November 7 — About 100 of us stood outside Portland City Hall in the cold November sun on Thursday to witness something big.
After two instant runoffs, the first-row election for a city council seat between planning council chairman Brandon Mazer and former education council chairman Roberto Rodriguez ended in a substantive tie – 8,529 each voice.
According to the city charter, the winner would be drawn “by lot,” which turned out to be a drawing by City Clerk Kathy Jones of folded index cards pulled from an impressive wooden bowl.
When Jones read Mazer’s name, a buzz went through the crowd and we all returned to work, knowing which direction our municipal government would be heading for the next three years.
But we don’t really know, nor do these Pennsylvania folks know how long the winter will last after seeing the groundhog come out of its hole – the civic ritual that the Portland cartoon most reminded me of.
First of all, with an election this close, there is going to be a recount, and with 21,000 ballots being reviewed by hand, it is highly likely that at least one vote will go into the column of one of the candidates giving in Mazer or Rodriguez the seat. But there is no recount until there is a winner, and no winner without a drawing. Spectacle aside, this election will be decided by the voters, not by chance.
Everyone will have to wait and see who wins what is widely seen as the latest chapter in the ongoing Portland influence contest between progressive activists and the more moderate liberal faction, a race that has recently followed the path of the progressives.
Mazer was the town’s establishment favorite, backed by leaders in the business community and Mayor Kate Snyder. Rodriguez has the backing of the city’s progressive movement. But I don’t think this election was the ideological showdown that a lot of people seem to think.
I was part of the editorial board process that interviewed all of the city council candidates, Progressive, Moderate and Conservative, and I was struck by how little difference they were between them on the issues.
The eight candidates, four for the general seat and two each for Districts 1 and 2, said affordability was the No. 1 issue facing the city and that there was no extreme difference in solutions proposed to remedy it. You would have had a hard time figuring out who to vote for on issues alone.
This does not mean that the candidates are all the same. Voters could make a difference based on their experience and the groups that supported them. But if there was an ideological debate in this election, I missed it. It wasn’t in everything that I heard the candidates say, just in what I heard others say about them.
And that makes sense, because so little of what goes on in municipal government is ideological.
Most municipalities provide services, from picking up trash to housing someone who has nowhere to go, and they pay for the services by collecting taxes. The balance between needs and resources is a constant struggle.
Whoever ultimately wins the election will spend most of his time fixing issues that were not on his palm card when he ran for office. No one came to the board in 2019 with a plan to fight the pandemic, but that’s what consumed them in power. It’s a safe bet that a new crisis will arise and that councilors will be forced to vote when they do not like any of the options.
If there is a difference between progressives and moderates in Portland, it may be a sense of urgency rather than priorities. Housing affordability has been a problem for years, but no matter who is in power it is only getting worse. Progressives say they represent the voices of people who can no longer wait.
But big changes, like housing construction, take time, longer than the term of a city councilor. To bring these projects to fruition, you need to build on the work that has already been done, even if it isn’t what you would have done if you had been there.
When Mazer’s name was pulled out of the bowl, it was touching to see him and Rodriguez kiss.
We saw two candidates who worked hard for months believing they were the best person for the job and, at least then, enjoying how the other must feel.
It was a nice break with the garish politics of social media. It showed something about the sacrifices people make to run for local office and the desire to serve their community.
We may not yet know the winner of this race, but by standing out in the cold, we finally witnessed something big.