PORTLAND, Ore. – It was back to school for the top-three Portland mayoral candidates who squared off Sunday night in a live televised debate on KATU.
Businesswoman Eileen Brady, former City Commissioner Charlie Hales and state Rep. Jefferson Smith debated some of Portland's most pressing issues in a high school auditorium on a stage complete with chalkboards and school desks.
The Mayoral Debate Club, organized by KATU and Willamette Week, was held at David Douglas High School in front of about 200 audience members, many of whom were there to support their respective candidate.
And since the site for the debate was in East Portland, the candidates zeroed in on that as a debate topic. The debate rules allowed them to engage each other, and on the issue of economic development in the east side, the candidates did just that.
There were a few contentious minutes while they answered a question from Erik Halstead, who posted on KATU's Facebook page that the city has spent the last 10 years investing in downtown but has essentially forgotten everything else. He asked the candidates how they will "ensure all areas of Portland receive equitable investment, in particular regards to quality public transit?"
Brady agreed and said it was a "legitimate complaint."
She said all three leading mayoral candidates have been focused on East Portland. She said she would like to see an international marketplace district created and to take advantage of the "entrepreneurial excitement" on the east side.
Then the fireworks began.
"I don't hear anybody saying they want a streetcar (in east Portland)," Brady said. "What I hear people saying is, 'I want bus service. ... I want there to be a lot of routes and services.' So I'll be working with neighborhood leaders and TriMet to get a rapid-transit bus system set up, which is really a world-class idea."
But Hales disagreed with Brady on the point about the east side not wanting a streetcar.
"The Parkrose residents asked me specifically to make sure we got light rail to Parkrose when it went to the airport. I made sure that we did that," he said.
Brady jumped in, saying she meant streetcars, not light rail. But Hales still insisted that he had spoken to people who desired streetcars in East Portland.
"It's about where they should go someday, not where they should go right now," he said about feedback he received during planning sessions with residents.
For Smith, the east side is his home turf. He lives there and represents the area in the state Legislature. He has put it front and center in his campaign. He said that for the last 20 or 30 years there have been two Portlands: The east and the west.
"I am running for mayor because we need to have one (Portland)," he said. "There is no New Seasons Market east of 42nd Avenue," he said, referring to Brady and her involvement in starting that business. "And not only is there no streetcar east of the river, there is not one planned east of Lloyd Center," he said, referring to Hales and his involvement in building the city's street car and light rail system.
He then took Hales to task on his record, saying that in the 1990s, while Hales was city commissioner, he pushed for "infill housing in this part of town without a reasonable plan for parks, sewers, streets – the basics you're talking about that we all know the city needs."
In response, Hales noted that Smith kicked off his campaign in the East Portland Community Center, which Hales was instrumental in getting built.
With biting sarcasm, Smith responded, "It was a nice place you built."
Hales continued without missing a beat. "The point is. I have made sure that we have made a commitment to basic services for every neighborhood. We need to get on with that, by the way, with all the unpaved streets in this part of the city, and I have a specific plan to do that."
The candidates also discussed how they would grow Portland's economy as a whole.
Hales touted an idea he borrowed from North Dakota, saying the city needs, what he'll call, a Community Credit Portland. He said the idea is to take city deposits and put them into local banks, helping businesses get access to the credit and capital they need.
Smith said he’ll push to encourage the growth of "homegrown businesses," mainly by making city government work better and easing the permitting process.
Brady, too, called for an easier permitting process and said she wants to create an economic development corporation.
KATU's Steve Dunn moderated the debate, while reporters Patrick Preston, from KATU, and Nigel Jaquiss, from Willamette Week, fired questions at the candidates. Members from the audience, selected beforehand, also asked the candidates questions. Several questions were also selected from KATU's Facebook audience.