Politics

Rene Gonzalez joins 2024 race for Portland mayor

By Alex Zielinski (OPB)
Dec. 7, 2023 11:35 p.m.

The newest member of the Portland City Council member is setting his sights on the mayor’s office.

Portland City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez, now running for mayor, during a meeting of the Portland City Council, May 31, 2023.

Portland City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez, now running for mayor, during a meeting of the Portland City Council, May 31, 2023.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

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Commissioner Rene Gonzalez, who is the most conservative out of his progressive colleagues, announced his campaign for mayor Thursday at an event in downtown Portland.

“We badly need decisive direct leadership right now,” Gonzalez told OPB Thursday. “And I think I’ve demonstrated so far that I have those characteristics.”

Since joining the council in January, Gonzalez has overseen the Fire Bureau and emergency management departments and takes credit for the city’s 911 call center for responding to emergency calls more swiftly in recent months. He also joined Mayor Ted Wheeler in introducing a proposal to ban drug use in public areas, a policy that gained unanimous council support. That measure still needs legislative changes before it can go into effect.

Gonzalez, a former corporate lawyer and business owner who describes himself as a centrist, said he’s especially proud of the work he’s done to bolster the Portland Fire Bureau. In September, he helped steer grant funding to reopen a Southeast Portland fire station that had been shuttered since 2011.

“That has led to the (Fire Bureau) being, what I would argue is, the most stable first responder in our community,” Gonzalez said. “They’re reliable at a time when we really needed them to be reliable.”

Gonzalez’s tenure at City Hall has also been defined by conflict.

Shortly after taking office, Gonzalez used his position overseeing Portland Fire & Rescue to bar Portland Street Response staff from distributing tents and tarps to people living outside. Portland Street Response is a first-response program focused on people experiencing homelessness or mental health issues and is housed in the Fire Bureau.

Gonzalez placed a hiring freeze on the Fire Bureau around the same time, effectively keeping Portland Street Response from expanding to 24/7 coverage as planned. This decision elicited strong opposition from homeless service providers, state lawmakers, and internal leadership; the director of Portland Street Response resigned in June, citing leadership flaws.

But Gonzalez said he’s proud of the way he “held the line” on his Portland Street Response policies and believes he’s set the program up for success. Gonzalez wants to expand it to a 24/7 schedule, but with budget cuts on the horizon across the city, he said he’s waiting to make sure new positions can be funded long-term before hiring new staff.

“What I don’t want to do is take resources away from their daytime support just to go 24/7,” he said.

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Gonzalez has also rankled some in the public — and his colleagues — in attempting to modify the voter-approved plan to transition the city to a new form of government by 2025. That plan will triple the size of the city council to 12 members, split the city into four voting districts, and introduce a ranked-choice voting system. Under this system, the mayor will no longer be a member of the city council and will only cast tie-breaking votes.

In July, Gonzalez joined Commissioner Dan Ryan in proposing a ballot measure that would give the mayor veto power, tweak the voting system, and cap the council at eight people. This upset Portlanders who voted overwhelmingly for the government overhaul and earned a rebuke from the mayor. The strong opposition led Gonzalez and Ryan to drop the proposal.

In September, Gonzalez again clashed with the mayor over a plan to relocate City Council offices ahead of 2025 to allow for needed City Hall renovations. A month later, he joined his fellow commissioners in rejecting Wheeler’s plan for commissioners to cede bureau leadership next summer to pave the way for a new city administrator to take over day-to-day oversight of city operations ahead of 2025.

Gonzalez won his council seat by defeating incumbent Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty in a divisive run-off campaign.

Gonzalez ran staunchly to the right of Hardesty, promising to address unsheltered homelessness, advocate for more arrests of people suspected of low-level crimes, and beef up the city’s public safety staff.

Prior to joining the 2022 race, Gonzalez ran a corporate legal firm and led an advocacy group called ED 300 that, in 2020, lobbied then-Gov. Kate Brown to reopen schools during the COVID-19 pandemic’s spread. That group pushed schools to open prior to the existence of a COVID-19 vaccine and faced criticism for supporting school board candidates who were backed by organizations that oppose reproductive and LGBTQ+ rights.

The political newcomer curried support in 2022 from centrist and conservative voters and major business leaders, like real estate mogul Jordan Schnitzer. Gonzalez also landed the deep-pocketed support of a new political action committee largely formed to oust Hardesty from office. Gonzalez swiftly out-raised Hardesty in campaign donations. He won the race with 53% of votes.

City council candidates will no longer be campaigning citywide under the new form of government next year, as council members will be elected by geographic districts. The next mayor will be elected citywide.

Wheeler will not be seeking re-election in 2024, but Gonzalez will face at least one of his colleagues in the race. Commissioner Mingus Mapps announced his run for mayor in July. Mapps and Gonazlez have diverged on few issues during their time together in City Hall, and in his 2020 run for council, Mapps tapped into many of the same donors who later helped boost Gonzalez’s campaign.

Gonzalez said he offers something neither Wheeler nor Mapps can provide.

“It’s a personality thing … I’m a team sport guy,” Gonzalez said. “I’m naturally willing and capable to work with others and find common ground, and I think that’s a strength.”

He said he hasn’t seen Mapps or Wheeler work as hard to build consensus on council around policy issues. Gonzalez went further to say that Wheeler has been slow to identify and be “blunt” about some of the city’s biggest issues, like low-level crime and unsheltered homelessness.

Commissioner Carmen Rubio is also considering a run for mayor and will announce her decisions early next year. Commissioner Dan Ryan said he will not run for mayor.

Gonzalez is hopeful he’ll gain the support of Portlanders who didn’t support his City Council campaign by showing that he shares their drive to address the city’s biggest problems.

“The effort to find common ground never ends,” he said.

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