In his first major speech since he took office, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler revealed a little more of his vision for the city — but ran out of time before finishing his prepared remarks.
The mayor spoke passionately and at length about his family history — he is a sixth generation Oregonian from a wealthy timber family. He vividly contrasted their experience with the state’s history of hostility toward people of color.
“When Oregon was established as a state, by law in 1858, black people were not allowed to live here,” he told the mostly white crowd that gathered to hear his speech at Portland’s City Club. “Oregon was the only state in America that had this prohibition written into its constitution.”
He spoke of racial discrimination as a major through-line in the city’s history, from the displacement of black shipyard workers and their families during the Vanport floods to the disproportionate rates of arrest for people of color for petty crimes in Multnomah County.
All but two of Portland’s 53 mayors have been men, and all 53 mayors in the city’s history have been white.
Making reference to the protesters who have repeatedly shouted down City Council meetings and camped outside his house, Wheeler suggested he understands their grievances.
“This is what I’m hearing, the blights of racism, of unequal opportunity, of homelessness and invisibility, they were not limited to the Old West; they still exist today,” he said.
Ad-libbing at times from his prepared script, he talked about his commitment to community policing, and his desire for Portland to resist the national political shift to the right on reproductive rights, the environment and LGBT rights.
“I am not satisfied for Portland to be the last line of defense. That’s not good enough. I want Portland to be the first line of offense,” he said.
On the question of reducing street homelessness, a signature campaign issue for the mayor, Wheeler signaled his support for experiments with unconventional shelter options, like tiny home villages — a subject he has mostly stayed neutral on in the past.
“We know that traditional shelter doesn’t work for everyone. We know that,” he said. “So increasing the number and kinds of shelter available for those experiencing homelessness is critical,” he said.
Wheeler also proposed a new financing strategy for street repair, in effect borrowing money to pay for the investments.
Wheeler said the city can pay off those loans without raising tax rates, because it has curbed its use of urban renewal areas which take land off the tax rolls to encourage development.
It’s a move that builds on the most significant accomplishment of his predecessor, Mayor Charlie Hales. Hales and the city council dramatically scaled back Portland’s urban renewal areas like the Pearl District to return more tax dollars to the city’s general fund.
Wheeler promised increased enforcement of fair housing laws, and waxed poetic about the potential for the city to redevelop the Rose Quarter.
And then he looked up. “Can I get a time check? What time is it, Melissa?” he asked.
It was 1 p.m.
Wheeler’s tone became comically terse.
“We’re gonna re-shape the Waterfront” he said. “You won’t recognize it.”
The crowd laughed as the mayor condensed the remaining pages of his speech into 60 seconds.
He gave a brief nod to a major initiative creating public docks and beaches on the East Bank of the Willamette River, and a proposal to bury or rip out the Interstate 5 freeway to open up the Waterfront, explained in great detail in his written speech.
“I’m particularly talking about I-5 on the east side. We will move forward on a plan to address that,” he said.
“Older adults will not be forgotten,” he concluded, and then took a few questions from the audience.
After the speech, a group of student leaders from Parkrose High School who had come to listen said they didn’t mind that Wheeler spent much of his time talking about the state’s past.
“It made me happy, to hear someone say this is what happened, and we do need to focus on it, because it affects the way we are today,” said Tieonna Jenkins, a senior at Parkrose. “He called out the police, not in a negative way, but he called out the police.”
Her friend Vicki Trinh, also a student at Parkrose, added, “It was a really good thing to hear, under this new current administration.”