Loretta Smith, 53, has been a Multnomah County commissioner for the past seven years.
She’s backed by a big name in Democratic politics in Oregon, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden. She worked in his office for more than 20 years.
Smith spoke with OPB about housing, equity and allegations that she bullied women on her staff.
Below are highlights from her conversation with OPB. You can also listen to the interview using the audio player at the top of this story.
Amelia Templeton: What sets you apart?
Loretta Smith: It’s my background and my track record and my accomplishments.
I have the background to help the most vulnerable. With my 22 years with Sen. Wyden, that’s where I had a chance to hone my skills …
When I got the courage to run and be my own elected official, nothing changed. It just gave me a bigger platform to help people.
I decided I wanted to make sure that I protected seniors in my role as a commissioner, and that I also built the infrastructure for young people and that I helped to create jobs. And I think in District 2 we completed our task.
Templeton: By the time you left the senator’s office, what was your final position there?
Smith: I was a field outreach director. That’s kind of generic. What I did, I was responsible for identifying appropriations statewide for the senator — that was usually done out of the Washington, D.C., office — and did a lot of outreach into communities with elected officials, business people, everyday folks. And I just gave him a 30,000-foot look at what he should be doing, who he should be talking to and staffing him and writing speeches …
Templeton: Some voters will have a question about a part of your record; when you were a county commissioner, there was a relatively high rate of turnover among your staff and an investigation found that it was likely that some staffers felt that you had behaved in ways that left them feeling bullied.
Was that in fact an issue in your office?
Smith: Not true. If you look at my record the average person stayed in my office two years, and that is longer than most elected offices.
If you’re fortunate to get people to stay with you a full four years, that’s gravy, but the average person stayed with me about two years.
Allegations, that comes with the territory. Editorializing reports that you do, that is simply what it is. Editorializing. If you look at the end, it said they couldn’t substantiate any of those allegations. So people continue to say, but the allegations were made. That’s fine. That comes with the territory, if you want to focus on that.
The one thing I would have liked to have happen, for some of those folks. As you see the report, they didn’t tell their names, and they didn’t go under oath, and to be able to say things, just because you’re disgruntled employees. I wish they had come to me in real time and said, “You did this.” If they would have come to me and said, “This happened to me” or “You did this to me,” I would have said, “I apologize.”
And I have apologized for anything that I have done to make them feel this way but I really wish that they would have given me an opportunity to be a better person and better public official.
Templeton: Just to be clear, you say that the allegations that named staff people make in the report are not true?
Smith: Not true.
Templeton: Mayor Ted Wheeler has said he wants to continue to push the state for more authority to regulate the rental market here in Portland. … Given that, what’s your position on no-cause evictions and rent control?
Smith: I’m looking at all those tools as opportunities to house the most vulnerable in our community. I think we have to put everything on the table. The housing affordability issue, to purchase homes and get into rental housing, it has put a lot of folks out, moved them out east. Put a lot of folks in our community on the streets. I am ready to look at all proposals, make sure that we can get people who are on the streets off the streets; people who are couch surfing, have their own permanent place not just temporary shelter.
We have to build housing at all income levels, to make sure that those at the top are not gobbling all the housing on the bottom.
Templeton: Just to go back to the eviction issue, would you support requiring landlords to have to show a cause for evicting somebody?
Smith: That’s the way it is in the city of Portland?
Templeton: No, right now you can evict someone without cause.
Smith: Let’s back this up. We know that there have been instances where people have been a victim of no-cause evictions and they have had their rents rise in the tune of double digits that have caused them to be homeless. I don’t like that. I support any initiative that can help people from being put in that position. I just have to look at the specific language that he’s using. I am in support of taking this away and making sure that our most vulnerable are not on our streets. It’s just a tool …
Templeton: What’s the most important thing that you can do as city council member to make sure that people benefit from this city’s growth instead of being harmed by it?
Smith: I can design a climate through policy and putting resources into neighborhoods and invest in businesses like I did at the county where I created the Inclusive Fund, where I put $500,000 in, Charlie Hales put $500,000. You have to level the playing field, and I’ve done that in my career.
I knew when Nike and Portland Public Schools were redoing all the football fields and making them turf … they said they were going to build those turf football fields for the schools who raised the most money. I knew that Jefferson and Madison would never be able to raise the money like those other schools. I put in two amendments to put $25,000 apiece in those two schools, so they would be one of the first ones to get that turf. That’s how you level the playing field, by putting dollars into communities where there was none …
Templeton: Mayor Wheeler will ultimately assign bureaus to whoever wins this seat. What will your pitch to him be?
Smith: I’d love to have the Children’s Levy. As a person who is coming new to the table, I will accept anything that the mayor trusts me to do. We’re going to build a staff that will be able to handle any assignment that he chooses to give us.
If I was a betting person, I’d say transportation, fire, Children’s Levy would be a possibility, because that’s what Commissioner [Dan] Saltzman has, and to totally shake up the other bureaus wouldn’t be a good idea.