Editor's note: The original version of this story did not mention a fifth candidate in the race, Cash Carter.
Despite a global pandemic, the race to be the next mayor of Portland continues on.
On Monday night, four candidates came together for another mayoral debate, hosted by the City Club of Portland. This time, though, the candidates met not on a stage, but on YouTube, with each candidate conferencing in from home. The number of viewers hovered a little below 400. The debate’s moderator, Serilda Summers-McGee, who used to be the city’s human resources director and now runs her own firm, originally threatened to mute candidates if they went over their allotted time, though, in the end, she did not.
It’s not just the race that has changed dramatically. The job description has, too. Being Portland’s next mayor will mean not just addressing the city’s well-known issues — houselessness, affordable housing, income inequality — but also unknown problems sure to appear as the public health crisis continues.
Monday evening, both incumbent Ted Wheeler and his leading opponent, urban policy consultant Sarah Iannarone, positioned themselves as the candidate up to the task.
“If the COVID crisis teaches us anything it’s that this is a time for leadership. This is not a time to experiment or flip over the apple cart again,” said Wheeler, who is running to be the first two-term mayor of the century. The three men that followed three-term Mayor Vera Katz all declined to seek a second term.
Iannarone, videoing from her bedroom, offered a different take.
“This is no time for business as usual,” she said, arguing she had the practical experience, professional know-how and community networks necessary to move through the crisis and into its recovery.
“We have to understand it’s not going to take moneyed elite from the West Hills to see us over this hump as we’re crafting a new future,” she said. “The status quo is not going to suffice.”
Over the last few weeks, the city has scrambled to pull together various relief measures to help those in need — signing on to the county’s eviction moratorium and allocating $3 million in general fund money for COVID response-related expenses. On the morning of the debate, the city’s housing bureau formally announced it would be distributing $500 for up to 2,000 families for necessities like rent, cleaning supplies or medication.
It’s not enough, argued the mayor’s opponents.
Teressa Raiford, founder of anti-gun violence nonprofit Don't Shoot Portland, said the city's steps to help renters "only gives us debt," the economic relief measures prioritized businesses over individuals, and the $500 assistance was insufficient. She pointed debate viewers to a petition her campaign had created earlier that morning, which asks City Council to give $1,000 stimulus checks for all Portlanders who are either unemployed or making less than $75,000 a year.
Ozzie González, who sits on TriMet’s board and owns a consulting firm, said the city needed to do more to get critical COVID-19 information out to hard-to-reach populations — those without internet, TV, homes, and people for whom English is a second language.
“Ted, since you’re on the call, it’s time to really make sure the communication resources are even-keeled here between English and other languages because the quality factor, the content, falls right off the cliff as soon as you leave one step away from English,” said González.
After Iannarone argued it was time “to think more like a war-time consigliere than a bureaucrat” and pressed for a moratorium on commercial evictions, Wheeler said the city’s doing many of the things it can legally do. Commercial rent evictions, he said, are “the state’s prerogative” and the City Council is asking the Oregon Legislature to take it up in the special session.
He also said the city is poised to get $100 million from the federal government’s COVID-relief package but is unclear on how it’ll be able to spend the money. The rules are expected to come out next week. He said he’s hopeful the city can use it to expand support for frontline employees, people who have lost their jobs or are at risk of losing housing.
The forum also brought various points of unity and non-COVID-19 related questions. The candidates seemed united in a desire to reform Portland's unusual commission form of government, in which the five members are elected city-wide and act as administrations for various city agencies. The City Club has recommended an overhaul of the city's government structure and has hired a local nonprofit to consider the feasibility of putting a measure on a future ballot that would ask voters to replace the structure.
Pressed by the moderator for a yes or no answer on support for homeless sweeps, Wheeler’s three opponents also united around a “no.” After being asked twice, the incumbent gave a cautious “yes.”
“Yes I guess I do support sweeps when life safety, the environment and public health are at risk,” said Wheeler, giving the example of people in homeless camps lighting fires and creating a hazard next to a building.
A fifth candidate, Cash Carter, did not participate in the debate. The Portland City Club will host another debate for the council seat currently held by Commissioner Chloe Eudaly on April 8.