PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland voters will decide between longtime political insider Loretta Smith and political newcomer Dan Ryan, who calls himself a change agent, as the next commissioner on Portland City Council.
The winner in the Aug. 11 special election will take the late Nick Fish's council seat, Commissioner Position 2. Fish died in January after a two-year battle with stomach cancer.
Smith, a former Multnomah County commissioner, and Ryan, the former executive director of the educational nonprofit All Hands Raised,
were the top two vote-getters in the May primary between 18 candidates.
Smith and Ryan joined KGW Straight Talk host Laural Porter for a modified debate as they pointed out differences they feel make them the better choice.
The two candidates differed on how they would try to resolve the protests that have continued in Portland for eight weeks.
Ryan said he thinks the city needs to have a peace summit bringing together representatives from various groups, including protesters, police, business owners and residents who live near areas affected by the protests.
"I grew up admiring Jimmy Carter and the work he did in the Middle East. I think we need a Middle East-type peace summit here in Portland. I have the skills in conflict negotiation. We need a different approach," he said.
Smith disagreed with the idea of a meeting with different groups of people. She said there needs to first be a meeting with only people who are protesting.
"We need to make sure we have a clear agenda for them, because they are the ones protesting in the evening. They're the ones fighting the establishment and status quo. We can't always bring other people in the room just to make us feel comfortable," Smith said.
Smith said she is the best person to help lead the effort since she raised a Black son in Portland.
"This is emotional to me to watch someone die, like George Floyd, at the hands of police. At the same time, we need solid bold leadership that's not afraid to talk to protesters," she said.
Businesses hurt by protests
Business owners have told KGW the protests are hurting them and they're not sure they can survive. Some have said they plan to leave downtown.
They point to the homeless crisis, the pandemic, and now the protests as a set of challenges they aren't sure they can overcome.
Ryan said he would want business owners at the table for a summit to discuss a resolution to the protests.
"We are in economic devastation. We are in a pandemic and we need to figure out how to get the revenue streams moving again. We have to turn the spigot on for currency. We can't lose our businesses," he said.
Smith said she thinks the city needs to set aside a pot of money for small businesses to recover from COVID-19 and from the protesting.
Federal agents in Portland
Smith said she was upset when Mayor Ted Wheeler was tear-gassed while attending the protest downtown on Wednesday.
The Mayor spoke with protesters earlier in the evening and later moved to the front of the crowd near the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse. At about 11 p.m., federal officers deployed tear gas when someone shot fireworks at the building.
"Everybody should be up in arms," she said. " If they do that to a white male mayor, imagine what they're going to do to Black and brown folks who are down there protesting peacefully. We have to stop this," Smith said.
During her 2018 campaign for city council against Jo Ann Hardesty, who eventually won the race, Smith advocated for an increase in the number of officers in the Portland Police Bureau.
Smith told OPB at the time, the number of officers hadn't kept up with the increase in Portland's population.
"We have more people who live in the city of Portland than we did 10 years ago. The last three years, we have had 45,000 people move here, three years in a row," she said. "We do need to make sure everybody in every part of the city is protected."
That was two years ago. Now, Smith is advocating for a $50 million cut to the Portland Police Bureau, saying the city council's cut of $15 million in June wasn't aggressive enough.
"I have changed my mind on what I think it means to have clear police reform. We should not have tear gas, chokeholds, rubber bullets, beating our peaceful protesters," she said.
Smith pointed to her five-point community safety plan which calls for a 20% cut to the Portland Police Bureau budget.
Ryan is endorsed by Hardesty. He supports her plan for reimagining community safety.
"I am endorsed by Commissioner Hardesty because she really likes that I have a community approach. I am very comfortable with tension in meetings. One of the reasons people asked me to be in this race is I know how to bring people together and have that creative tension in the room," Ryan said.
He said he's been clear that what he liked about Hardesty's plan to cut $15 million from the police budget is that it re-purposes the money into building a community safety system, in particular, the Portland Street Response Team.
"I am not someone who is going to cut $50 million unless we have a plan with a metric and goals," he said.
Hardesty as potential police commissioner
When asked whether he supports Hardesty as Portland police commissioner, Ryan was non-committal.
Last week on Straight Talk, Hardesty told KGW's Laural Porter she was open to the idea. The next day, after holding a candlelight vigil at a protest where Portland police and federal officers aggressively dispersed the crowd, Hardesty demanded Wheeler give her the police bureau.
She wrote in an open letter to Wheeler, "If you can't control the police, give me the Portland Police Bureau."
When asked if he favored making Hardesty police commissioner, Ryan said it was up to Wheeler and Hardesty to decide.
"That's a conversation they're having themselves. I trust those two fine people are having that conversation," he said.
Ryan said he'd rather see a different form of city government that would allow all five commissioners to focus on police reform as a priority.
"I think what I care about is that all five us who are part of the city council should be focused on this issue. It's one reason I want to get rid of this archaic form of a five mini-mayor government where people get lost in their own mini-bureaus. We need to be a team," he said.
Smith criticized Ryan for his vague answer and gave Hardesty her full support.
"I think if someone trusts you, you need to trust them. I think it's really interesting you could get support from a sitting councilor, but you don't support their leadership to lead police," she said.
Smith said she and Hardesty have their disagreements, but she values Hardesty's decades of experience fighting for police reform, and would support her as Portland police commissioner.
Making their case to voters
Dan Ryan pointed to his 35 years of experience as a tested executive leader in the nonprofit space as one reason he believes he's the best choice to replace Fish on city council.
"When you're a nonprofit leader and community leader, you really have to rely on bringing people together to make results," he said.
He called himself a reformer and change agent ready to take on all the challenges the city faces.
"There's nothing like a lot of crises for a lot of opportunity," he said.
Smith highlighted her decades of political experience. She is a former Multnomah County commissioner and served as a staffer for Sen. Ron Wyden for 20 years.
"Now is not the time for on the job training," she said. "We need someone like me who has experienced leadership."
Whoever wins the election on Aug. 11 will join the city council immediately and serve through 2022.
Both said Portland faces a daunting economic and health crisis and they're eager to serve.
"We have widespread poverty in this city, in every ZIP code. I want everybody to not just survive in this city, but to thrive," Smith said. "I'm the person who is going to speak truth to power."
Ryan asked voters to give the newcomer a chance.
"I think you ought to give the new person the shot who's from the community, who's from the independent sector, who's been able to get results with little means," he said.
Smith and Ryan also discussed their ideas to solve homelessness and accounting problems each faced with Portland's public campaign financing program.
Ballots are due back by 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 11.
KGW Straight Talk airs Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 4:30 p.m., Sunday at 6:30 p.m., and Monday at 4:30 a.m. It's also available on podcast.