proud that I campaigned on police accountability and transparency. And now the new Police Association contract for the very first time has a clear discipline guide that will make it easier to hold police officers accountable for inappropriate behavior. We also have coming the new police accountability board supported by over 82% of voters, that will be community represented, as the new way that police officers will be held accountable for inappropriate behavior. We’ve also re-allocated community safety resources from police units to community organizations who are working directly with folks who are experiencing these high levels of gun violence. Because I’m the only city commissioner who lives east of 82nd Avenue, I’m really proud that we got 82nd Avenue transferred to the city, with $185 million dollar investment to really improve that vital transportation quarter.
Miller: I’m curious, you mentioned living east of 82nd, it reminds me of an analysis that The Oregonian did, finding that the neighborhoods with the most support for Rene Gonzalez, the areas that went 2 to 1 for him, were in the West Hills and east of 205, meaning both some of the wealthiest whitest neighborhoods in the city and also some of the poorest neighborhoods with the most people of color. How do you explain that as a political analyst, putting that hat on as opposed to the candidate herself?
Hardesty: Well, let me say that there were a lot of factors in that. One, I believe my opponent was really selling fear to our community. And as you know, with the richest downtown business interests spending over a million dollars in the last year trying to unseat me, with white supremacists coming out of the woodwork to regurgitate non-truth. You know, the landslide of opposition was just too much to overcome. And people, especially in East Portland, who have not received their appropriate level of support from the city of Portland, when people say to them, “We’re gonna hire 400 police officers and we’re going to clean up your street,” it’s an easy sell for people who don’t get a lot of services from city hall. Unfortunately, a year from now, we will not be in any better shape because of the commissioner-elect, especially based on the criteria that he used to sell himself as a law and order candidate. And so I think, you know, it’s early in the political analysis, but I will say the influence of big money and un-factual information was too much to overcome for someone like me who was actually using the public finance system and did not have the advantage of the millions of dollars of rich developer money being used to discredit and blame me for things that were never in my portfolio. Like I’ve never had policing and I never had housing.
Miller: Even though council races are technically nonpartisan, there has been a marked shift on the council in just the last two years. With you and Chloe Eudaly not being reelected, there’s been a big shift to the right. What do you think that’s going to mean for governance in the city of Portland over the next two years?
Hardesty: I think the next two years are gonna be very challenging for the city of Portland because we will have a brand new city council. I am the senior city council member and I leave Dec. 31. So as of Jan. 2, the mayor will be the only one with real expertise and how the city of Portland should run. And so I think what we’re gonna find is a consolidated government working on behalf of downtown business interests at the expense of everyone else.
Miller: What are the policies that you think are going to follow from that?
Hardesty: Well, I mean, you saw it play out in the fall proposal where the mayor proposed $27 million dollars for three mega camps of 250 people and private security to patrol the parameters. I am terrified of what that means for people struggling on our street today. I am terrified for what that means for the already overloaded social service support system and network. Imagine what we would do if we could take that $27 million and put people in housing. We could house a couple thousand people for two years with the amount of money that the mayor’s office is projected to spend over the next year trying to make houseless people invisible. What I see is that this is going to be a government that’s really working for the downtown business interests at the expense of everyone else.
Miller: Portlanders, as you well know, approved the sweeping charter reform changes by 16 percentage points. But now comes a lot of implementation work which is going to be overseen by a council where four of the five members opposed the changes. What do you think that is going to mean?
Hardesty: I am concerned that having city council members who were vocally, and with their actions, were totally opposed to the community members who worked for two years to put this proposal on the ballot. I am concerned that they are now responsible for the implementation.
But here’s what I know about those community-based organizations, they’re not going anywhere. The people who represented the charter commission and they still have additional work to do. And so I expect that they will be monitoring closely the implementation. I know I will because I will be making sure that we actually are true to the voter’s intent and not to some insight, special interest trying to change it as we implement it.
Miller: How confident do you feel that all the changes will be implemented in the two years that the city says is the timeline right now and we’re talking about setting up, having these new volunteer groups set up salaries and draw district boundaries and work with the county on the new voting system. Are you confident all that will happen in two years?
Hardesty: I am confident that with the right leadership it could happen. Again, my caution is having elected leaders trying to sabotage the process before it has a chance to succeed. You know, the only thing that will stop that from happening is the public paying close attention to the committees that are set up and making sure they are representative of the communities that actually passed this ballot measure. The current city council has an obligation to implement this measure as the voters intended, not with their own best thinking. And so all of us will be monitoring for that.
Miller: What’s next for you? Post-council.
Hardesty: First, a vacation, a little sleep. But I don’t know yet. The good news is I have many options. I’m not going anywhere. I love this city. I intend to make sure that we continue to make forward progress. You know, I have to say being both fire commissioner and PBOT commissioner were absolutely fabulous. Without me being a commissioner at PBOT, many thousands of restaurants would not have actually stayed in business during COVID. Without me being fire commissioner, we would not now have this community safety division, a community health division within fire. I think I hope what this shows the public is you really don’t need career politicians to make good changes happen. You just need somebody to ask “why” questions and actually challenge what we think is the assumption about how things should be done.
Miller: Do you not consider yourself, on some level, a career politician? I mean, you served in the Legislature and now for city government.
Hardesty: Yeah, but that was 25 years ago.
Miler: You’ve done other things. Okay, so career is somebody who stays in government the entire time?
Hardesty: Right. Someone who just goes from elected office, to elected office.
Miller: Well let me ask you this, are you interested in going from this elected office to the new version of elected office that Portlanders have asked for in two years? Twelve seats on the city council, the enlarged city council, will all be up for grabs and to win you only need 25% of the vote in that district.
Hardesty: You know, Dave, it depends. I don’t know honestly. I mean, I wasn’t looking for a job when I was mad enough to run for city council the first time because I believed we could do better by the people in the city of Portland. I still believe that. And no matter what I do next, I will be working to make sure that we do better for the people without a voice in the city of Portland. And, you know, it’s too early for me to say whether I’ll run for one of the 12 seats or whether I’ll run for something else. I don’t think so. But you know, If I get mad enough, who knows what I’ll do.
Miller: Jo Ann Hardesty. I have no doubt we will talk again. Thank you.
Hardesty: I’m sure we will. Thank you so much, Dave. It’s always a pleasure.
Miller: Likewise. That’s Jo Ann Hardesty, who, for the next five weeks or so, is a member of the Portland City Council.