Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty took the oath of office Wednesday, becoming the first African-American woman to serve on the City Council.
Hardesty told a crowd of hundreds of supporters and colleagues in City Hall that she started her day with a commute on a MAX train, reflecting on the two African-American commissioners who preceded her: Charles Jordan and Dick Bogle.
“It’s been 25-ish years since an African-American has had the privilege of serving the people of Portland,” she said. “What I see all around me is a city filled with people with hope, and I don’t take that hope lightly.”
In a nod to the historic moment, Justice Adrienne Nelson led a brief ceremony. Nelson is the first African-American to serve on the Oregon Supreme Court.
Mayor Ted Wheeler, Police Chief Danielle Outlaw and Fire Chief Mike Meyers were in the crowd, alongside many of Hardesty’s longtime supporters, such as homeless activist Ibrahim Mubarak and civil rights activist James Posey.
Portland is the only large American city that elects commissioners citywide, instead of by district or ward.
Courts have struck down such at-large election systems in other cities — including a recent case involving the Yakima City Council — because they can dilute the power of minority voters.
In Portland, very few people of color — or residents of poorer neighborhoods like East Portland — have been elected to the Council.
Hardesty, who lives in East Portland’s Gateway neighborhood, is a Navy veteran, civil rights activist and consultant who served in the state Legislature from 1997 to 2000.
On the campaign trail, Hardesty often downplayed the historic nature of the election. Her chief opponent, Loretta Smith, is also an African-American woman. Instead, Hardesty focused on her long record as an activist and her powerful grassroots campaign.
“My campaign is not because I want to be the first black woman on Portland’s city council,” she said at one of the final candidate debates.
“It’s all about the service I’ve provided to the city, for free many times, because I love Portland,” she said.
In Portland’s unique commission form of government, City Council members also manage city services.
Mayor Wheeler has assigned Hardesty four bureaus to oversee: Portland Fire and Rescue, the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management, the Portland Bureau of Emergency Communications and the Fire and Police Disability & Retirement Fund.
Hardesty’s election could mean a further shift to the left for the City Council, particularly on public safety issues, posing a challenge for Wheeler, who also serves as police commissioner.
Hardesty has pledged to push for a vote to withdraw Portland from the Joint Terrorism Task Force, a partnership between local and federal law enforcement established by the FBI in 2000.
She has also proposed hiring mental health professionals to triage calls in the city’s 911 call center and for alternatives to sending police officers to respond to people in a mental health crisis.
Commissioner Dan Saltzman, whose seat Hardesty fills, was a moderate who reliably supported Wheeler’s agenda.
Saltzman retired after serving five terms on the Council. He held on to his seat longer than any other commissioner in the past 50 years.
Saltzman said his advice to Hardesty is to focus.
“It’s going to be like trying to drink out of a fire hose,” he said. “Really have two or three specific priorities that you want to own and make happen, and be relentless about them.”
A celebration of Hardesty’s swearing-in will take place at City Hall at 6 p.m. Wednesday and is open to the public. Capacity will be limited to 250 guests.