Oregon Cities

How the outcome of county DA election might influence campaigns for Portland mayor

As election results in the Multnomah County district attorney’s race rolled in last week, Portland City Commissioner Carmen Rubio appeared worried.

Rubio was at District Attorney Mike Schmidt’s election party in a Southeast Portland hotel ballroom, watching Schmidt lose to his subordinate, longtime prosecutor Nathan Vasquez.

“I’m sad,” she said. “This was a consequential election.”

To Rubio, the consequences reach beyond just determining who will oversee the county’s criminal justice system. Earlier in the night, Rubio was at a house party campaigning for her November run for Portland mayor. She’s running on a progressive platform similar to Schmidt’s, centered on addressing homelessness through new housing, more police accountability, and prioritizing treatment for people using drugs over charging them with crimes. She’s attracted many of the same supporters.

Across town, one of her top opponents in the mayor’s race was celebrating with Vasquez. City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez campaigned for Vasquez, and is courting his supporters. Like Vasquez, Gonzalez has pitched himself as the moderate in a nonpartisan race and called for a reinvestment in local law enforcement and a return to harsher penalties for people charged with low-level crimes.

Multnomah County prosecutor Nathan Vasquez, left, is congratulated by Portland City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez at The Hoxton Hotel on primary election night in Portland, Ore., May 21, 2024.

Multnomah County prosecutor Nathan Vasquez, left, is congratulated by Portland City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez at The Hoxton Hotel on primary election night in Portland, Ore., May 21, 2024.

Conrad Wilson / OPB

On Thursday, Gonzalez posted a message on his campaign’s social media pages congratulating Vasquez — and pointing out similarities to his platform.

“Our campaign for mayor is likewise focused on safety and accountability in the city of Portland,” he wrote. “One down, one to go.”

As of now, only six people have announced their run for the mayor’s office in November. That includes another city commissioner, Mingus Mapps, and three political newcomers. Gonzalez and Rubio are considered front-runners in the race in part because of their financial standing: Both have raised over $70,000 since January. Keith Wilson, the CEO of a trucking company, has raised about $65,000. While Mapps has raised around $19,000 this year, his campaign is currently in the red for payments to political consultant firms. Mapps didn’t endorse either district attorney candidate. On election night, he was focused on another race entirely — the ballot measure to renew the city’s gas tax.

With the district attorney’s race in the rear view, Rubio and Gonzalez appear to be stepping up to fill the ideological roles that the prosecutor candidates have left behind. And the tone and outcome of the DA’s race may serve as a guide for how the November mayoral race will play out.

A swing to the right?

Some see the outcome of the prosecutors’ race as evidence that Portland voters, an overwhelmingly Democratic group, are shifting to the center.

“If you look at the West Coast cities over the last couple years, you’ve seen a reset of moderates coming into favor,” said Dean Nielsen, founding partner of the political consulting firm CN4 Partners, which is working on Gonzalez’ mayoral campaign. “Portland is no different.”

Nielsen and others point to the surge of progressive candidates winning local office in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. In Portland, that included the election of Commissioners Chloe Eudaly and Jo Ann Hardesty, followed by Schmidt’s election as county prosecutor in May 2020.

Portland has struggled since, through numerous emergencies: a global pandemic, a surge of cheap and deadly fentanyl on Portland’s streets, skyrocketing gun violence, and dual affordable housing and behavioral health crises that added to the city’s sprawling homelessness problem.

While some of these problems were out of elected officials’ control, voters’ frustration with the status quo opened the door for more moderate candidates.

“I don’t think it’s an accident that a moderate won almost every City Council race in the past two cycles,” said Nielsen.

Mapps and Gonzalez replaced Eudaly and Hardesty in City Hall. Both ran to the right of the incumbents. And now Vasquez, a former Republican turned Independent, has beaten his progressive boss to win the district attorney’s office.

FILE: Portland City Commissioner Carmen Rubio hears testimony at Portland City Hall in early 2023. She's seeking to be elected mayor of Portland this fall.

FILE: Portland City Commissioner Carmen Rubio hears testimony at Portland City Hall in early 2023. She’s seeking to be elected mayor of Portland this fall.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

These outcomes could also be read as voters’ disinterest with incumbent candidates, rather than a centrist swing.

“That is often how these things are,” said Chris Shortell, a political science professor at Portland State University. “It’s less of a big ideological shift and more of voters being unhappy with a set of things, and they blame people in positions of authority”

But what does that mean for November, if the top two mayoral candidates are both City Hall incumbents? Nielsen said that candidates may need to take a page from the DA’s race — and run more moderate campaigns — to catch voters’ attention.

“People are wanting a change, and they want it now,” he said. “It’s as much about values as it is their background in government.”

City versus county

While the results of the county race show voters shifting rightward, it may not reflect the political lean of voters in Portland proper.

“The DAs race is clearly not a sign for the city races in the fall,” said Felisa Hagins, political director at the Service Employees International Union Local 49, which represents health care, janitorial, and security workers. “Because the voters don’t match up.”

Hagins pointed to the precinct-by-precinct results of the countywide race; those show that the areas with the strongest support for Vasquez lie outside of Portland in suburbs like Gresham and Fairview. “The precincts that Schmidt won were in the city of Portland,” said Hagins, “Except for the West Hills. But that tracks with the funders in the campaign.”

Portland’s west side, which largely supported Vasquez, is historically home to the city’s wealthiest voters. Vasquez’s campaign was funded with sizable checks from some of the region’s wealthiest business people, including real estate mogul Jordan Schnitzer and Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle.

To pollster John Horvick, the precinct results tell a slightly different story.

Horvick, the senior vice president of DHM Research, noted that precincts in Portland’s far east neighborhoods, which are disproportionately home to lower-income people of color, also cast votes for Vasquez.

“The coalition of low-income and diverse east side voters and wealthier, white west side voters — they are in alignment,” he said. “Progressive campaigns like Schmidt’s say they’re representing lower-income voters of color. But this tells me that the progressive left is misunderstanding what communities of color think about progressive issues.”

Yet Horvick believes the DA race results do little to predict how November’s mayoral race will go. The reason is technical: Voters in Portland will be using ranked-choice voting for the first time to elect mayoral candidates in the fall. The DA’s race used the more traditional pick-one-candidate method of voting. Voters will also be facing an onslaught of options, as the council is tripling in size and moving to district rather than citywide representation come January.

“It’s going to be a new system that’s new to voters, and new to candidates,” he said. “It’s a tough comparison.”

Perhaps the most important factor to the mayoral election is whether Portlanders actually vote. According to Horvick, turnout for the Tuesday primary election was the lowest in a presidential election year in Oregon history.

In Multnomah County, 52% of registered voters participated in the last presidential primary election, in 2020. Before that, in 2016, 56% of county voters cast their ballots. While not all Tuesday election ballots have been counted, about 36% county voters participated in this years’ primary.

Horvick said the low turnout is likely tied to the fact that the major party presidential nominations felt decided before Oregonians got their chance to weigh in. But the turnout also suggests that there wasn’t a lot of excitement about the local candidates on the ballot.

“Turnout is bad everywhere,” Horvick. “But let’s be humble about how much these races actually drive people’s attention.”

Which leaves him with a simple conclusion: “To win in November, a candidate needs to stand out.”

Standing out

Schmidt ran a reelection campaign that asked voters for more time to carry out the policy promises of his first term — and to trust that he knew what he was doing. Jake Weigler, founding partner of the Portland consulting firm Praxis Political, said Schmidt’s loss tells him that voters are tired of politicians telling them that they know what’s best for them.

“Politicians who say, ‘We know what we need to do, it’ll be painful in the short term, but just be patient and it’ll work,’” he said. “Voters are no longer willing to put faith in electeds that way.”

Weigler, who is working with several City Council candidates, said he thinks voters will be drawn to candidates who will really be able to stand out from the crowd. To Weigler, that means veering to the political right or the left.

“If you’re in the middle, you’re roadkill,” he said. “In such a packed race, people will be resorting to their political camps.”

Craig Dorfman is a partner at political consulting firm Mandate Media, which is working on Rubio’s mayoral campaign. He said there’s a temptation to draw the conclusion from the DA’s race that to win, candidates need to embody more moderate values.

“I think that’s a mistake, unless that’s what they truly care about,” Dorfman said. “Candidates chasing an external message are losing sight of what makes good leadership. Abandoning a core value is like blowing a hole in the side of a boat.”

He said authenticity could also go a long way to woo outside donors, which may be critical in November.

All six mayoral candidates who’ve announced thus far are participating in the city’s small donor election program where they pledge to only accept individual donations of $350 or less. Under that program, the city will match the first $20 of all donations 9-to-1, effectively turning a $20 donation into $180.

Historically, mayoral candidates were able to collect up to $750,000 in public dollars through this program. But due to the unusually large pool of City Council candidates in November, this financial ceiling has since been dropped to $100,000, drastically limiting candidates’ ability to pay for ads and events before Election Day.

That’s where outside spending could play a role. Independent groups aren’t limited by campaign spending in the same way as candidates, meaning they can pour thousands into ads that uplift or tear down candidates. Several of these groups, which may represent business interests, labor groups, or other industries, already flexed their financial power ahead of Tuesday’s county commission races — sending two races to November runoffs.

“I do think outside spending will make a big difference in the mayor’s race,” said Dorfman. “And chasing outside money is only slightly different than chasing voters. In fact, it’s easier to negotiate with a small group of people as opposed to the entire electorate.”

A nasty race?

The district attorney’s race was defined by its negativity. Both candidates ran well-funded negative campaigns that drew on voters’ fears. For Schmidt, that meant characterizing Vasquez as a far-right, gun-toting radical. For Vasquez, it was painting Schmidt as a softy liberal turning a blind eye to crime and the city’s dysfunction.

It’s too soon to know whether the mayor’s race will follow this script. Gonzalez and Rubio have already sparred about their ideological differences both in public during council meetings and privately behind closed doors in City Hall. Most recently, the two have disagreed on the city’s new rules on public camping — with Gonzalez calling for stricter penalties and stronger influence over the law’s future from the office. Rubio publicly accused him of wanting to criminalize homelessness, and the City Council ultimately supported the policy she backed.

The two also have also argued over how tax dollars reserved for green energy projects should be spent. Rubio, who oversees the Portland Clean Energy Tax, has focused on keeping the tax dollars reserved for climate-related programs, while Gonzalez has suggested tweaking the revenue to cover other city programs. But on Tuesday, Rubio said negative campaigning wasn’t where she intended to spend her energy — and, judging by the outcome of the district attorney’s race, it may not help her.

‘For me, I’m thinking about, ‘How do we make the best case to voters about that opportunity before us?’” she said. “Do we want people who will bring us together or do we want people who will continue to wedge us? We have to turn the page.”

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