Thanks to term limits and political ambition, three of Multnomah County’s five commission seats are up for grabs this year.
Commissioners Judy Shiprack and Diane McKeel are both barred from another term. But the most interesting and crowded race involves District 1, where Commissioner Jules Bailey is foregoing a reelection campaign to run for Portland mayor.
Seven candidates are vying for Bailey’s seat — and talking about a dramatically different approach to how Multnomah County does business.
“I think the county can be much bolder in moving forward some progressive policies and programs,” said Mel Rader, the executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Upstream Public Health.
Bailey’s soon-to-be-former district includes Northwest and Southwest Portland and parts of the inner east side. It’s also the place where lax enforcement of environmental regulations has neighbors near a glass manufacturing plant worried about what’s in their air.
Rader said if elected, he would push his fellow county commissioners to get more aggressive on exactly those sorts of issues.
In a similar vein, financial consultant Brian Wilson said the county should take bolder stances.
“What I would focus on are perhaps some missed opportunities that this board has not addressed, partly because one of the things about the county in recent years is it’s been sort of quiet,” he said. “It hasn’t really taken on any big issues.”
Wilson ran against Bailey two years ago. He’s served on the county charter review commission and helped lead a funding campaign for the libraries several years ago.
He doesn’t necessarily see any areas in which he fundamentally disagrees with the current board. But he still has a criticism: Multnomah County should be more creative.
For example, Wilson is irked county leaders rejected calls to use the empty Wapato Jail for homeless housing without any real public debate.
“I will definitely disagree with taking Wapato off the table as a homelessness emergency shelter,” he said. “There was a way we could have had a more robust and healthy conversation about using that facility in the short term while we are in an emergency.”
Taking on big issues can be challenging at the county level. Multnomah County handles the less glamorous side of local government services — things like animal control and elder care. County commissioners are legislators, not administrators, so to a certain degree they rely on the leadership of the county’s chief executive to set the agenda.
County Chair Deborah Kafoury has endorsed Sharon Meieran, an emergency room doctor and lawyer. Meieran has never held public office before, but she’s a member of the citizen group studying reforms to the Portland Police Bureau and on the board of a soon-to-open emergency center for people in mental health crisis.
“In the ER, you see the real world implications, and how it’s all so interconnected. Health care isn’t just health care,” she said. “It’s where you come from, whether you have a roof over your head. I think that front-line, real-world experience will come in handy.”
Meiran said the county is headed in a good direction. Rather than sweeping change, she said commissioners need to build on the work Kafoury and her colleagues have already done: “The county has its plate full right now. I think we need to do the things we are sort of at the core of what the county does effectively and efficiently and appropriately first.”
Other major candidates in the District 1 race include Marisha Childs, a lawyer and neighborhood activist, and Eric Zimmerman, a National Guard veteran and the chief of staff to District 4 Commissioner Diane McKeel. He’s got the endorsement of McKeel and Commissioner Loretta Smith, along with several of the largest county employee unions.
If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote next week, the top two finishers will compete in a November runoff.