Mayoral candidates make cycling part of green policies at environmental debate

On stage at Benson High last night.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

What a difference four years makes.

One thing that became clear at last night’s mayoral debate: For the first time in my memory (which is admittedly not very long), all the top candidates are firmly on the left of the political spectrum. At each of the mayoral races I’ve covered in the past decade there was always a right-leaning candidate who made veiled overtures to business interests and the status quo — especially when it came to transportation and environmental issues. Even our current mayor Charlie Hales was elected after a campaign where he ran as an anti-Sam Adams who would return Portland “back to basics” (wink wink).

The three candidates at last night’s debate: Sarah Iannarone, Ted Wheeler, and Jules Bailey, are having none of that. Each one of them are proposing policies that would upend business as usual and would put Portland back at the forefront of truly progressive cities.

“We can’t expect the people who benefit from the status quo to get us out of it. We don’t need more environmental policy manufactured by political elites.”
— Sarah Iannarone

The event last night aimed to help Portland “regain its green edge” and was hosted by a slew of environmentally-conscious nonprofits (including the Bicycle Transportation Alliance). Unlike the raucous debate on Monday night that featured eight candidates, the stage at Benson High last night was much more calm and orderly — at least most of the time. Organizers limited the field to only candidates that had raised at least $10,000. That fact didn’t sit will with a number of local groups who had circulated a petition prior to the event. Then, at the outset of the event last night a woman stormed the stage in protest and temporarily halted the proceedings. She demanded that all voices be heard. A shoving match with debate moderator Steve Law (a reporter for the Portland Tribune) ensued and the woman eventually walked off the stage. (For what it’s worth the crowd did not appreciate her tactics.)

From the start of the opening statements, each candidate talked tough about how they’ll fight for the environment. And we were pleasantly suprised that cycling and transportation were discussed throughout the night.

Bailey started things off by listing the awards he’s received from environmental groups during his time as a state legislator. “Climate change is the greatest threat facing our species,” he said. Wheeler touted his record, saying, “You don’t have to wonder if I’ll lead on the environment because I’ve been doing it for a long time.” Both candidates know that Iannarone lacks their political experience; but she was ready for that. Right from the start Iannarone played the part of the outsider who could bring new voices to the table. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” she said, citing a quote from writer and feminist Audre Lorde. “We can’t expect the people who benefit from the status quo to get us out of it,” she said. “We don’t need more environmental policy manufactured by political elites.”

Iannarone also made equity part of nearly every answer last night. While Wheeler and Bailey would rattle off concrete policy ideas, she would steer the focus back to how those policies would impact people east of 82nd and other underserved communities. But one of the best moments of the night in that respect belonged to Bailey. He skillfully brought up the Vanport Floods to make a point about future climate change-fueled disasters, saying, “We’ve seen what happens in Portland when disaster meets inequities.”

When asked about “compact growth” and how to increase our housing options but keep them affordable, the candidates all made strong points. Bailey said he wants “financial empowerment programs” so more people can own their homes and new zoning laws that will encourage triplexes and duplexes (the “missing middle“). Iannarone said, “We need to adopt the village model,” and encouraged putting more ADUs and tiny houses on a single property. Wheeler answered, “The way we plan isn’t working well. People are moving further east to chase an affordable house.” Then he repeated a line from Monday, “We support the downtown streetcars, why aren’t we supporting transit options in east Portland to the same degree?”


After the debate the candidates posed for a photo to support the local campaign for a 10-cent gas tax increase.

With recent revelations about toxic air in southeast Portland making national news, the candidates were asked how they’d address the issue. All three of them said they’d support a new regional air quality regulatory agency (although Wheeler sounded the most passionate and commited to making it happen). Bailey went one step further and said he’d work for new clean diesel standards and would require major construction projects to use only clean diesel equipment.

“Number one, I will support more bicycle greenways because they are the most cost-effective way to solve multiple problems.”
— Ted Wheeler

And then we got our transportation question. Prefaced by David Bragdon’s scathing criticisms about Oregon, and saying “traffic and air pollution have become intolerable,” a panelist asked for the candidates best ideas on “sustainable transportation.” The one thing all three mentioned was more separated bikeways.

Wheeler surprised everyone (I think) when he shared his top priority. “Number one, I will support more bicycle greenways because they are the most cost-effective way to solve multiple problems. They give us more green space and create safer, more connected communities,” he said. But Wheeler wasn’t done. “And number two,” he continued, “I will look at separating bike lanes.”

Then it was Bailey’s turn and he too put bikes front and center. “We have a system that was built for cars that bikes have been shoe-horned into… We need separate lanes for bikes.”

And once again Iannarone took the opportunity to speak up for east Portland. “If you live east of 82nd Avenue you’re two-and-a-half times more likely to die from a car than if you are west of it. It’s an auto nightmare out there,” she said.

The next question about creating more park space also led to two candidates mentioning bikes.

Wheeler said he’d expand access to parks by building more “bicycle greenways” which leads us to think he’s a bit confused. Wheeler got educated about neighborhood greenways (the City of Portland’s phrase for bicycle boulevards 2.0) during a meeting he convened back in September. At that meeting we pointed out to him the “pocket park” PBOT built on the Holman Neighborhood Greenway (at NE 13th). While small parks can certainly be an element of a neighborhood greenway, they’re really just streets where biking and walking have priority — they are not linear parks. This mistake is understandable, but Wheeler also didn’t know about Sunday Parkways before that September meeting and, as you’ll read below, he also thought Portland had zero miles of protected bikeways. When we pointed this out on Twitter last night, Wheeler responded by tweeting, “I hope we can both continue learning about this great city each and every day.”

These are relatively minor things, but taken together they give some voters pause. It shows he doesn’t know Portland as well as he should and it validates Bailey’s attempts to paint him as someone who sees the Mayor’s office as a mere stepping stone to grander political ambitions.

“I believe we can achieve a carfree central city. It might not be popular or get me elected mayor, but I believe in it.”
— Sarah Iannarone

Many of the same voters sensitive to Wheeler’s cycling oversights were apoplectic when Bailey, then a state legislator, voted in support of the Columbia River Crossing in 2013. The CRC was such a vast political issue that it continues to play a role in this race (as evidenced by a big story in the Willamette Week on Tuesday). Last night Bailey was asked a direct question: “Why should people support you if you supported the CRC?” The crowd broke out in applause before he even answered.

Bailey’s response was to recite the same points he made three years ago: That he was critical of the project early on and that he voted “yes” because he helped add elements to the project that he felt made it easier to swallow. The fact he was asked that question last night shows people didn’t accept his rationale back then. It remains to be seen if giving the same answer last night will change any minds this time around. Bailey was also asked whether he’d oppose projects like the $26 million parking garage that’s coming to the Lloyd District. He dodged the question; but it’s possible he simply wasn’t aware of it.

In a round of quick “lightning” questions at the end of the debate, the candidates once again had a chance to talk about bikes. They were asked if they’d support doubling the number of protected bike lanes in Portland. Iannarone said she’d like to see not double, but exponential growth in protected bike lanes. Wheeler jokingly answered that since we have zero now he wouldn’t support doubling the amount. And Bailey scored a point on Wheeler by saying, “Well, I bike on one on my commute to work, so I say yes to doubling them.” And then Bailey added, “I want to take a comprehensive look and find a number [of protected bike lanes] that works for everyone.”

In their closing statements Iannarone made perhaps the most bold — and politically candid — statements of the race so far. “I believe we can achieve a carfree central city,” she said. “It might not be popular or get me elected mayor, but I believe in it.”

Read more of our 2016 Mayoral Election coverage.

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 –

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