“So do it, but do it right.”
— Mayor Ted Wheeler on I-5 Rose Quarter project
Just over two months before the primary election and lines are being drawn on key issues by Portland mayoral candidates.
Sunday night’s sold-out debate hosted by the local chapter of Sunrise Movement focused on climate change. The three main questions asked candidates for their stance on the I-5 Rose Quarter project, how they’d manage a just transition and divestment from fossil fuels, and how they’d make sure climate-induced immigrants were treated with respect and justice.
The five candidates that took part included incumbent Mayor Ted Wheeler, Mayor Ted Wheeler, Piper Crowell, Ozzie González, Sarah Iannarone, and Teressa Raiford. Two Sunrise Movement activists and one Harriet Tubman Middle School student asked the questions and Emilly Prado was the moderator.
The crowd at Revolution Hall was told to hold up green or red signs to show support or disagreement; but they didn’t always follow the rules. It was still possible to judge reactions based on cheers or jeers after an answer. Based on that it was clear most people in the crowd were not huge fans of Mayor Wheeler.
After Wheeler shared information about his emergency climate declaration and how he worked with “frontline communities” to craft it (in response to the question about a just transition and divestment), the crowd offered such tepid applause that he laughed under his breath. “Thanks Mom,” he said quietly as he passed the mic to the next candidate, “I appreciate that.”
And right from the outset, Sarah Iannarone directed sharp criticism at Wheeler (as she sat just inches away from him). “Portland has a lot of amazing words,” she responded right after Wheeler. “There’s always a declaration this, a policy that. The question is: Where is the urgency and where are the teeth?! Why are we only talking about a climate emergency in 2020? This should have happened January 1, 2017 if you’re going to campaign as a climate mayor.”
Ozzie Gonzalez, a TriMet board member, was very confident and took turns criticizing both Wheeler and Iannarone. He proclaimed several times throughout the night that he’s the only “climate scientist” in the race: “I’m only one up here who’s actually written a climate report and has done the calculations, so believe you me it’s going to be a good one.” Gonzalez got strong applause when he said the city should be publishing quarterly updates on the Climate Action plan — which hasn’t been updated since 2017.
Activist and organizer Teressa Raiford said we must first “decolonize American” before true divestment can happen. “We have to believe in liberation for all of us if we want to truly divest from the things that harm us.”
Raiford also had the most memorable moment of the night when she boldly called Mayor Wheeler a liar. The tense exchange came after Wheeler described the city’s response to a series of white supremacist rallies in downtown Portland. “When white supremacists wanted to come to our community, we fought back,” he said.
But Wheeler’s answer didn’t include anything the police response to counter-protestors. So Iannarone was quick to respond. “When our community mobilizes… the police brutalize us in the streets.” “I was there, I witnessed it with my own eyes,” she continued. “This is not OK!”
As Iannarone’s time ran out, Raiford requested time for a response then chimed in to back her up, “I got this,” she said. “Ted. You’re a liar. Period.” Then Raiford and the rest of the panel sat in silence as her 30 seconds ticked off the clock.
In response, Wheeler said, “Wow. OK. All right.” It looked like he considered saying something else, but he opted to let it go and then the event moved on.
The question about ODOT’s I-5 Rose Quarter project revealed a new position from Wheeler. He reiterated that he and other local leaders don’t support the project unless ODOT performs an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). But he also explained why he doesn’t believe the project should be scrapped. The crowd booed when he said that. Then he said (somewhat dismissively), “Go ahead, get it out of your system,” before explaining why he thinks the project is worth doing:
“In the beginning, what we heard was 10,000 trucks a day go up I-5. In 20 years, when all those vehicles are electric — and even if they use renewable energy — they will still go through that area. We need to talk about the fact that to get to I-84 you go north on I-405, then south on 5, then east on 84 and it creates a whole host of issues that have not been addressed. For those of you who support the Albina Vision, it cannot happen without the caps over I-5. There’s significant new investment in bikeways and walkways and rejoining that historic Albina community cannot happen without [the project]. Then we have to talk about I-5 going over the Columbia River. We can’t just let it fall into the river. At some point we’re going to have to invest in that infrastructure as well. So do it, but do it right.”
Iannarone pointed out that Wheeler’s recent strong language about the project only came after “months and months and months” of pressure from activists. She also had harsh criticism of the project overall and said she’d rather see high-speed rail in the corridor instead of more freeway lanes. “Everything to do with active transportation [in the project] is an afterthought… We can’t be spending billions expanding fossil fuel infrastructure in the middle of a climate crisis while 50 Portlanders died on our streets last year,” she said. “The fact is that ODOT is trying to sell this to the public on bad data, bad analysis, and the false premise this is a safety project.”
Gonzalez didn’t like Iannarone’s answer. “That’s just not good enough, Sarah,” he said. “It shows you’re not thinking of the big picture. If we did the thing you’re saying and dismantle I-5, what are we going to do tomorrow? We don’t have a replacement for the infrastructure that’s going to supply our goods and services yet. We’re not ready for that stuff… It’s not enough to just say I’m going to dismantle I-5 because I don’t have a better answer.”
Raiford said ODOT’s plans are nothing more than another “hustle and broken promises” and it will have similar negative health and environmental impacts to local communities as the initial construction of I-5 had.
Nike executive Piper Crowell said the City of Portland needs to apologize to the students of Tubman and Albina residents, “For once again trying to pollute your community and allow the air you breathe to be full of diesel emissions”
You can watch the entire debate on YouTube thanks to XRAY-FM. If you want to hear more from these candidates and those running for city council, make plans to attend the Transportation Candidates Forum tomorrow (3/10).
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and email@example.com
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