PORTLAND, Ore. – It's not the beginning of a joke. It really happened.
Emerging from a sea of humanity crammed into the retro space that is Rontoms on East Burnside Tuesday night, the two men who survived May's primary and want to be the next mayor of Portland strolled toward two stools placed before a huge projection screen.
There were few ground rules to the Portland Mercury's "Mayoral Inquisition!" It wasn't the usual type of candidate debate. There was no stopwatch ticking off the time, forcing former Portland City Commissioner Charlie Hales and state Rep. Jefferson Smith to package their answers into a predetermined sized box. The moderator and the panel of questioners didn't necessarily wait until the candidates finished speaking, and the crowd got into it – respectfully, most of the time.
The crowd, the candidates and the Mercury's "Election Squad" are serious folks who care about the future of the city. That's why they gathered on a warm night in late summer and stuffed themselves into almost every available square inch of breathable air in the place. And that's why they got down to pressing the candidates on some of the biggest issues facing Portland, including how it will move people around in the future, how its police use force against its citizens, and the use of fluoride in its water.
Watch the debate:
It's no secret that Hales is a big proponent of streetcars and helped the city obtain them. But he also said Tuesday night "we are trying to build a city where people have choices. Where you can still drive, you can bike safely everywhere and you have a transit system that will get you where you want to go as well."
Smith acknowledged streetcars have had their successes but he said they also cost a lot and the money spent on them could be used for expanding bus service.
"We need to be thinking about how we plan our city with the whole city in mind," he said, specifically referring to coming up with ways for people to travel shorter distances to get to where they want to go.
By the way the crowd reacted to various transportation statements, it was clear that many of them favored bikes as the preferred mode of getting around. There was ample evidence of that after the debate as many of the attendees poured out of Rontoms and toward the rows and rows of bikes chained to nearby racks or leaned against the establishment's walls.
Last week the U.S. Department of Justice charged that the Portland Police Bureau engaged in a "pattern or practice of excessive force against people with mental illness."
Smith said the question now is how the city works to fix the problem.
He wants to make sure the city has an effective mobile mental health crisis unit that is a first responder in dealing with someone in crisis. He also wants an effective mental health triage center.
Smith also said police training practices may need to change.
Hales argued it's the culture of the Portland Police Bureau that needs to change. He cited his efforts to increase the number of minorities and women in the fire bureau during his time as a city commissioner as an example of how he can make change happen within an organization.
"I saw there was a need for pretty significant change, which was that there were six African-American men, three women and two Asian-American men in a workforce of 800 people. It was appalling," he said. "I brought in ... a fire chief who created the training program that's now brought in 138 – it's more than that now – women and people of color."
Both Hales and Smith said they support putting fluoride in the city's water. Most in the crowd applauded that, although a few "boos" could be heard throughout the crowd.
"I believe that fluoridation is a public health responsibility, and that we should fluoridate our water," Hales said.
"To me the public health evidence, as I've tried to peel it away, seems pretty, pretty clear that fluoridation is far better (than not having it in the water)," Smith said.
But both candidates took issue with how the current mayor and council handled the issue.
"Where I disagree with how the city has gone forward is linked to why I'm running for mayor," Smith said. "Too many decisions have felt like they were happening behind some room. That democracy is something to be manipulated rather than something to be embraced."
"I understand that our wholesale water customers – there are other water suppliers outside of Portland that buy water from us – they found out about the fluoridation debate by reading about it in the newspaper. That's not OK," Hales said. "So you need to do the process right and really listen."
Near the end of the evening, being Portland, someone had to ask whether the candidates had ever smoked marijuana in the past and now.
Hales: "I have. I don't now."
Smith: "Same answer."