Think Out Loud

New Portland district map options finalized

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
July 19, 2023 5:56 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, July 19

For more than a hundred years, all the members of Portland’s city council have been elected citywide. That’s about to change after voters passed a major overhaul to the city charter last November. The volunteer Independent District Commission has released three maps depicting different options for how the districts could be drawn. We talk to Josh Laurente and DaWayne Judd, co-chairs of the Independent District Commission, about their proposed maps for how to divide the city into four districts.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. For more than 100 years, all the members of Portland’s city council have been elected citywide. That is about to change since voters passed a major overhaul to the city charter in November. The volunteer Independent District Commission recently released three maps with different options for how these new districts will be drawn. I’m joined now by the two co-chairs of the commission. Josh Laurente is policy and advocacy manager for OPAL. It’s a nonprofit that focuses on transportation equity. And DaWayne Judd is a community activist and a self-described “reformed corporate finance professional.” DaWayne and Josh, welcome to the show.

Josh Laurente: Thank you for having us.

Miller: Josh first, what’s at stake in this? Why does it matter how these maps are drawn?

Laurente: Well, at the root of this is representation. If we want a city hall that works for Portland, we need a city council that better represents the people of Portland. Communities know best what issues they face and what their needs are. So the process of creating districts, the first in Portland’s history, will create the opportunity to uplift local leadership and local issues to city hall. This is meant to improve not only representation in city government, but also, it’s an investment in the civic health of our communities, particularly for those who have not traditionally had a voice in city government.

Miller: DaWayne, can you just remind us what voters approved, in terms of the change, going from four at large members and fifth member of the council, the mayor, to what? What’s the new system going to be in terms of the council?

DaWayne Judd: The new system includes the four voting districts which the independent district commission is tasked to define with community engagement, as well as moving to 12 city council people, with three elected within each one of those districts through a ranked voting process.

Miller: So that’s the new system, going from a five-member city council, four commissioners and the mayor, to 12 with four districts and three people selected from each of those districts. Josh, what were the parameters that you were given by voters in this charter change in terms of what had to be taken into account in the crafting of these maps?

Laurente: The starting point for the work of the Independent District Commission, the IDC, is the voter approved charter amendments that Portlanders supported in the November election of last year. We are required through that charter to make sure that the district plan that we adopt in August, we have to make sure that those districts are drawn to be contiguous and compact, meaning all the pieces are touching. They have to use existing geographic or political boundaries. We have to make sure we’re not dividing communities of common interest. The districts have to be connected by transportation links and be of substantially equal population. Moreover, these maps cannot be drawn in any way to favor any political party, incumbent, or other elected official, nor can they dilute the voting strength of any language or ethnic minority group. That is the slate of district criteria that voters approved through the charter reform ballot measure last November.

Miller: DaWayne, one of those is not dividing “communities of common interest.” What is a community of common interest?

Judd: It’s a great question. That’s the question that we’re trying to define. You know, that’s really the crux of the work that the IDC is set up to do. If you think about the task of drawing a map, that’s geo-based, and there’s some information that can help us through that using the criteria that Josh has highlighted. But the challenge is, how are communities relating to one another? And how far out does that relationship, that alignment, extend currently? And that’s really the mapping process that we’re attempting to do via community engagement. We’re listening for how communities not only see themselves, but more importantly, how do they see their neighboring communities? And who do they see their interest most aligned with? How are they defining those interests? That’s the task that we’re going through in the month of July. And we’re still engaged in that process as we come up to the end of July. We’re gonna take that back into August to help us pull together a final map.

Miller: There are so many ways to think about what connects us or potentially what divides us in terms of race, class, money, a river, a highway, language, country of origin, and on and on. I’m curious for both of you maybe DaWayne, to stick with you first, maybe you can take a stab at this ‒ what have you seen as the biggest challenges in crafting these maps, as you think about keeping people together who should be together in terms of representation and voting?

Judd: I’ll add another layer of challenges into that, in that Portland is one of the whitest cities in the U.S. And so, what does all that mean in that context as well? There are some historical challenges. And I think when the charter commission came together, they understood that this was an opportunity to transform the city of Portland and how it manages itself and how it represents its community members in a profound way.

They also understood with this first wave that it would not be perfect because of this historical trauma that persists within the community. And one of the things that the IDC has been focused on is centering on those voices that have not been traditionally represented in city decision making.

So, how do you pull together community members who have not been engaged in civic, political life previously because they have been so wounded? Because even after you draw these lines, you’re still left with a situation where if the majority of the voting population remains the same as it has been, you’re still not getting to those historically underrepresented forces. This is the challenge, not just for the IDC, it’s the challenge for the government transition office, who will continue their work on through the November 2024 election. It is the role and responsibility of neighborhood associations and organizations to ensure that they are working to galvanize and to listen to those voices as they come to not just give us feedback, but also once the lines are drawn to begin to mobilize and engage community members for the November 2024 election. The test of our ability to be transformational in this work really will show itself in the types of candidates that come forth for the November 2024 election, and the type of voters that show up during that same electoral process.

Miller: What do you mean by that? I mean specifically, what is the test you’re talking about? What would it take in terms of candidates or electorate for you to say, “we did our job well”?

Judd: We understand that, as we look at these districts for example, the representation of the percent of ethnic minorities in a couple of these district will not be higher than let’s call it 3%. In one or two of the districts, it might reach as high as 12% to 15%. That’s just the demographics, that’s not the voting age population. We understand that the voting age population and those who are actually engaging voting will actually be smaller.

Miller: Because of the demographics, and because the number of young people among communities of color, say in parts of East Portland for example?

Judd: Exactly. Exactly. So for example, if you talk about East Portland, well, the largest rate now engaged voting population are white citizens above the age of 55. And so even though you have now created a district such that they may be able to elect candidates specifically to represent the communities of far East Portland, if we don’t engage with those community members out there that are of color and increase their voting, well how have we really changed representation and accountability? That becomes a question for the community.


Miller: Josh Laurente, did the fact that there are going to be three representatives, three commissioners from each of these districts, has that affected the way you’ve thought about your job?

Laurente: When we went into these public hearings, that is the sort of line of questioning that we took out to community. We asked folks, how do you want to be represented? Who do you consider your community of common interest? How would you all like to be represented? And when you look at the three draft maps that we’ve released for consideration and reflection and feedback, what of these common themes is resonating with your values or your priorities for the city? And what differences between these maps feel most impactful in terms of how you want to be engaging with your elected representatives at city hall. The voices of community have really guided us from the start of this process. And it is the job and the challenge of the IDC to take that community input and take the data that is available to us and try to find consensus around a district plan that is going to best represent communities all across the city.

Miller: I should just remind folks that we are talking right now about the way that new districts will be drawn for seats on Portland city council. We’re talking to the two co-chairs of the Independent District Commission that have been in charge of this process. There are now three finalists three maps that they’re gonna be choosing from. If at least 9 members of this thirteen-person volunteer commission agree, that will be the map. If fewer than 9 people agree, then it goes to the city council.

Josh, one of the things that is striking to me is just how similar the three finalists are. There are differences here and there, but they all keep the entire west side intact, they all have an inner north and northeast district, an inner southeast one, and then an East Portland one that has a boundary line around Interstate 205. Do you have a personal favorite among these three different finalists?

Laurente: That is a great question. And I would clarify first that these are three draft maps that we released with the intention of prompting reaction, reflection, and feedback from the community members. The Independent District Commission has not reached a final conclusion on what the final map will look like. It could be one of these three maps. It could be one of these maps with some slight edits. It could be a combination of these maps, or it could be us going back to the drawing board. That’s one thing that I would want to make clear to folks as we are still accepting public comment through Saturday, July 22nd. We are still welcoming communities to engage with the IDC and uplift how you want your communities represented on these maps.

And to answer your question about a favorite map, I do not have a personal favorite map. I do think that the themes that these maps share in common are quite strong, and I think enjoy a little bit of consensus. But no final conclusions have been made. And when the IDC comes back together in August, we’re gonna have to synthesize the input that we’ve received through these public hearings in addition to the feedback that we’ve received throughout this process as well. So there’s a lot left to deliberate on.

Miller: DaWayne Judd, am I reading too much into this to see that given the similarities in these three maps that have been released to the public, that it’s unlikely that the final map is going to be wildly different than any of these three?

Judd: I think one of the things that Josh was getting to is that the formation of these maps was actually built upon a lot of community sentiment and community feedback. In addition, it was built on commissioners taking the time to work with mapping tools and various data sets to build out maps, and then come together in the month of June to say okay, what are the common themes here?

And so what you see in these three drafts is the aggregation of the most common themes, and then the presentation of where there is distinction. And that was the work that was done to lead up to creating these draft maps. The reason why they are so similar is because the themes that we got back from the public sentiment and the building of the data sets led us to these three similar maps, again keeping in mind that these maps have to fit the requirements that Josh talked about earlier. So that’s why they look the way they look now.

How much could they deviate? I think the three different maps give you a sense of how much they can deviate and what we’re looking at now. Like I think going through the month of July, with the community engagement, has given us a great deal of insight on where the disconnects still lie in terms of the mapping of those relationships that I talked about earlier, in terms of how does Sellwood, Eastmoreland, Westmoreland, see itself in relationships to the eastern communities, versus in relationship to the west community?

Miller: That is one of the biggest questions. Is it a part of the West Side District or is it part of the Central Eastside District?

Judd: Yeah, exactly. The same thing for the Buckman community, represented on a couple of those maps. And the reason why this has become a theme that needed to be taken to the community is because the West Side, just purely from a numbers basis, does not fit…because of the way the river cuts off that landscape to the west. And the number of folks that are living there, before you get into a data set of discussion around the demographics, just purely in terms of headcount, it’s shy of about 20,000 individuals to make it balance out and keep it whole as a single entity.

Miller: So somebody on the other side of the river has to be a part of the West Side District. And the question is, where does that boundary go? I don’t wanna get too deep into the nitty gritty of that. That’s obviously the work of the commission in the coming weeks. But I’m just curious, in the bigger picture again - and I’d love to get both of your thoughts on this - but Josh, first, has doing this work changed the way you think about Portland?

Laurente: I would say it hasn’t changed the way I think about Portland, but it has certainly deepened my understanding and my learning of the diversity of communities all across this city. Engaging in this districting process and having all these different data sets available to us to look at and map onto different districts and things like that. Through this districting process, you really do learn a lot about your city and the folks that you are in community with. So, I would say that this districting process has really helped me learn what communities of common interest are out there in our community. So I’ve definitely learned a lot.

Miller: And DaWayne Judd, what about you?

Judd: It’s definitely changed my perception of Portland. I don’t think you could go through this process with the level of community engagement and contact that we’ve had with individual community members, hearing their stories, again, as individuals and also as a collective, understanding how they feel - like this will change or impact their participation in community, hearing this inaugural step into defining these geographic districts for the first time and understanding the magnitude of that and the weighted of that and understanding that there’s a lot more work to be done. Yes, it definitely has changed my perception of Portland and where it could head, the potential for Portlanders and [what] Portland could be. It’s definitely changed that, and I believe it’s changed for the better.

Miller: And Josh, briefly, do you think you’re gonna be able to arrive at a map that at least nine members of the 13-person commission will agree on?

Laurente: I do. I will say we have been well advised from the start of this process that there wasn’t going to be a perfect map. And having worked with my fellow commissioners these last few months, I can say that if there was a perfect map to be found, I do believe that this is the group of people that would have been able to find it. You know, it has been such a tremendous honor to work alongside fellow Portlanders who care so much about this city. And I have every confidence that we will be able to fulfill the mandate that voters asked of us through the charter reform process.

Miller: Josh and DaWayne, thanks very much.

Laurente: Thank you.

Judd: Thank you.

Miller: Josh Laurente and DaWayne Judd are co-chairs of Portland’s Independent District Commission.

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