Odd-year elections in Oregon may not have the national cachet of presidential or congressional races, but the school board seats, other offices, and local measures on area ballots in the May 18 election still provided plenty of drama.
1. Our “Strangest Election in America Right Now” Race Was Weird to the End
For a small, highly-plugged-in subset of schools watchers, the Zone 4 race to replace departing PPS board member Rita Moore in North/Northeast Portland was the living embodiment of the popcorn emoji.
First, there were all the hijinks around who was actually going to run for the seat. (See our story linked above for a complete rundown on that.) When the dust settled after the filing day deadline, Herman Greene, a pastor at a North Portland church, emerged as the institutional favorite to win the seat, hoovering up key endorsements—including that of the Portland Associated of Teachers and a handful of (though not all) sitting board members.
But a local parent and activist, Jaime Cale, was a late entry into the race in late March, waging a write-in campaign for the seat. In the waning days before the election, a steady drip of negative stories about Greene surfaced in local media, the bones of which had been previously floated in Facebook groups for PPS parents and progressive activists. He’d gone maskless at a religious event at the waterfront last summer, said Willamette Week; the Portland Tribune detailed his falsely claiming an endorsement from sitting school board member Michelle DePass, the sole Black member of the board, who’d made a point of remaining neutral in the race, citing personal reasons.
Comments Greene made about transgender athletes competing in Portland Interscholastic League athletics in a recent candidate forum came under scrutiny, too, but in the end, the insider chatter didn’t deter most voters from checking off Greene’s name on their ballot. He won handily, with 73 percent of the vote.
2. Oregon Voters Mostly Held Off Q-Anon Candidates—For Now
Adherents to the right-wing cult Q-Anon—which purports that a secret cabal of high-ranking Democrats are Satan-worshipping pedophiles—have been quietly infiltrating school boards and other otherwise mundane municipal elected offices for months, and Oregon is no different.
Along with Portland Zone 4 candidate Margo Logan, who said she’s not affiliated with the group but shared many aligned theories on her social media pages, voters in Bend were asked to consider school board candidates Wendy Imel, Maria Lopez-Dauenhauer, and Jon Haffner, who appeared on Fox News in early May to argue against critical race theory. The concept, which recognizes that systemic racism is embedded in American society, has emerged as a key bugaboo of the far right. All three were losing by wide margins in early returns, per the Deschutes County election results site.
In Salem, the Clypian, the student newspaper at South Salem High School, has detailed the close ties between school board incumbents and the anti-abortion movement, which can derail efforts by school-based health centers to distribute birth control to students. But in early results, a competing slate of progressive candidates was off to a strong lead in the race for seats on the Salem-Keizer school board. Those in pole position included several candidates recruited by the Oregon Futures Lab and its associated political action committee, which supports Black, Indigenous, and other people of color running for office in Oregon.
In Beaverton, conservative candidate Jeannette Schade has also railed against critical race theory in her campaign to unseat incumbent Susan Greenberg. In early results, she was losing decisively to Greenberg, with votes running against her by a 2–1 margin.
3. Write-In Campaigns Still Don’t Work
Cale, one of the cofounders of equity advocacy group Mxm Bloc, learned the hard way just how important it is to be on the ballot and in the voters’ pamphlet. In early returns, she’d earned just about 4 percent of the total, far behind Greene’s 73 percent, and trailing the other two filed candidates, Logan and recent Jefferson High graduate Brooklyn Sherman, who each had around 12 percent in early returns.
Most races attract a handful of write-in votes,* often for the likes of Donald Duck, Donald Trump, Jesus Christ, Damian Lillard, or “me.” When there are more write-ins, it can be a sign of general dissatisfaction with the candidates, like the 7.5 percent of voters in the 2012 Portland mayor’s race who went with someone other than Charlie Hales or Jefferson Smith. Last November, after Teressa Raiford staged a write-in campaign for mayor, 13 percent of voters used the write-in option—and Ted Wheeler’s margin over Sarah Iannarone was only 5 percentage points. Raiford had plenty of name recognition from past campaigns and as the founder of Don’t Shoot Portland. Cale didn’t enjoy that kind of name recognition, but neither did the three Zone 4 candidates who were on the ballot. The moral of the story? The first step to winning a race is still actually filing for it.
4. Incumbents Keep Their Edge (Mostly)
In Portland, school board members are often one and done, serving a single four-year term in the unpaid post (which requires between 10 and 20 hours a week of work, and opens you up to plenty of public backlash and angry emails) and then peacing out. Incumbents who did opt to run again lost to challengers in 2013 and 2015, but in 2021 Julia Brim-Edwards became the second incumbent in a row to run again and win reelection to the PPS board.
“We have huge challenges ahead, including safely re-opening schools this fall and continuing our relentless pursuit of more equitable outcomes for all our students. I am excited for the chance to collaborate on this important work with Herman and Gary, my current Board colleagues, Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero, and the broader school community,” Brim wrote in a statement that was released at the stroke of 8 p.m., suggesting she’d been anticipating an easy victory.
Her success was echoed around the region, hinting that pandemic frustration with local school boards over remote learning and school reopening didn’t always translate to a “throw the bastards out” result at the ballot box. The two incumbents running for the Lake Oswego board, Neelam Gupta and Liz Hartman, also sailed to victory. In Beaverton, incumbent Susan Greenberg was winning her race by a wide margin, but her colleague, LeeAnn Larsen, was less successful; early returns showed her losing to challenger Ugonna Enyinnaya.
One very notable incumbent—Oregon Health Authority director Pat Allen, who has helmed the state agency in charge of Oregon’s coronavirus response—was in a close race for his seat on the Sherwood School Board, slightly behind challenger Duncan Nyang’oro in early returns. Allen’s agency was responsible for writing and enforcing the guidelines that made the state one of the last in the country to move toward even a partial reopening of public schools; Nyang’oro had run on a “full-time, five days” platform.
5. We Love History!
Multnomah County residents renewed a five-year levy of a nickel for every $1,000 in assessed value for property owners to support the Oregon Historical Society. One perk of passage is that all school groups and all Multnomah County residents get into the museum on the North Park Blocks for free!
In 2010, 54 percent of voters agreed to the new levy. In 2016, the first renewal passed with 71.5 percent of the vote. In 2021, the first time it’s come up in an off-year-election, the levy passed with 76.5 percent of the vote.
Did the damage incurred on last fall’s Indigenous Peoples’ “Day of Rage” win sympathy (and more votes), or are locals just excited about OHS’s exhibits on Darcelle, women’s suffrage, and the city’s soccer obsession? We’ll never know.
*A county elections office will tally specific write-in votes only when the total is more than the total votes for the leading filed candidate. That tallying also happens in races for which no candidate files, as is the case in many Republican House primaries in left-leaning Portland districts. See who got written in last May, from Data to Jane Doe to Joe Exotic, here.