Policy and personality loom over City Council candidate forum

Race Talks, Opportunities for Dialogue, a monthly series discussing topics associated with race and ethnicity in Oregon, held a forum for city council candidates Loretta Smith and JoAnn Hardesty on Tuesday, Aug. 14. Either candidate will become the first female African American city council member, depending on election results.

Former Multnomah County Public Health Director Tricia Tillman, who was fired from her position as Multnomah County public health director, moderated the event.

In her opening remarks, Tillman noted, “Not since the 2010 race for County Commissioner District 2 between Loretta Smith and Karol Collymore has there been a race where it was guaranteed that a Black woman would be elected to a local office in Oregon.”

Hardesty addressed her identity as a Black woman in her opening statement. “I want to be very clear; I am not running to be the first of anything,” she said. “I am unafraid and unapologetically Black.”

Smith, too, commented on the historic nature of the race. “It is very odd…when two Black women run. Nobody says anything when two white men run. What they say is, ‘let’s find out about their experience. Let’s find about their education. Let’s find out about their track record.’”

Smith said as council member she would view issues through an “equity lens.” Hardesty criticized this phrase as a political buzzword. “I have been around long enough to know that government comes up with all kind of buzzwords about how they’re gonna help people of color,” Hardesty said. “It used to be affirmative action, then it was diversity, then it was inclusion—the new buzzword is equity. I look at outcomes. I’m someone that is driven by data.”

Hardesty later said she didn’t mind a Willamette Week cover highlighting her as “the angry Black woman the Portland City Council needs.” Smith, however, said the cover was unacceptable. At the conclusion of Smith’s sharply critical remarks on what she said she saw as Willamette Week‘s employment of the angry Black woman stereotype, Tillman said she was closely monitoring whether the candidates’ remarks crossed the line into prohibiting personal attacks, and was interrupted by a heckler in the crowd.

“I’m for Loretta [Smith] because she speaks more on the level of unity,” said attendee Ray Colbert. “Whoever comes out in the race I will support either way. A win’s a win. They’re people, and they’re my sisters and they’re my Black sisters…But with Jo Ann and this attitude; I will not go for it when it causes division.” Michael Mintz disagreed, arguing that both he and Hardesty were angry for good reason at the racism they see throughout the city.

The controversy around the election did not begin with this forum and is unlikely to end with it. Smith was found by an investigation to have bullied her staff as county commissioner, which she denies. Polling is unavailable for the upcoming November 6 general election, but Hardesty has a numerical advantage, having defeated Smith in the primary 46.7 percent to 23 percent.