Impressions of the Portland Mayoral Environmental Debate, March 3

The views expressed in this article reflect the individual impression of the author. 350PDX is a 501(c)(3) non-profit and does not endorse political candidates.

The mayoral debate on the evening of March 3rd, held in the Benson Polytechnic High School auditorium, began with some drama.

Host Steve Law, editor of the Portland Tribune’s Sustainable Life section, welcomed the audience, introduced the three candidates and three questioners on stage, and described the debate format to come. Suddenly, a woman wearing some sort of flamboyant purple fur around her neck strode up onstage, to the host’s podium, and began gesticulating and speaking loudly.

Seemingly unruffled, Law said calmly into the microphone, “It looks like we have a disrupter. Does the audience want to hear from this disrupter or move on with the debate?”

From the audience came cries of “Start the debate!” and “Please leave the stage!” But the woman grabbed the microphone and began denouncing the forum, declaring it undemocratic. Finally the microphone either stopped working or someone pulled a switch on it, as audience members continued to call for the interloper to leave the stage.

Another microphone was produced and the debate began, as the woman hovered stubbornly by the podium until she apparently saw the pointlessness of it and left the stage. I was impressed by this minimally fussy, utterly nonviolent, uniquely Portland way of handling the situation.

So what was her point, anyway? Well, on stage were three mayoral candidates: Oregon State Treasurer Ted Wheeler, Multnomah County Commissioner Jules Bailey, and local businesswoman Sarah Iannarone. But there are also nine other declared Portland mayoral candidates who were not given a platform that night. As someone from the Oregon League of Conservation Voters later told me (and as Mr. Law had explained from the stage, though I didn’t quite catch it then), the invitation had been extended to these three candidates because they were the only ones whose campaigns had raised at least $10,000 thus far—which is roughly the cost of sending out a single Portland mailer.

A subsequent open-forum debate with all 12 candidates is being planned, but the protester (and others who had been vocal on social media prior to the event) nonetheless felt that the Benson debate was undemocratically exclusive. Thus, the interruption.  

In addition to OLCV, the primary sponsors of Thursday evening’s debate were the Oregon Environmental Council and the Sierra Club. It was only after the fact that I learned this event actually had a subtitle, which was “Regaining Our Green Edge.” Apparently the consensus view is that Portland was once the leading environmental city in the country but that we’ve grown a little slack.

It seemed to me that Mr. Wheeler, who has the longest public service resume, had the strongest opening statement, in which he cited having “worked hard to establish national carbon standards” and being “the only candidate who publicly supported the city council’s fossil fuel export ban.” Mr. Wheeler claimed he had also “called out the DEQ [State Department of Environmental Quality]” for allowing Bullseye Glass to release arsenic into Southeast Portland’s air.

Mr. Bailey also cited an impressive list of accomplishments, while Ms.  Iannarone, who has not held public office, was nonetheless articulate in her call for “environmental policies created by the people affected most, rather than policies created by a small group of political elites.”

The first question for the candidates was what our next steps should be, here in Portland, to address climate change. Ms. Iannarone, answering first, was a little abstract, noting (for example) that while we should be proud that we are the most environmentally ambitious city in the country, we need to think about how to evenly distribute our policies through our population, and we should begin our efforts with house weatherization. Mr. Wheeler reaffirmed his support for the fossil fuel export ban, opined that we have to move our community toward renewables, and suggested that we may even have to put in place our very own regulatory oversight and enforcement mechanisms. Mr. Bailey likewise vowed to fully implement the fossil fuel export ban.  He also pledged to work with the local Native American community to keep them in their homes, and in general to make certain that the most vulnerable communities here – some of the people most impacted by climate change – benefit from the investments we’ll be making in sustainability. Mr. Bailey also affirmed his belief that we can develop the next generation of green tech solutions here in Portland.

There were a number of questions about environmental equity. Among the solutions that candidates offered were empowering communities to seek their own solutions through participatory budgeting (Wheeler); focusing on home upgrades, tree canopies, and park access in low-income neighborhoods, including a capital fund for park expansion in those areas (Bailey); and investments in schools and community centers, which are the “first line of defense” in the event of a crisis (Iannarone).

The question of how to couple sustainability with affordability, and how to avoid excessive gentrification of venerable Portland neighborhoods, was a big topic. The most stunning piece of data was provided by Ms. Iannarone: If you live east of East 82nd Avenue in Portland, you are two and a half more times more likely to die by being hit by a car than if you live west of 82nd Avenue. This information came in the midst of a discussion about “transit equity.” Multiple candidates spoke of the need for more and better transit options in East Portland, as well as greenways, walkways, and bicycle infrastructure.

My general takeaway was that all three candidates are well-intentioned, intelligent, and highly capable, and would serve our city well. I’m sorry I did not get the names of the three questioners, who were also excellent and thoughtful. Altogether, it was a civilized, smart, nuanced, and substantive debate that made me proud to be a Portlander. It was an almost poignant contrast to the low-brow, name-calling circus of a “GOP Presidential Debate” happening at the same time on national TV, which I unwisely viewed later via the Internet.

by Marc Polonsky