Portlanders Seem to Want One Thing This Election Day: Change

A red wave isn't coming for the city (where offices are nonpartisan, anyway), but all signs point to a restless electorate looking for a new direction.

By Julia Silverman October 24, 2022

Portland voters seem like they are looking for change during this election season.

The state of Oregon may well be headed for a red wave this Election Day, but the waters are muddier when it comes to Portland proper. 

Even with a disconsolate and fed-up electorate upset over visible houseless encampments and quality-of-life crimes, the city remains a left-leaning bastion and inhospitable territory for the GOP. Case in point: Republican gubernatorial candidate Christine Drazan saw fit to tweet the other day about a single yard sign for her in an inner Southeast Portland neighborhood, since it’s such a comparatively rare sighting.  

The city’s voters remain overwhelmingly liberal. There were 287,083 registered Democrats in Multnomah County as of this month, against just 59,189 Republicans, and 180,166 nonaffiliated voters. 

But that doesn’t mean this election is going to be status quo within city limits, either. All indications suggest that Portlanders are in the mood for change, whether that means embracing a progressive call to overhaul the city council’s structure or potentially ousting a council incumbent who is beloved by those same progressive voters.  

Exhibit A: the proposal to remake the city’s form of government, which would usher in the hiring of a city manager, expand the number of people on the city council, create multimember voting districts and make a switch to ranked choice voting by the 2024 elections. 

The plan’s got vocal and lusty support from a broad coalition of progressive groups, from labor unions including the local branch of the Service Employees International Union to affinity groups like the Community Alliance of Tenants and the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, Supporters say the end result would be a more representative and responsive city government. 

Opposition is present, too, notably from a chunk of city council members, plus more centrist business and real estate interests, but has been more muted. A political action committee formed to oppose the measure has spent only about $60,000 so far, as opposed to more than $400,000 by proponents. The well-connected Portland Business Alliance has mostly stayed on the sidelines, though its president has urged members to vote against the proposal, calling it unwieldy and untested. 

Meanwhile, a poll for the Oregonian suggested that the measure is likely to pass, underscoring how badly the city’s voters want new systems and structures in place after the endless parade of bad news in the last few years, from skyrocketing office vacancy rates to double-digit growth in the population of unhoused people to an escalation in gun violence. 

Another marker that voters are in the mood for change: the race for a city council seat between incumbent Jo Ann Hardesty and challenger Rene Gonzalez. Hardesty is a favorite of the city’s core progressives for championing initiatives like the Portland Street Response, the now citywide alternative to a police response for unhoused people struggling with their mental health. 

Her get-out-the-vote operation, thanks to the support of most of the same community groups and unions that support the charter reform measure, is formidable, and her supporters are both some of the hardest for pollsters to reach and the latest to tune into an election, so it's clearly possible that Hardesty, first elected to the council in 2018, could hang onto her seat for a second term.  

But—and remember, we said this was a change election—public polling thus far suggests that more voters will opt for her opponent, lawyer and business owner Gonzalez, who has pushed for hiring more police and a more rapid, shelter-and-services-based approach to proliferating houseless encampments, part of a laser-focus on widespread quality-of-life issues.  

Whoever wins that seat will be working in tandem with the new chair of the Multnomah County Commission, one of the more under-the-radar local races, though the position has control over billions of dollars meant to address homelessness, addiction and behavioral services, and affordable housing. 

The race in some ways mirrors the Hardesty/Gonzalez dynamic. Current commission member Jessica Vega Pederson, best known for her work on the county’s Preschool for All program, has raked in endorsements from many of the same groups as Hardesty. Her opponent and current colleague on the board of commissioners, Sharon Meieran, has cast herself as the change agent of the race, calling for a top-to-bottom audit overhaul of the county’s current approach to the houselessness. Both candidates have highlighted urgency around encampments and the need for both short- and long-term fixes; Pedersen has said she’s opposed to sweeps of current encampments while Meieran says they can be a means to an end of directing people to sanctioned camping areas. 

Pederson pulled in 42 percent of the vote in the primary, making her the favorite in a race where there’s been little polling, while Meieran got only 18 percent. But the general is not the primary, and there are plenty of past examples of the second-place finisher in May claiming more votes in the general, especially when voters are angling for change. Just look to Chloe Eudaly overtaking Steve Novick in 2016, or Mingus Mapps doing the same to then-incumbent Eudaly in 2020.

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