By Grace Masback
CatlinSpeak (Portland Oregon)
A little over two months ago, Mayor Charlie Hales announced he was withdrawing from the race for Portland mayor in an effort to focus more on the needs of the City of Portland for his remaining time in office. Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler is now running against City Commissioner Jules Bailey in the 2016 mayoral election.
Recently, CatlinSpeak had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Wheeler to discuss his outlook on the race for mayor, along with some of his key policy viewpoints. His answers were straightforward, and to the point.
Wheeler, 53, is a sixth generation Oregonian. The town of Wheeler on the Oregon Coast is named after his great-grandfather, who founded a sawmill there in 1912. Wheeler holds a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and master’s degrees from Harvard (Public Policy) and Columbia (Business Administration). He worked in the financial services industry before going into politics, first as Chair of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, then in his current position, which he has held since 2010.
Wheeler had expressed interest in running for governor and was considered a sure bet for the Democratic nomination in 2018 until Governor John Kitzhaber’s resignation catapulted Oregon Secretary of State, Kate Brown, into the position, causing Wheeler to turn his political ambitions towards Portland.
One of the primary focuses of Wheeler’s campaign has been addressing Portland’s homelessness crisis. Portland has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the nation, with almost 4,000 homeless individuals in Multnomah County alone, and almost 7,000 in total. The national number of homeless has dropped by 11 percent since 2007, but the number in Portland has actually risen by nine individuals. Wheeler commented, “This is an issue I have been working on for a long time. Years before I was even elected to office I was an overnight volunteer shelter host at the Goose Hollow family shelter. There is no question that the economic crisis in 2008 and 2009 exacerbated the situation, but we have long had a homelessness crisis in our community.”
We then discussed the lack of emergency shelter beds and transitional housing for people looking to get off the streets. Wheeler’s voice filled with passion when he discussed the issue. “I don’t believe that simply declaring a state of emergency is sufficient,” Wheeler said critically of Mayor Hales’ actions to end homelessness. “We have to have consistent and sustained long-term approaches. One needs to understand that homelessness is a very complex issue. It is not the kind of thing where you do one thing or two things or even three things and solve the problem. It requires a comprehensive approach that acknowledges that homelessness, as we know it, is a series of many different problems and issues each of which requires a different response.”
With a clear-cut answer, Wheeler was emphatic, “I find it unconscionable that a large number of those youth on the streets are being transitioned directly from the state foster care system to the streets. If I were mayor of Portland, I would emphasize the creation of emergency shelters in the short run and I would shift our policy balance back towards increasing the supply of transitional housing.”
He acknowledged that the city of Portland as a whole needs to look at how its own policies contribute to the cost of housing in Portland. He wasted no time in stating, “looking at permits, regulations, etc., there is no question that the city could do more to speed up the supply of affordable housing and reduce the cost.”
The next issue we discussed was gentrification, a topic of much contention and debate throughout the city. As urban renewal efforts have successfully revitalized many areas of the Eastside, they have simultaneously displaced vibrant African-American communities, resulting in anger and resentment along racial lines.
Wheeler is brutally honest about the current state of the city. “The reality is that the gentrification of Portland’s inner neighborhoods is virtually complete,” Wheeler says. “The only solution is to create new affordable housing that is price-appropriate for lower income and middle income families that can no longer afford to live in those communities. When we talk about gentrification today, from my perspective people need to be able to own their own homes and they need to be able to afford to live in our city. This requires a combination of providing housing that is affordable to that population and it requires connecting people in lower and middle income situations with economic opportunities in our city so that they can continue to afford to live here.”
“Every politician in America talks about creating good jobs,” Wheeler asserts. Underscoring the important relationship between jobs and racial equality, he continues stating, “Good jobs already exist in our community but they are going unfilled because people don’t have the right education, job training, or skills to fill those jobs.”
I wanted to know what Mr. Wheeler would do as mayor to improve voting rates and bolster civic engagement in the city of Portland. Mr. Wheeler sees two ways to increase voter participation – a structural approach, and personal one. “People will be more likely to vote if they feel the candidates reflect their interest and needs and can actually address the problems that are most important to them. I hope I am running on a platform that is engaging to people of different ages.”
“What I can’t do on my own but what I would like to see happen is see more people run for public office.” Wheeler hopes to leverage the breadth and diversity of the Portland community at the polls. But Wheeler also acknowledges he can’t usher in greater diversity alone, stating, “we have done a poor job of lifting up the next generation of young leaders, especially the leaders in communities of color. We haven’t provided many opportunities for those young leaders to really step up and take on increasing responsibility. My campaign and leadership will reflect an interest in changing this.”
He continues by affirming the importance of social and political movements, “You have to start with grass roots. You have to be in the community and listen to what the people want and hear the ideas that citizens are proffering. Then you build a coalition for support for those ideas in the community and use that coalition to get the votes you need at the City Council.”
Although his desire for competition may seem strange, he eloquently outlines his reasoning. “It helps me to have a more robust competition. I come into this race with my own background and experiences and values and history and traditions. My background and experience represents a small sliver of the total community’s interest and needs. It would be healthy to have other people in the race who represent other viewpoints than my own. I have always felt that competition in politics is a very positive thing.”
While Wheeler was running unopposed for some time (he no longer is), he stated “My plan stays the same whether the race is competitive or not,” he says. He continues, “I know there are a lot of people in this community who don’t know who I am or what I stand for or what my priorities are or what I will do if I am elected mayor. Whether I have many opponents or few, my job remains the same – I am going to be going to every corner of this community, I am going to be knocking on doors, I am going to be participating in debates, whether I have opponents or not.”
The race still has plenty of time to develop before the voters go to the polls in May, yet Wheeler feels ready to serve the city of Portland and take on whatever is thrown his way. In his own words, “We are just going to stick to the game plan.”
Photo Credit: Reuben Schafir