They used to call Democratic Oregon state Sen. Rod Monroe “Senator Safe,” a nod to his role in crafting public safety legislation in the 1980s, such as the measure that banned smoking inside public places and another ensuring people buckled up in cars.
These days, the long-time state senator has earned another moniker: "Landlord Monroe."
“The landlords love you, don’t you know? But we all say it’s time to go for Landlord Rod Monroe,” go the lyrics of a song written by Portland musician and housing advocate David Rovics.
Monroe has earned the ire of tenant-right advocates who are upset he didn’t support an effort to overturn a statewide ban on rent control. As a result, he's engaged in a fierce primary battle in East Portland to keep the job he’s held off and on for decades. It’s a race predominantly about the city’s housing crisis. But it could also shift the moderate Senate politically to the left. And ousting Monroe would send a message about housing policy — that people want to see some kind of rent stabilization policy from lawmakers in Salem.
Primary battles involving incumbents are unusual among Oregon Democrats, but Monroe, a retired teacher and a lay minister, has drawn two viable challengers.
One is a former lawmaker, civil rights attorney and mother of two young children, 36-year-old Shemia Fagan. The other is a 43-year-old Somali immigrant who fled his war-torn country and became a prominent community organizer and executive director of Unite Oregon, Kayse Jama.
Both Fagan and Jama believe the Legislature should lift the state preemption on rent control, which would allow cities to implement their own policies on when and how much rents can rise.
Oregon Democrats in the House have approved legislation to make it easier for cities to pass rent control and harder for landlords to evict their tenants without cause. The state Senate blocked those efforts. Monroe wasn’t the only Democrat to question the policies, but some tenant-right groups put the failure on Sen. Monroe’s shoulders.
Monroe owns an apartment complex is East Portland valued at about $7 million, according to city records. He's also politically opposed to rent control; he says he's convinced rent control would exacerbate the housing crisis.
“Every economist I’ve ever talked to says rent control doesn’t work,” Monroe said.
Fagan brings another perspective. Her mother was homeless while she was growing up. Out on the campaign trail, she tells a story about visiting her mom in East Portland.
It was 1997. She was 15 years old.
“My mom hadn’t been around much as she was struggling with addiction and living on-and-off the streets of East Portland,” Fagan told the City Club of Portland recently.
She was driving with her brother and her father, and they pulled up to a majestic Victorian house with a wrap-around porch.
“And we were thinking, ‘Wow, mom, nice house,’" Fagan said. "She greeted us and walked around the steps. But instead of walking around the steps, she crawled under the porch and she invited us into her home."
Fagan points to her mother’s homelessness, she said, in an effort to illustrate how she sees the housing crisis: not in terms of numbers, but real people.
Jama has his own story of resilience. He arrived in Portland two decades ago with $20 in his pocket. He was fleeing a war in Somalia, and he had a tough choice to make: Pick up a gun and be part of the problem or leave his family, his home, his culture to seek a better place.
Now, Jama says he wants to serve as a voice for others.
"I want to be out there to make sure that people who look like me, who came from the background I came from, who are poor, feel they have the power to be their own self-interest,” Jama said.
The real estate lobby has poured thousands into Monroe's campaign. At last count, he had recorded nearly $140,000 in contributions into his campaign. And more is flowing into other political action committees backing the incumbent — last week, a realtor-backed group called More Housing Now! put $140,000 into a political action committee coined “Protect Sensible Leadership.” It’s expected the money will be spent to support Monroe.
Unions are backing Fagan. She's reported about $135,700 in campaign donations, including a $10,ooo donation from the Oregon Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, and another $5,000 from the Service Employees International Union Local 49 last week.
Jama is running more of a grassroots campaign and relying mainly on smaller donations. He’s pledged not to accept donations from corporations, political action committees or any money that could be considered “special interests.” He’s reported collecting about $23,000.
Primary ballots are due May 15. There is no Republican in this race.