Ellen Seljan, political scientist, talks monumental Portland mayoral race

Portland is likely going to experience one of the closest and most divisive elections for mayor in its history. 

Incumbent Mayor Ted Wheeler is facing a difficult bid for reelection, under criticism from both the left and right for his handling of the city’s Black Lives Matter protests. If reelected, he would be the first Portland mayor since Vera Katz, who left office in 2005, to serve more than a single term. He has two serious challengers further to his left, public policy advisor Sarah Iannarone and anti-police brutality activist Teressa Raiford, who is running an entirely write-in campaign. Neither Iannarone nor Raiford has ever held public office before. 

A poll conducted by Davis, Hibbitts and Midghall Research in mid-September showed Iannarone leading Wheeler by 11 percentage points, while an early October poll from the same source showed Iannarone and Wheeler nearly tied, with Raiford a distant third. Despite the groundswell of anti-Wheeler sentiment visible in protests and lawn signs across the city, Associate Professor of Political Science and Department Chair Ellen Seljan believes that Wheeler will win reelection. 

“There’s a lot of people voting because they are excited to vote in the presidential race,” Seljan said. “But they’re going to vote for mayor as well, even though they might not know as much about the candidates, and in any sort of low-information environment, the incumbent is the favorite.”

Seljan points to the sizable margins of undecided voters, 28% in the most recent poll, as evidence that many voters are unfamiliar with the candidates. Seljan said Wheeler has greater name recognition due to being the incumbent, and undecided voters are likely to vote for candidates whose names they know.

No matter who wins, their power will be limited due to Portland’s unique system of city government. Most major American cities have a mayor-council form of government, in which an executive mayor presides over a city council, with each council member elected to represent a single district of the city. Portland, however, has what is known as a “commission” government, a system Seljan calls “highly unusual.” The five-member city commission, of which the mayor is one of the members, is elected at-large by the entire city, instead of each commissioner having a constituency of a few neighborhoods as a city councilor would. The mayor has very little power beyond that of the other commissioners.

The consequences of commission government are wide-ranging, according to Seljan. One of the biggest is Portland’s recent string of one-term mayors. The three previous mayors before Wheeler declined to run for reelection, which Seljan attributes to the difficulty of advancing change through the commission government. 

“(The mayor is) seen as the most important political actor, but (they) don’t have the political power to back it up,” Seljan said. “And so, you need to spend a lot of time building coalitions and building consensus, which is very challenging and makes it easy to get blamed along the way.”

Many have blamed the commission system for the lack of officials of color in Portland’s government. Because the commissioners are elected at-large, minority neighborhoods do not have city councilors to directly represent them, resulting in a commission that only represents the needs and interests of the city’s white majority. To date, City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, the only Black commissioner, and the nonprofit City Club of Portland have advocated for the commission system to be replaced, while Wheeler has suggested a referendum on adopting a new system. 

Iannarone and Raiford have also voiced criticism regarding the commission government. On her campaign website, Iannarone writes that “Our city works best when those making decisions reflect the experiences of the people whose lives they’re affecting,” in support of amending the city charter, akin to a municipal constitution, to reform the commission system.

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