3 candidates vie to represent Southeast Portland on Multnomah County Commission

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
May 2, 2023 12 p.m.

All agree on the county’s biggest challenges. But their approaches to solutions differ greatly.

Three candidates are on the ballot this spring to fill the open District 3 seat on the Multnomah County Commission. The seat, which represents Southeast Portland, was vacated when Jessica Vega Pederson won the election to Multnomah County chair last fall.

Julia Brim-Edwards runs a consulting firm, is in her third term as a member of the Portland Public School Board and is a former Nike executive. Ana del Rocío is a former policy adviser to now county chair Vega Pederson and a former member of the David Douglas School Board. And Albert Kaufman is a digital marketing consultant and a board member for Southeast Uplift Neighborhood Coalition.

From left, candidates for the Multnomah County Commission District 3 seat Julia Brim-Edwards, Ana del Rocío and Albert Kaufman.

From left, candidates for the Multnomah County Commission District 3 seat Julia Brim-Edwards, Ana del Rocío and Albert Kaufman.

Courtesy of the Campaigns / Provided

OPB’s “Think Out Loud” spoke to the candidates in collaboration with Street Roots, Portland’s weekly street newspaper. Street Roots vendors also asked questions.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Dave Miller: For listeners who aren’t totally familiar with the borders of this district, it is roughly from I-84 on the north, Cesar Chavez in the west, the county line in the south and then somewhere between 122nd and 148th to the east. Ana del Rocío, what do you see as the most urgent issue facing this particular district? And what do you see as solutions?

Ana del Rocío: We have a set of three truly interlocking crises that have been decadeslong in the making: housing and homelessness, mental health and addiction, and community safety. Here in District 3, we’ve been facing these issues for quite some time, but we’re seeing them more visibly in other parts of the county as well. The solution is to really make sure we have a regional approach, that we’re building regional solutions to regional problems. So that means working across jurisdictions — the county, the city, Metro, the state — to build the most innovative policies and the most responsible budgets. It’s also about making sure that any solution is backed by community. That’s why I’m so proud to have been asked to run by my community. I have the most endorsements of community organizations of any candidate running because they know I’m accountable to people, not profits.

Albert Kaufman: I think the same issues that trouble the county and trouble my district are in effect all across our state. We are dealing with a housing crisis. We are dealing with drug addiction. We are dealing with too much gun violence. And all of these are exacerbated by climate change. Some of the solutions that I have are outlined on my website. One that I’ll just throw out here quickly is I believe that for those who are addicted to drugs, we should be getting the best-grown cannabis in the world into their hands. We have an excess of cannabis in our state. And I suggest that we quickly figure out how to get that into the hands of anyone who is doing meth, fentanyl, or heroin.

Julia Brim-Edwards: The most pressing issues in District 3 are very similar to issues across the county: homelessness, lack of affordable housing, lack of access to mental health care, and also lack of access to drug treatment. We have some of the areas of the city with the highest level of crime and lack of neighborhood safety. The further east you go in the district, the greater the number of 911 calls. Local businesses are really struggling to get by. What are the solutions? The good news is the county actually has the ability to, but they need to take action. They have the funding and also the responsibility. In terms of mental health and drug treatment, they have funding and they have the responsibility as the local health authority. On homelessness, the county absolutely needs to work more closely with the city so that we not only stop people from falling into homelessness, but also to build up a whole range of shelters. So we can help the record number of people living on the streets move to shelter, safety and ultimately to supportive housing.

Miller: The county partners with the city in a lot of ways in terms of homelessness right now and has for a number of years. Recently the mayor proposed implementing six large organized camps for people who are currently unhoused, with each camp possibly having up to 250 people. The City Council approved close to $30 million to initially implement this plan and has asked Multnomah County to also fund these camps. Do you support Multnomah County providing funding for these camps? Why or why not?

Brim-Edwards: I do. And I also support the good ideas that Chair Vega Pederson has, the ideas that Commissioner [Sharon] Meieran has. Because we need a whole host of different solutions and alternatives for people. I think for too long we’ve had the county pointing at the city, the city pointing at the county … sort of a blame game and not taking any action. And I do believe that the mayor and the City Council want to move people to safety, to provide basic services, ultimately to move people to permanent housing. But it’s just one idea. If we just do that, that’s not going to be enough. The county also has to take action, provide more shelter, basic services. And again, with the ultimate goal of providing people a path to supportive housing.

Kaufman: I’ve been proposing that we use the closing Walmarts, and any other big box stores that we can get our hands on, to potentially house thousands of people at a time, versus housing hundreds of people outside. We could be housing thousands of people inside. I recognize that this is a big lift, and I recognize that this is a very challenging concept. But I think that that is part of what we do as leaders in our community, is that we need to think very big about the problems that we have in our midst. And I think it’s very easy to rag on the current leadership, particularly the city, for not doing enough or not doing things correctly. But I know that the way that the current City Council is organized, makes it impossible to make decisions and to move forward on things even though you’d expect them to be able to. So I look forward to being part of the commission that will work closely with the city, work closely with Metro and work closely with other counties to house people and to bring services to them.

del Rocío: I think the county has a responsibility to invest taxpayer dollars in the most wise way possible, in the way that will have also the maximum impact on people who are unhoused, people who are directly experiencing housing instability and insecurity. What I know about those proposals is that they are not as research-backed as I would like to justify investing public dollars. Perhaps at different scales, different sizes, with a different suite of services. But as written, I think the chair was correct to request a proof of concept, to request evidence that this would work before investing taxpayer dollars. I also believe that where the county has a role to play is in supplementing the city’s or any other jurisdictions’ ideas with a strong public health approach. We are the local public health authority. We have to ensure that any housing intervention also comes with mental health services, addiction treatment services to ensure people can stay housed and stay safe in these environments.

Joseph Whitecloud Smith: Do you support the sweeping of unsanctioned camping? Why or why not?

Kaufman: I think that currently we are in a crisis, and I am one of many people who is watching news reports of people living in front of other people’s houses. I think that most of the people who are listening to this broadcast right now are in their cars or are in their houses or potentially out on the street. And there’s such a discrepancy in our community between the people who are in this room, let’s say, and the people who are listening to this broadcast. And I think that there are certain situations where homeowners and residents of areas have someone who is parked out in front of their house, whether it’s in an RV or a tent, and in a situation like that, I think that it really needs to be looked at, and really needs to probably be changed. And I think it’s probably uncomfortable for all parties. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question.

del Rocío: I believe that’s a very extreme approach to take. I believe that housing is a human right. And when we think about really what’s undergirding that instinct to sweep everyone off the streets, I think it’s fear. I think that when you take a look at what people are wanting, they’re wanting safety. People who are housed want to feel safe, people who are unhoused want to feel safe. We all want to feel safe. But sweeping people and moving them into — where exactly? — doesn’t seem to me to be the approach that will actually be impactful when we think about how our bodies and how our communities respond to threats, right? We have fight, flight, freeze. Freeze is what we’re doing when we’re just transferring the problem. We’re saying we don’t want to see it, we want to move it. That’s actually putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg. We need to actually solve the problem and make sure that housing is available for all.

Brim-Edwards: So this is one of the reasons why I’m running for the county commission: because I think in order to end unauthorized street camping and the sweeps, the county really has to take action. And the lack of action by the city and the county to date has resulted in unauthorized camping all over the city because, frankly, there’s not enough shelter … there’s not enough places for people to go. So in some ways, the county and the city have created situations in which people are camping all over the place because there’s nowhere else to go. I do believe there are instances when actually you have students or families who are having to go into the streets because the sidewalks are blocked. I do believe there’s instances where sweeps should happen, they should happen humanely. And again, the city and the county has an obligation if there’s a sweep to provide a safe place with basic services for people to go and that hasn’t happened to date. And frankly, voters and community members should be holding elected leaders accountable for that.

George McCarthy: I worry a lot about mental illness. So, with the discussion about mental illness, do we have something of a comprehensive plan for people that are experiencing poverty and homelessness?

del Rocío: What we know about mental illness is that while we join the country right now in this housing and homelessness crisis, mental illness and addiction have been uniquely our crises in the Pacific Northwest region for some time, as we’ve been one of the nationwide hotspots for a long time. So, as we think about how to address the treatment need, making sure we address the behavioral health workforce shortage, having enough providers to provide services, we also need to address what is driving this increased number of people experiencing mental illness. What are the unique particularities of our region — environmental, cultural, social — that are making people sick,? Addiction and mental illness are chronic health conditions. So as the county, it will be our duty to make sure that we are providing robust treatment programs, expanding beyond current status quo delivery. Right now we have this one-to-one concept, whereby anyone who wants services gets one provider, they meet one-on-one for therapy or for counseling, and that’s simply not scalable. We cannot have enough people to meet that need. So we have to really diversify how we’re thinking about treatment, to have more group models, to have more prevention models to really prevent people from getting sick to begin with.


Brim-Edwards: Currently the county doesn’t have a comprehensive plan, which needs to be built and it needs to be built, not in a silo, but integrated in with housing, with substance abuse treatment. And so, the very first thing I think is we need to have integration again. There are resources that the county has, but also through the Metro tax, that would allow the county to build this out. But right now, if you’re living on the streets or you’re in a shelter, you don’t really have access to behavioral health. So starting to integrate it, not just into permanent support of housing, but also at shelters in a variety of different places, so that everybody has access to inpatient and outpatient care. And frankly, there’s not enough individuals that are either mental health providers or peer support. And so really, the county has an obligation right now, as it’s providing greater services, also to be building up this workforce.

Kaufman: Yeah, this is a very challenging question for our community partly because of the other issues that are pressing on us right now. There’s no wonder that we’re in a behavioral health care crisis in this country, given that we’re all coming out of a pandemic. I think that most of the people that I know that do the kind of work that we’re talking about are kind of at their wit’s end, they’re burned out, they’re underpaid. The places that people go for help are understaffed or don’t exist. So we’re obviously in a state where we really need improvement in this area.

Miller: The Joint Office of Homeless Services was established about seven years ago as a partnership between the city and the county. Is it working?

Brim-Edwards: Well, I think the statistics show that it’s not working. One, it actually hasn’t been treated as a partnership. It’s been much more directed by the county. And I think it needs to be much more of a partnership — both blending the funding streams and taking the good ideas that the city of Portland has and also the county. We’re at a time where we need to take everybody’s good ideas, not just one entity’s.

Kaufman: I think I mirror what Julia has just said. It looks to me like that office has not been functioning as well as it could. I do think that part of it is the way that it’s not sharing power and probably input with the city. There are a number of areas where our cities, counties and Metro are not working closely together. If I’m elected commissioner, I would be part of a more collaborative effort in that respect.

del Rocío: The joint office I believe has yet to be fully realized the way it was envisioned. We have a new leader in the joint office. I will be really looking to that individual to let us know what the plan is to improve the outcomes. We have not seen strong outcomes as my opponents have noted. I’m a trailblazer and I get things done when they’re not working. I actually first ran for office to solve a problem in my neighborhood with lack of health care access. And one of the first things I did was make sure that our local public schools had more expanded service availability for health care. And I spearheaded the first racial justice initiative at the board level in the majority-minority school district of East Portland. So I have a track record of bringing other elected leaders along to get things done, which is what we’re going to need in this position for this county.

Miller: As I think all of our listeners know, in recent years, there’s been a record number of homicides in Portland and in the county. The board has invested in gun violence intervention and prevention efforts as a response. What do you think of the current efforts? And would you push to change them in any way?

del Rocío: I absolutely believe that gun violence is a public health issue, and it’s interlinked with the need to consider what the drivers are of violence. When we look at societies with low rates of violence, gun violence, property crimes, what do we also see? Robust health care systems; dignified, humane living conditions; material needs provided for — that is what correlates with a peaceful, violence-free society. We don’t have that yet. Treating the symptom again is not going to get to what’s underneath. What I would do as a county commissioner is build on my lengthy track record of improving our justice system. So I am looking public safety holistically, across the board. I’m looking at prevention. I’m looking at equity.

Brim-Edwards: As a parent of three, as somebody who serves in the school board, in my 50 years of living in Portland, I’ve never seen more gun violence around our schools. We had several shootings outside of Franklin and then also one at Cleveland — both high schools that serve Southeast Portland, the district. We need to give the district attorney and also the sheriff the resources they need in order to combat it. But also, we can’t arrest our way out of gun violence necessarily. So the other critical piece is investing in proven programs. For example, Rosemary Anderson and POIC [Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center] run a community safety team and, literally, they are people when gun violence starts in the community, they go to the hospitals to interrupt the cycle of violence that’s happening. So investing in individuals who are trusted, who are peer supports, who can go and talk to families and other gang members about why it’s important to stop the cycle of violence.

Kaufman: If I was elected commissioner, I would call for a close to all gun shows. Period. I would close gun shops in our city and county. I believe we need a very robust gun buy-back program that everybody knows about. We are not going to make any progress until we get them out of people’s hands.

Jeremiah Leggett: Are you committed to opening up safe injection sites here in Multnomah County?

Kaufman: Yes.

Brim-Edwards: No. I think what we found with Ballot Measure 110 is we need to think about implementation and what some of the unintended consequences [will be]. I think most people thought Measure 110 would result in individuals getting treatment. And it hasn’t happened. So I’d want to see a lot more data and a thorough plan.

del Rocío: Ballot Measure 110 passed because voters believe that criminalization is not working and harm reduction needs to be an approach that we use to save lives. Decriminalization has not been realized to its full potential because we absolutely need more treatment beds, we need more robust treatment period. And in the meantime, we have a responsibility to save lives. So yes, I support harm-reduction efforts. I also support really building out the availability of naloxone training. It’s so important that we view this as a public health issue. Addiction is a chronic health issue for the county and we have to address it humanely.

Bronwyn Carver: The city has prohibited service agencies like Portland Street Response from handing out tents. What can you add in your role as a county commissioner to the programs that distribute tents to those in need of shelter?

Brim-Edwards: I’m going to go back to the fact that the county and the city have an obligation to provide shelter. So you can’t move people off the streets and shouldn’t. I believe the county is still distributing tents, but you can’t do that if you don’t have a place to move someone. I would hope that if I’m a county commissioner, this community would hold me accountable for people having a safe and dry place to be. And I believe it should be better than a tent because a tent doesn’t even have basic services.

Kaufman: There should be constant pressure on the City Council to reverse this decision. Handing out tents to people who need them is just … we were just in the church on Sunday, so I’m just gonna say, Christian. What would Jesus do?

del Rocío: A shelter is an important part of addressing what we need on the housing continuum. I was dismayed similarly to learn that tents were no longer being distributed because I think that that’s a way that we’re harming people’s lives. There are immediate improvements that we can make to our system right now that consist of structures, not tents. For example, what I’m learning from shelter providers is that people don’t always feel welcome or included in spaces that don’t make room for gender diversity, for different family sizes, for pets or support animals. There are very simple ways that we can improve access to shelters now. And also we must pair shelter improvement and immediate relief for unhoused folks with permanent supportive housing and preventing the need for a tent or immediate shelter to begin with by investing in displacement prevention. So for example, I’m a renter, and I just received a rent increase notice of $209. I live in a two-bedroom apartment with my two kids. I’ll figure it out. I always figure it out. But we know that families facing those kinds of hikes in their rent can be one step between them and being unhoused and needing immediate help. And we need to make sure that we’re providing supports and protections for tenants, people facing eviction, people facing foreclosure to prevent this need to begin with. No one should need a tent. We should have housing for everyone.

Courtney Varner: I was homeless for 10 years, and I went through all the resources possible to obtain housing, and I finally obtained housing. But it took years. Do you support people that have been homeless previously being trained for housing case managers?

Brim-Edwards: Absolutely. I think that’s part of the system. The whole range of peer support, but also mental health providers, people who have expertise in housing, treatment options, so that we have this whole spectrum.

del Rocío: I am really encouraged by stories of how folks who were unhoused and became housed and came back and were just a radiantly different person because, surprise, housing actually works to really uplift people’s basic safety and security and health and vibrancy. And to be able to reach that and then give back? Oh, my goodness. What a gift to your community. What a gift showing the power of peer support and just community empowerment in general.

Kaufman: Absolutely.