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A Blowout and a Tight Race—Just Not the Ones We Expected



THE STORYLINES, at least for the Portland City Council races on the ballot, seemed set in stone after the May primary election.

Jefferson Smith threw down a compelling gauntlet in the mayoral race, riding an inexorable wave of enthusiasm—and a flawless turnout machine—to finish a narrow second behind Charlie Hales in the primaries. Hales was proving himself gaffe-prone and staid, and it seemed a matter of when, not if, Smith would eventually close the gap.

Meanwhile, incumbent Commissioner Amanda Fritz had drained her savings only to fall short in a desperate bid to escape a runoff with Mary Nolan. Fritz finished 1,500 votes ahead after leading big in early polls, but her foe, a better-connected state representative, now seemed ready to buy a big victory in November, dumping out campaign cash at a pace the self-funded Fritz seemingly couldn't match.

That stone, however, was more like sand.

Smith's breath of fresh air wound up befouled by his poor handling of a series of unflattering reports about his past—none more devastating than his decision to visit the home of a woman he hit during a 1993 college party.

Donations dried up and endorsers bolted. By late October, a race already slipping away amid earlier news of Smith's terrible driving record had crumbled into a double-digit polling deficit.

"The race was moving toward Hales prior to the assault issue," pollster Tim Hibbitts said before votes were counted. But "the information about Smith showing up at the doorstep definitively ended it."

Len Bergstein, a lobbyist and political consultant, said Smith's pitch—that "he's a new face, from a different part of city [East Portland], might have been a winning hand with just one of the multiple problems he had during the general. But the accumulation was too much." 

And, then—while Smith's spectacular flameout was sucking all the oxygen from Portland's tight-knit political and media circles—Fritz took advantage by quietly shoring up her defenses and staying very much alive.

With a decisive (and intentional) assist from Mayor Sam Adams, observers say, Fritz positioned herself as a high-profile champion of mental health and public safety reform. She was the only other city commissioner besides Adams to make remarks when the city announced a settlement between the Portland Police Bureau and the US Department of Justice last month. That issue, significantly, helped flip one of the only two major media endorsements Nolan had on her side: Willamette Week's.

Adams was still helping even as recently as Monday, November 5, inviting Fritz to a photo op on the anniversary of Occupy Portland's "Bank Transfer Day"—an effort she wasn't actively pushing.

Nolan outspent and outraised Fritz, airing witheringly negative TV commercials to try to close the distance, but still trailed by a solid margin in polls emerging close to election day. While Fritz only had to talk about herself, Nolan had to tell her own story while simultaneously tearing Fritz's apart. It didn't quite work.

"Neither one of those two parts of the campaign ever really clicked," Bergstein says. "People forget their reputations as legislators aren't super large," coming from one district in one neighborhood, "as it relates to city hall and city votes."

Hibbitts says a bare-knuckle campaign, even if turned off some people, was Nolan's best bet.

"You tell me what you could have done differently," he says. "That would be my pushback."

Tuesday's winners will join Commissioner-elect Steve Novick on a city council facing dramatic change without its longtime lightning rods, Adams and Commissioner Randy Leonard. Hales, a former commissioner, will preside over that shift—but not without some tarnish after his own series of campaign missteps, flip-flops, and fibs.

"This is not a positive coronation for Charlie Hales," Hibbitts says. "The other guy effectively disqualified himself. His team will have to think long and hard about how to gain the trust of a broader swath of the electorate."

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